Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 1

The Cardamom Conundrum: Reconciling Development and Conservation in the Kingdom of Cambodia
Timothy J. Killeen
Singapore: NUS Press, 2012, xxviii+354p.

Cambodia is facing two main issues in its struggle over development after a long period of social unrest: development and conservation. Between the 1990s and 2010, Cambodia experienced rapid economic growth with an annual growth rate between 8–10 percent. However, this growth has taken place at the expense of natural resources exploitation and sustainability, an issue of deep concern. How can Cambodia maintain this growth while conserving its natural resources? From a conservationist perspective, Timothy Killeen raises this question and addresses “development” and “conservation” through his book The Cardamom Conundrum: Reconciling Development and Conservation in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

In this book, Killeen discusses development and conservation in Cambodia, focusing on the Greater Cardamom Region. The Cardamom Mountains has abundant natural resources, but its exploitation and utilization have reached alarming levels to the extent that Killeen describes them as a “conundrum.” The Cardamom Conundrum denotes the choice between pursuing economic development and poverty reduction versus the conservation of natural resources, particular forms of biodiversity, and native habitats that characterize the landscapes of the Cardamom Mountains, if sustainable economic growth is the goal.

The book has eight chapters and from chapters one through to eight, an overarching theme is that natural resources play an important role. However, if natural resources are not well conserved, they will have an impact on economic growth. Killeen introduces the “green economy,” which is about “pursuing economic development and poverty reduction through the conservation of its natural resource, particularly biodiversity and native habitats” (p. xxi). Killeen sees the green economy as a way of addressing this challenge through which Cambodia could potentially pursue economic growth through conserving natural resources. As such, his argument stresses that the conservation of natural resources will benefit from carbon finance and this in itself will contribute to the economic development of the country. The Cardamom Mountains could help Cambodia achieve the status of a “green economy.”

In the first chapter, Killeen introduces three scenarios—the utilitarian scenario; utopian ­scenario; and business as usual scenario—to determine ways forward for Cambodia’s development. The utilitarian scenario focuses on satisfying the needs of people in which natural resources are utilized to improve human welfare and poverty reduction; the utopian scenario will promote the utilization of natural resources to create a diversified economy, while conserving natural resources; and the business as usual scenario will lead to increased deforestation that will benefit the few while leaving many in poverty and degrade the environment.

Chapter two presents an overview of the richness of natural resources of the Greater Cardamom Region: forest covers 55 percent of the region (p. 36); mangrove forest covers 85,000 ha along the coast (p. 53), and the Tonle Sap Lake and rivers flowing into it from the main aquatic ecosystem. In line with this, in chapter three, Killeen illustrates the importance of natural resources for the livelihood of 3.7 million people living in nine provinces (p. 66). While a large number of families (28 percent) still live in poverty (p. 69), Killeen states that “poverty is largely a rural phenomenon in Cambodia” (p. 68) which leads to misunderstandings over the facts of poverty in Cambodia. On the other hand, Cambodia Development Resources Institute (CDRI) illustrates that poverty is a multi-dimensional phenomena. At the national level, Cambodia’s legacy of conflict, repression, and isolation stands as a central explanation as to why the country has become one of the world’s poorest. This legacy lingers on in broad key determinants of poverty, particularly those which relate to low levels of physical and human capital and poor governance (CDRI 2012).

Additionally in chapter four, Killeen discusses how natural resources in the Greater Cardamom Region are managed by various government institutions. He also highlights the importance of development assistance by donors in the support of the management of natural resources in Cambodia. Since 1993, Killeen demonstrates that more than 1,400 separate ODA projects have been implemented in Cambodia for a total of $10 billion (p. 103).

