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Trump's Potential Cuts to USAID Could Put Cambodia's Environment on the Chopping Block

Though Southeast Asia doesn't top the president's agenda, his proposed foreign aid cuts and isolationism could have lasting negative effects on Cambodia's environment.
A forest along the Prek Piphot River. Dam building and illegal logging along Cambodia's major rivers are creating a serious conservation crisis for ecosystems and riverside communities. Loss of U.S. aid will only worsen these problems.

A forest along the Prek Piphot River. Dam building and illegal logging along Cambodia's major rivers are creating a serious conservation crisis for ecosystems and riverside communities. Loss of U.S. aid will only worsen these problems.

"I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris," President Donald Trump declared during a speech announcing his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement.

In so doing, Trump sent a message to the world: that his administration—as promised during his campaign—was putting America first, and prioritizing American economic prosperity over everything, including the collective environmental preservation efforts of nearly the entire planet.

But the U.S. remains—at least for now—the world's foremost power, so the economic impacts of Trump's policies will reverberate around the globe, affecting nations big and small, such as the burgeoning Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia.

Though the six-month-old Trump administration has barely begun engaging Southeast Asia even on a nominal level—with Trump speaking to leaders of the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore in recent months—Cambodia is already preparing itself for the environmental ramifications of the U.S. leader's isolationist agenda.

Foreign Aid to Take a Hit

In late April, Foreign Policy reported that Cambodia could experience a 70 percent cut in aid from the U.S. in 2018 as part of the Trump administration's proposed plan to cut aid to developing countries by more than a third overall.

Proposed budget cuts to the U.S. Agency for International Development, if approved by Congress, would eliminate an estimated 30-35 field missions worldwide, while slashing the agency's regional bureaus by roughly 65 percent, according to a 15-page Department of State budget document that Foreign Policy had obtained.

For Cambodia, this would mean a combined cut of $11.7 million from the budgets of the Department of State and USAID, with the latter involved in a host of projects meant to help sustain the Cambodian environment.

USAID's efforts in Cambodia include support for entrepreneurs who make and market non-timber forest products, as well as projects that help the Cambodian government and local communities source financial opportunities created by forest carbon sequestration and the avoidance of carbon emissions as the result of deforestation.

USAID also works to strengthen Cambodian legislation and policies aimed at improving the implementation, enforcement, and compliance with the country's international environmental commitments—efforts critical to preserving forests and areas of significant biodiversity, of which Cambodia has many. The organization has worked to provide sustainable development in Cambodia's Prey Lang Forest and has supported local community government negotiations in the Kompong Phluk commune within Siem Reap Province, to name a few examples.

Cambodia has one of the world's highest rates of deforestation, and widespread corruption has allowed an illegal logging industry to flourish. Sand dredging, illegal fishing, and other harmful practices also wreak environmental havoc, and the country's poverty makes U.S. financial assistance crucial to environmental protection.

The Costs to the World

Since Foreign Policy published its initial report in April, Trump's detailed budget has been released to the public. Cambodia's aid numbers for 2018, though slightly different than those detailed last spring, still paint the same grim picture: with aid at just a fraction of past years.

Cambodian rainforest at dawn. Though economically poor, Cambodia is rich in natural resources, forests, and biodiversity.

Cambodian rainforest at dawn. Though economically poor, Cambodia is rich in natural resources, forests, and biodiversity.

While Trump's budget could still face bipartisan opposition in Congress—as politicians on both sides of the aisle oppose the president's proposed draconian cuts to foreign aid—experts have said that the president's budget still sends a strong and disruptive message to the world: that the U.S. no longer cares about any other nation beyond itself.

When Foreign Policy's report was released, one government careerist publicly lambasted the cuts as a death knell for positive U.S. influence abroad: "What you're basically doing is eviscerating the most important tool of American influence in the developing world, which is our development program," Andrew Natsios, a former USAID administrator under the Bush administration told Foreign Policy when the budget document was leaked. "I don't think they understand what the role of USAID is, what USAID's mission directors are. USAID's mission directors are among the most influential foreigners in the country."

When Mongabay reached out to USAID's Cambodia mission, Jay Raman, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, said that USAID would be unavailable for an interview and that the Department of State was not able to comment on Trump's proposed budget. Nor did the White House respond to requests for comment. A call to the Department of State in Washington, D.C., yielded this email attributed to an anonymous "State Department official": "The FY 2018 budget request for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) supports the President's commitments to make the U.S. government more efficient by streamlining efforts to ensure effectiveness of U.S. taxpayer dollars."

While the Trump administration has gone virtually silent regarding the impending impacts of its proposed aid cuts, others are more vocal, saying that the people and environment of Cambodia—both heavily reliant on foreign aid—are being put at risk.

