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Angkor: Lessons for the Modern World

Deforestation in Cambodia

Four flights and just over 34 hours of travel marked the beginning of the second phase of our 2009 Expedition Blue Planet as we flew halfway around the globe to join the Blue Legacy film crew in Cambodia. What started as a research outline quickly evolved into a five continent expedition dedicated to chronicling the interconnectivity of some of our most critical water stories.

But it wasn’t water that caught my attention as we winged our way above the Mekong River and banked to touch down in Phnom Penh. It was a thick blanket blocking the sun and shrouding the twisting gold and orange spires of local Wats in a cloak of drab gray. The thick scent of burning wood was caught in my throat and I realized that the city’s shroud is it’s ancient forests slipping slowly skyward leaving only stumps and muddy hillsides where once stood a global treasure.

“They get the money and we get the haze,” lamented the businessman sitting next to me.

Contracts held largely by foreign groups have paved the way for stripping much of Southeast Asia of its forests to make way for oil palm plantations and development projects. The dense forests that sent my grandfather rushing off to explore hidden ruins on his first visit here just a half century ago are virtually gone, taking with them the habitat of the big cats that featured prominently in one of his favorite stories of trailside encounters as a young man.

In a sad repeat of ancient history, the short-sited greed of a few has sacrificed the natural bounty on which millions depend for their very existence. Already facing the challenges of climate change and the imminent threat of damming, the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers—source of 82-percent of the protein for Cambodian people—must also now bear an additional burden as the land itself chokes out channels with silt sent sliding from rootless soil.

And so, before we ever stepped foot in Cambodia, our first water story for the region met us in the air. The nearly global trend of replacing forests with farmland—especially for crops such as oil palms—goes beyond quick timber sales and short-sited ignorance. The loss of habitat and biodiversity, destruction of waterways, and the elimination of the carbon-absorbing buffer of our forests is truly a crime perpetrated against future generations. It’s time that all of us examine closely the sources of the forest-based products in our lives—boycotting the companies and countries that harvest irresponsibly. And I ask that you join me in avoiding the purchase of products derived from industrial oil palm development while also calling for global standards on biofuel development that reward responsible crop use instead of trading one environmental problem for another by replacing fossil fuels for crops such as the oil palm.