Chapter five provides facts on the current context of development and the changes that are taking place in Cambodia. Two major highways are expanding across the Greater Cardamom Region (p. 116) and five hydropower dams have been proposed, two of which are now under construction, including both Atay and Tatay dams (p. 120). The government has identified 63 sites for hydropower, 21 of which are located in the Cardamom and Elephant mountains (p. 122). About 1.012 million ha of forestlands covering 95 economic land concessions (ELCs) in 17 provinces were granted to 60 companies from China, Singapore, India, Vietnam, Korea, and the United States. Other develop­ments include rubber plantations, shrimp farming, and mining which have all been increasing within the country.

In chapter six, Killeen introduces the concept of “ecosystem services” where the “goods” and “services” generated through the conservation of natural resources. The Cardamom and Elephant mountains, if well-protected, could provide goods and services for long-term use. Killeen states that “because ecosystem services are in the public domain, they are perceived as being free” (p. 167) and if the natural environment is degraded, these goods and services will disappear. Thus, to continue receiving goods and services from the natural environment, it is important to protect it, and then pay for those taken from it. Killeen calls this a “payment for ecosystem services (PES).” Simultaneously, hydropower dams are seen as positive in the “green economy,” as energy storage devices, converting water flowing downhill to generate electricity and providing a foundation for a low-carbon economy.

In chapter seven, Killeen adopts the “green economy” as an approach to the future development of Cambodia through conserving natural resources in the Greater Cardamom Region. This has the potential to enable Cambodia to achieve a “green economy.” For Cambodia, the “green economy” would involve a low-carbon economy in four main areas: forest conservation, agricultural intensification, renewable energy, and mass transit. Killeen argues that forest conservation will contribute to carbon sequestration and Cambodia would be able to negotiate significant revenues from the international REDD+ system so as to avoid both deforestation and forest degradation. The revenue from a carbon market could be used for agricultural extension services, access to fertilizers and irrigation, and help promote an expanded and diversified agricultural sector. Forest conservation and land-use planning could design a watershed management strategy that maximizes hydroelectric power generation in the Cardamom Mountains. An urban mass transport system could also be designed to operate on electrical energy with an electrical energy grid expanded across the countryside. For me, this is an ideal situation, yet it is too theoretical and impractical for a crucial reason: in Cambodia, it involves the politics of resources use, where there exist weak institutional capacity and an insufficient legal framework to adapt to climate change.

In chapter eight, Killeen indicates that “green development” is ideally suited for the Greater Cardamom Region, because of its natural resources. He further argues for re-examining the conserva­tion strategies as current ones were designed without an assessment of future development options and are based on a process that did not consult important stakeholders. He argues that the current protected area management system should be redefined in order to cope with increased carbon credit investments in conservation. Land-use planning, regional planning, and agro-­ecological zoning should also be used for integrated natural resources conservation. Applying REDD+ in forest conservation could generate revenues that could be used for other forms of development and involve local communities in natural resources management: a key in con­servation strategies. However, what Killeen proposes is not new. They have been done before and the changes in these aspects do not necessary ensure that “green development” can be achieved. Indeed, the protected areas have been in conflicts with other development initiatives such as ELCs, mining concessions, and other plantations. About 9,313 ha of land in the Cardamom Mountains were granted as an ELC to the Phnom Penh sugar company, but this remains a very controversial issue (Open Development n.d.).

This book is good in that it provides substantial information to the reader. It perceptively looks into the conservation and development of the Greater Cardamom Region and provides us with a potential way forward toward a “green economy,” one that promotes development while maintaining a position on protecting the environment. The book highlights that the conservation of natural resources would benefit Cambodia in the long run through linking forest conservation to a carbon market; and agricultural intensification to other developments in the country. It is a book from which we can learn a lot.

However, the book is not without its weaknesses. First, Killeen brings a great deal of theory into the discussion, but the discussion lacks the inclusion of local details. Although the book focuses on the Cardamom Conundrum, a variety of information is taken from the national context to explain issues. In effect, this generalizes our perception of them. The book is written from the perspective of an outsider who spent time in Cambodia to write about the complex context of development and conservation in the Greater Cardamom Region. As such, the information presented in the book comes across as generalized, theoretical, and secondary in nature. Since the book is written from a conservationist perspective it centers on the conservation approach. Although this links to development in the Cardamom region, as stated in chapters three to five, conservation is only the starting point, particularly that of forests which can contribute to com­bating climate change, improving a carbon market for the country, and generating revenues for a green economy.

