By Joshua Chiang

The nature lodge that my girlfriend and I were staying at for our long weekend getaway was – like many of the settlements along the Tatai river in Koh Kong province, Cambodia – only accessible by boat. This region is still relatively untouched by urbanization, making it an ideal place of sorts for the burgeoning eco-tourism industry in the Kingdom. Here you might still see hornbills, crocodiles, sun bears, and, judging by the road signs along the highway to the province, elephants. Of course these are animals are notoriously shy and the only wild creature that I saw bigger than my hand was a 20-cm long black snake.

And yes, leeches. Lots of them. But you don’t really get to pick and choose which sort of nature you want to get to close when you opt for a holiday in a nature reserve.

On the second day, we trekked – with the help of a machet-happy jungle guide – through a thick bamboo forest to the mighty Tatai Waterfall and then went for a swim further downstream. The following day, we took the canoe out to some of the smaller waterfalls along the river. Anyone with some time to spare while holidaying in Cambodia, and sick of the usual Phnom Penh/Siem Reap circuit should seriously consider a trip down to the Tatai, that is provided you don’t mind leeches.

Dawn on the Tatai. (view from my lodge)
The mighty Tatai waterfall

But this isn’t really a review meant for TripAdvisor. This is about something more sobering.

During the last evening of our stay, we spoke at length to the owner of the lodge. Turned out he wasn’t the one who built the lodge; he took over the business from a previous owner who started the lodge as a way to help the local community. (When you receive your bill, you will be asked if you want to make donation to some of the ongoing community projects in the region that’s mostly got to do with children’s education and helping keep the livelihood of the people – more on that later).

The current owner also revealed that chief among the problems threatening the local community and their way of life is the issue of sand-dredging. The main culprit was someone who called himself the “King of Koh Kong”. The damage to the environment is pretty significant; over the last ten years, the mangrove forests along the river have retreated by as much as 300 metres – this has impacted the river life as well; fish stock which was plentiful had been greatly reduced. And that it took place within a protected nature reserve made it all the more, well, depressing.

What about the locals, did they simply take it lying down? Apparently not. The previous owner kicked up enough fuss to make the “King of Koh Kong” sign a contract stating that his company would cease sand-dredging activities in the area. It was a Pyrrhic victory. Within a few months, the ‘King’ shut down his company… and started a new one and it was business as usual. Among the reasons why the previous owner sold the lodge, exhaustion from fighting the ongoing sand-dredging is one of them.

Evidence of Sand dredging along the river
Possible evidence of sand dredging along the river

Now this probably sounds like the usual story you here so often about Cambodia – crooked politicians whose hands can be easily greased, nasty businessmen who couldn’t care less they had broken some laws… what has it got to with you, that is, if you are a Singaporean.

Actually lots. See, Singapore is the main importer of sand from Cambodia, according to this extensive report by Global Witness. (click here)

Now that in itself wouldn’t be a problem, because the sand necessary for all that (over) building on our crowded little island has to come from somewhere. And after we’ve exhausted our sand supplies back in the Sixties, and later, when Malaysia and Indonesia decided to ban sand export to Singapore because we’re stealing their beaches and charging exorbitant prices for a glass of Long Island Tea to patrons of Siloso Beach, where else can we get our sand?

The problem is that there is compelling evidence to suggest that most of Cambodian sands exported to Singapore came from PROTECTED AREAS.  Areas like Koh Kong province. In response to queries from Global Witness, the Singapore Government wrote in 2010 that

“the import of sand to Singapore is done on a commercial basis. The Singapore government is not a party to any agreement or contract for the import of sand.”

I shall not go into details how that is a flimsy defense; Page 29-30 of the report pretty much shows the Singapore Government is culpable. The irony is of course the Government Singapore has ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).xxvi These give the Singapore government and its nationals the same responsibilities as Cambodia to protect marine ecosystems and prevent against environmental degradation in its national waters, as well as the wider marine environment – such as dredging in Cambodia’s waters.

Our massive carbon footprint doesn’t just end there. The recent haze that choked Singapore might not have been due to the actions of palm oil company CTP Holdings, a Cargill-Temesak Holdings joint venture, but there are enough evidences to suggest that their claims of ethical practices in southern Indonesia is nothing but a glossy spin. (Google “Cargill’s Problem with Palm Oil’) The impact of their activities isn’t just environmental; it wrecks havoc on the lives of the indigenous people.

(On a side note, it would be highly ironic that a company partly owned by Singapore through Temasek Holdings could eventually be responsible for the disappearance of Ah Meng’s cousins in the wild. (link) (Ah Meng, for the uninformed, was a female orangutan whom, until her death was the public face of the acclaimed Singapore Zoological Gardens))

In response to a question on work-life balance on a televised show a few nights ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “If you look at other countries: Vietnam, China, even in India, they’re not talking about work-life balance; they are hungry, anxious, about to steal your lunch.”

I wonder if he realized the actions of companies linked to his government aren’t merely stealing lunches from the people in neighboring countries.

They’re robbing livelihoods outright.

This article was first appeared on Joshua Chiang’s note.

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