Michael Meyerhoff, project manager at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity in Siem Reap, Cambodia, told Mongabay that foreign donations remain an integral part of keeping Cambodia's infrastructure growing and its environment safe. "Due to Cambodia's past [history of conflict], most of the governmental infrastructure and capacities to manage the country's natural resources effectively were not existent a few years ago," he explained. Non-governmental organizations "and funding from foreign countries have helped, and are still supporting the government in the development process with funding, but also with expertise and equipment. This process is by far not completed, and therefore foreign funding is still needed."

Looking to Beijing

The proposed U.S. foreign aid cuts to Cambodia are likely to further strain relations between the two countries. This year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen openly criticized Washington's demands that Cambodia pay back a debt stemming from the 1970s. Many Cambodians feel that the U.S. claim that Cambodia owes it money is hypocritical and rests on shaky moral ground, especially because the U.S. dropped more bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam War years than the Allies dropped during the entirety of World War II—causing extensive destruction and political instability leading to the rise of the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge.

The ongoing disputes between Washington and Phnom Penh, have led Hun Sen to reach out to China, which he has dubbed his "most trustworthy friend." In recent times, China has found Cambodia to be a strategic ally in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and also an important investment partner. Money flowing from Beijing is by far Cambodia's largest source of foreign direct investment. In turn, Cambodia has become China's most vocal ASEAN colleague, going against group consensus and supporting Beijing when it comes to issues like China's claimed dominion over the South China Sea.

However, analysts say that fading U.S. influence, and China's growing influence in Cambodia could spell trouble for the nation's environment. Beijing in the past has shown a lack of commitment to conservation efforts, especially toward development outside its own borders. Instead, China prioritizes robust economic growth and big-ticket infrastructure projects.

"I think probably the largest impact on Cambodia's environment [resulting] from a shift toward China would be ... the lack of transparency surrounding projects," said Courtney Weatherby, a research analyst with the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, an international peace and security think tank based in Washington, D.C. "One of the benefits of engaging with either Western countries, or Western investors, is that they tend to have higher standards—environmental and social standards in particular—and they have a more transparent way of operating that allows improvement through critique.

"It generally appears that's not the case with Chinese projects—although there are exceptions, and that's important to note, and there have been improvements in recent years [concerning] the way that many Chinese investors operate. Still, across the board, they are often criticized for not meeting the same standards."

Weatherby pointed to the Lower Mekong Initiative—a U.S.-led organization that includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—as a positive force for environmental protection in Southeast Asia. Though Trump hasn't yet publicly criticized, or tweeted his disdain for, the LMI, China is ready to step in. It has its own newly minted organization, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism, that could pick up steam in the region in the absence of American money and influence.

Cambodia's forests are highly threatened by illegal logging. USAID cuts could result in China stepping in, a nation not known for its transparency or for environmental sensitivity.

Cambodia's forests are highly threatened by illegal logging. USAID cuts could result in China stepping in, a nation not known for its transparency or for environmental sensitivity.

"The United States and China have very different methods and goals in interacting in the region, and also will get different reactions," she said. "The United States, despite being a major world power, is also not a neighbor for any [Southeast Asian] countries. And, to some extent, [U.S.] engagement in the region—while certainly not selfless—is not viewed as suspiciously as the engagement of China."

"[The LMI and LMCM] serve different purposes," Weatherby added. But "when you look at the statements that are coming out from China's LMCM, they really don't sound all that different from what you hear from 'One Belt, One Road,' or its other large infrastructure-focused activities." The "One Belt, One Road" initiative, by most accounts, is Beijing's attempt to economically link China to much of the rest of the world—bolstering its position as a global leader through a series of expensive Eurasian infrastructure project.

The U.N.'s Role

The United Nations, which has its own environmental protection efforts underway in Cambodia under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme, is another organization that Trump has spoken out against, with the president once tweeting: "The United Nations has such great potential, but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!"

In Cambodia, UNEP is implementing projects to help reduce the vulnerability of poor urban communities to climate change, is bolstering Cambodia's protected area system, and is helping reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, among other initiatives.

Lumber harvested illegally in Cambodia that was confiscated and stacked at a ranger station. Deforestation is rampant in Cambodia, a problem that could see less oversight by the U.S. during Trump's tenure as president.

Lumber harvested illegally in Cambodia that was confiscated and stacked at a ranger station. Deforestation is rampant in Cambodia, a problem that could see less oversight by the U.S. during Trump's tenure as president.

Jonathan Gilman, who works in strategic policy and planning at U.N. Environment Asia Pacific, stressed that Cambodia's environment and people are at risk because, like so many developing nations, though it has contributed only a small amount to carbon emissions, its poor are largely unable to protect themselves from the onslaught of escalating climate change impacts. Which is why U.N. support and foreign aid are key to helping mitigate ongoing and lasting damage.

