Burning fields as far as the eye can see – everything is on fire. As our bus crawls towards Ban Lung, twilight accents the flaming orange highlights in the dying forest. The air is pure smoke. I can’t wait until it’s dark, I hate the view. Hours of environmental devastation: smoldering vegetation, dying villages, huge stumps recall once monumental trees. Bulldozers widening the red-dirt road are leaving a dusty wake in their path. The trees that have escaped the flames look as though they have been painted dirty rust. A tribal child waddles by covered in earth and ash. It’s a monochromatic nightmare, a scene straight out of Avatar done in pukey reds instead of blues.
Progress looks like crap to me. Cambodia is for sale, and everyone is buying it up – especially the Chinese. All across the country, new roads are being financed by China and there are definitely strings attached.
“When the Chinese built the road to Sen Monorom,” one witness recalled, “they cut down all the big trees along the way, even the trees that were far from the road.”
Yes, trees are part of the tribute that China demands for its contribution to Cambodia’s development. All throughout Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri Provinces the forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. When I spoke positively about a stretch of seemingly intact forest to the east of Khao Si Ma, I was quickly corrected.
“Oh, that’s just a show,” said a local World Wildlife Fund worker, “The Chinese knew that was marked as a reserve on the maps, so they left a strip of forest along the road. About a hundred yards back, much of it has been cut down.”
Yet again, stories of China’s unapologetic harvesting of the developing world.
However, as much as I would like to blame the Chinese for everything, many nations as well as domestic commercial interests are scrambling to claim their piece of the pie. Tropical islands for sale in the south, stretches of forest pawned off to the highest bidder, real-estate bargains, mining companies digging up whatever they can get their hands on. It’s a free-for-all feast with corrupt Cambodian government officials hording their share of the plunder. Even world-famous Angkor Wat has been leased out to Sokimex, a petroleum conglomerate, who runs the UNESCO World Heritage Site for profit. Surely, something as sacred as the Killing Fields could escape commercialization – nope, that’s run by a Japanese company.
Don’t think Cambodians aren’t noticing the looting of their nation, they are. They simply do not have the wealth or knowledge necessary to combat such powerful interest groups. For many, it is already a lost cause.
“I am going to take these Pnong families and we are going to move deeper into the forest,” dreams one Sen Monorom local as he talks of saving the local tribal people, “There are more animals there, so hunting is better.”
That won’t last long I thought to myself in response. But who can look someone in the eyes and tell them that their dream of survival is hopeless.
Back on the bus, it’s dark and I no longer have to witness the destruction sliding by outside. I mull over the endless threats to Cambodia’s wilderness as we arrive in Ban Lung, supposedly the heart of Cambodia’s darkness. It looks more like cement jungle to me. Just south of here lies the Srepok River, which served as the inspiration for the river depicted in Apocalypse Now. I visualize the terrifying film scenes playing out in the dense tropical forest. Somehow, the region seemed so much nicer then.