For Cambodians living in busy city centres, food scarcity may not be top of mind, but for 80 percent of citizens residing in rural areas, food production is a losing battle. Climate change, caused in part by deforestation and land degradation, is escalating food insecurity in Cambodia’s rural communities. If we cannot mitigate and prevent the destruction of this nation’s biodiversity, all Cambodians will feel the ramifications sooner rather than later.

Cambodia’s Fleeting Biodiversity

Cambodian forests are shrinking, and her rich natural resources are depleting. Most readers are well versed in the discouraging facts of the matter, but few understand the gravity of the situation. As we continue to cut down trees, we’re jeopardizing thousands upon thousands of plant and animal species that live cohesively in this ecosystem, including humans. Human beings intrinsically rely on biodiversity. A rich and vibrant biodiversity will cultivate healthier and more sustainable ecosystems. It’s true that biodiversity is ripe with development opportunities—the burgeoning lumber industry is one example—but economic factors aside, we must reconcile with the fact that plant life provides 80 percent of our diet.

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Forests provide more than economic prosperity, they are vital to our existence.

Forested land covering 30 percent of the planet ensures that we have clean air, water, and enough natural resources to grow food. The protection of forests and biodiversity mitigates the effects of climate change, too. Trees provide shade and moisture, alleviating extreme temperatures and stabilizing seasonal change. Cambodia has one of the highest levels of forest coverage in Southeast Asia—approximately 10.7 million hectares of forested land cited in 2006—however, an increase in large-scale agro-industrial development, coupled with a lack of resource management, has led to an increase in deforestation. Although current prevention mechanisms are in place to protect around seven million hectares of land, more must be done to conserve Cambodia’s biodiversity.

No Biodiversity, No Rice

The Asia Pacific region is extremely vulnerable to climate change, and Cambodia is no exception to the rule. Suffering the most casualties from natural disasters in the last ten years, this corner of the globe is prone to drought, flooding, severe storms, soil erosion and landslides, and erratic weather patterns. Climate change exacerbates these issues and impacts crop viability. For example, Cambodia’s rice producing provinces in the Tonle Sap Lowland and along the Mekong River suffered catastrophic damage from drought and flash floods in the past decade, according to a report by the Cambodian Development Research Institute (CDRI). Most farmers in Cambodia still rely on rain-fed agriculture to grow one crop per year, meaning if there is too much rain or not enough rain, entire yields can be wiped out. Considering rice accounts for nearly 70 percent (cited by the CDRI) of daily calorie intake in Cambodia, it’s easy to deduce that continued crop destruction would pose an immediate and adverse effect on human beings.

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Deforestation can lead to challenges in agriculture.

Diminishing biodiversity can impact protein supply, too. Livestock requires ample land for grazing, and as demand for beef, pork, and chicken continues to increase, forested land will thin out and biodiversity will rapidly deplete.

Land-bound livestock aside, life below water is also susceptible to climate change and species that thrive in rich biodiversity are dwindling. Habitat destruction, illegal and unsustainable fishing practices, and climate change are drastically depleting fish populations that Cambodians rely on for sustenance. Around 60 percent of total protein intake in rural Cambodia is derived from fish, meaning as these sources of protein—fresh water fish, mussels, shrimp, squid, and other sea-thriving animals—continue to dry up, Cambodians will be left searching for alternative nutrient-rich proteins.

Cutting down trees will also exacerbate ocean acidification. Greenery absorbs carbon dioxide that we exhale, as well as green-house-gases produced by human activity. When we cut down or burn trees, we’re not only reducing the amount of viable resources that absorb carbon dioxide, but we’re also releasing accumulated stores of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Oceans absorb about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans. Therefore, putting it simply, if we cut down too many trees, the carbon dioxide absorption burden is predominantly placed on the planet’s oceans. Ocean acidification directly impacts marine biodiversity, and sequentially, our collective sources of food.

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The lush Cambodian country side is a key component in reducing the effects of climate change.

Biodiversity and Your Health

Change in one condition in our biodiversity has the potential to impact all living things within an ecosystem, including humans. Without rich biodiversity, food insecurity will lead to rampant health issues, such as malnutrition. When talking about malnutrition, it’s important to consider the 13 percent of Cambodians currently living below the poverty line, who regularly suffer from food and nutritional insecurity. Climate change will impact everyone, but initially, it will intensify the nutrition gap between Cambodia’s rich and poor.

According to the World Food Programme,  21 percent of households in Cambodia may be unable to afford a nutritious diet. Around half a million children under five are stunted (small for their age) because of inadequate nutrition. Two thirds of children aged six months to two years lack adequate nutritious food, and the infant mortality rate due to malnutrition has reached 35 per 1,000 live births.  Malnutrition has been linked with poor mental development and behavioural abnormalities, as well.

Using one example of malnutrition, Cambodia’s depleting fish population is concerning because of the nutrient-rich protein available in freshwater fish. Cambodians are the largest consumers of freshwater fish per capita in the world. Dense in omega-3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin A, zinc, calcium, and iodine, fish contribute to bone and immunity development, heart health, and a whole host of other beneficial health factors. Cited in a 2017 report on malnutrition in Cambodia, only 21 to 28 percent of the population reaches an adequate level of energy intake, with only 27 percent of that population absorbing the recommended vitamin A intake and 19 percent meeting daily iron requirements. Iron deficiency specifically affects young children under the age five (74 percent) and over 70 percent of pregnant women, according to the study printed in the Asian Journal of Agriculture and Food Sciences. Not considering heightened issues of food insecurity due to climate change, Cambodia features the highest malnutrition rate in Southeast Asia.

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Dry rice fields in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia.

A Way Forward?

It’s clear to see that investing in biodiversity drives sustainable development. Human beings, whether we like it or not, are one small fraction of a much larger and intricately connected ecosystem. Our survival as a species depends on the rich and thriving existence of our natural environment. However, as it stands today, deforestation and land degradation are contributing to climate change and depleting the biodiversity we rely on to mitigate the effects of climate change. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s escalating food insecurity and leading to poor health and malnutrition.

Lastly, it’s important to reiterate that food insecurity largely impacts the nation’s economically vulnerable, reinforcing geo-political, socio-economic disparities. However, soon enough, food insecurity will not discriminate based on economic status. Collective action is required for collective sustainability. A lesson, I’m sure, we don’t want to learn the hard way.

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