Through this approach, conservationists tend to view hydropower dams in the Cardamom Mountains as positive, as a foundation for a “green economy.” On the other hand, environmentalists view hydropower dams as a threat to the environment and livelihoods of local communities. The environmentalists in Cambodia call for no hydropower dams and they view hydropower dams as a threat to rivers, mountains, the environment, and ecosystems (Hori 2000). The construction of dams would inundate large tracks of forestlands, clear areas of forest, change the hydrological flows of rivers, adversely affect fisheries and water quality, and impact on the livelihood of people living along rivers. Thus, it would affect the goods and services provided by the ecosystem in the Cardamom Mountains (Baird 2009).

However, Killeen repeatedly emphasizes that climate change is not merely a threat, but also an opportunity that Cambodia can benefit from through carbon markets. The entire book views carbon markets as a linear process, assuming that they will appear smoothly and that Cambodia will certainly benefit from them. International carbon financing is politically complicated. The United States boycotted the Kyoto Protocol (UNFCC 1998), even as China continues to emit carbon at high rates estimated at 7,711 million tons a year in 2009 (McCormic and Scruton 2009). Developing countries blame developed countries for creating global warming and demand that developed countries pay developing countries to preserve forests. Not all developed countries are willing to do that, including the United States, and therefore, the carbon market is compromised and its process might not be as smooth as made out to be in Killeen’s argument. It is, in effect, difficult to apply in Cambodia given the weak policies and institutions in place.

Finally, this book fails to take into account the current phenomena of economic land concessions, the spread of plantations and mining in large parts of the Cardamom Mountains. The book also underestimates China’s influence on Cambodia’s development. China provides support to Cambodia via its state-owned corporations. The total investment of Chinese corporations in Cambodia has been estimated to stand at $1.7 billion. For comparison, South Korean direct foreign investment presently stands at $2.9 billion. Since 1993, ADB has contributed about $1.9 billion, followed by Japan with $662 million and the United States with $628 million (p. 104). These ODA Projects and investments represent the conflicts between the development and conservation agenda. Chinese investments, economic land concessions, plantations and mining could eventually “turn” the dream of a “green economy.”

Irrespective of these weaknesses, Killeen acknowledges the fact that this book has been written from a philosophical orientation that attempts to fill the void between the “trade-off” between development and conservation to promote the mutual conservation of natural ecosystems and their development as a way toward national economic development. The Cardamom Conundrum, then, is also useful for many Cambodians and non-Cambodians to understand how conservation and development in the context of climate change provide Cambodia with an opportunity to achieve a “green economy.” It is a comprehensive resource book that could provide readers with new knowledge on this subject.

Mak Sithirith
Department of Environmental Science, Royal University of Phnom Penh


Baird, Ian G. 2009. Best Practices in Compensation and Resettlement for Large Dams: The Case of the Planned Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project in Northeastern Cambodia. Phnom Penh: Rivers Coalition in Cambodia.

Cambodia Development Resources Institute (CDRI). 2012. Understanding Poverty Dynamics: Evidence from Nine Villages in Cambodia. Working paper series No. 69, March 2012. Phnom Penh: CDRI.

Hori, Hiroshi. 2000. The Mekong: Environment and Development. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

McCormic, Mark; and Scruton, Paul. 2009. Carbon Emission World Map. The Guardian, 2011. Accessed September 15, 2013,

Open Development. Archives: Koh Kong Sugar Plantation—The Canes of Wrath. Accessed September 6, 2012, http://www.opendevelopmentcambodia.net/tag/koh-kong-sugar-plantation/Tag.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). 1998. Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.



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