"The Cambodian people depend heavily on the environment and natural resources for their livelihoods, and environmental sustainability is critical to ensuring sustained and inclusive economic growth and social development in Cambodia," Gilman said. "The country is highly vulnerable to increased levels of pollution, uncontrolled exploitation of its natural resources, and climate change. This vulnerability is most felt by the poorest and most vulnerable."

"The U.N. will support the Royal Government of Cambodia in climate-resilient planning and in its engagement with global initiatives related to climate change," Gilman asserted.

In regards to Trump's plan to cut aid to Cambodia, Gilman was quick to separate the U.N.'s agenda from that of the U.S. "We are not aware of any cuts, but that's a decision for the U.S., as to which countries [they want] to prioritize and fund," he said. "We of course welcome USAID support to [the] environment."

Threats From Deregulation and Big Business

Trump has already begun the rollback of environmental regulations in the U.S., repeatedly pushing policies that favor business over environmental protections. While it is still too early to say, those business and industry friendly attitudes and policies could soon begin to be exported to other countries. It seems highly unlikely, for example, that U.S. foreign policy, guided by Secretary of State and ex-EXXON CEO Rex Tillerson, would ever do more than slap a developing nation on the wrist for embarking on large-scale infrastructure projects that jeopardize the environment.

And Cambodia, in its zealous quest to transform itself from developing to developed nation status, is full of such projects, many of which are already endangering the lives and livelihoods of those living in the countryside. For example, a new "border belt road" linking Cambodia and Vietnam, now under construction in Stung Treng Province, cuts through what is currently a trackless area of Virachey National Park. Such roads often invite exploitation of local populations and forests, with the new highways provide easy access to transnational logging, mining, and agribusiness companies.

In northeast Cambodia, dams on the Sesan and Srepok Rivers, tributaries to the Mekong River, will displace local communities that fish and otherwise make their livings from those waterways, with illegal logging exacerbating community disruptions. While logging within the proposed reservoir flood zones to be created by the new dams is permitted, logging under the guise of dam construction is allegedly spreading far beyond these zones.

The Sambor Dam on the Mekong, which would be Cambodia's first dam on the river, will likely also wreak havoc on the environment, destroying prime habitat for the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, which may number as few as 150 individuals.

Other Priorities

In the end, Trump's near-complete disregard for small-ticket countries like Cambodia could create a vacuum that encourages environmental degradation, as aid dollars dry up, and as a lack of U.S. leadership and positive role modeling, combined with weak laws and poor enforcement by Cambodia, lead to environmentally destructive corporate business practices and large-scale infrastructure projects, which, with their high cash flow, often invite corruption.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both pushed a more active U.S. foreign policy in the region under the "Pivot to Asia" initiative. During Obama's tenure, the U.S. took a vocal stance on controversial Cambodian policies that U.S. lawmakers said infringed upon human rights, civil discourse, and the environment. Members of the U.S. congress often publicly expressed their disapproval of Cambodia's dangerous political climate, and officials made efforts to encourage the Cambodian government to move forward on sustainable environmental development. By some accounts, U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia during the Obama administration was a stabilizing factor in a region rife with divisive politics.

Trump has made it clear that he will jettison Obama's interventionist approach, and will instead focus exclusively on enhancing U.S. "greatness" rather than try to influence the policies of other nations.

Some observers worry that this withdrawal of a U.S. moderating influence, and the move by the U.S. to embrace authoritarian means and anti-environmental policies, could ultimately be music to the ears of strongmen the world over, particularly in Cambodia. Already, Phnom Penh's authoritarian government has been delighted to use the Trump administration's attacks on the press as justification to stifle Cambodia's own outspoken journalists.

The government has "pushed further than ever before, jailing 25 political prisoners, several of whom are human rights defenders. It's been open season in the [Cambodian] pre-election period. It's no coincidence," said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy  and world affairs at Occidental College. "The lack of interest from the White House has been devastating to human rights defenders. Plus, [Trump,] the leader of the free world, cavorts with authoritarian leaders everywhere. It's a bad situation."

"The silver lining, if one can call it that, is that Trump has not tweeted about Cambodia," Ear added. "Either it's not important enough to be worth a tweet or he can't point to Cambodia on an atlas of the world."

The final decision on the USAID budget has yet to be made, but if Trump's isolationist, America First, anti-environmental policies continue to sweep the globe, dictators and unscrupulous corporations could be encouraged to follow his lead. Then the Irrawaddy dolphin, the Mekong River, Cambodia's forests and rural people could all find themselves in a world of hurt.

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.