Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
MPA
Robyn Sundlee at Angkor Wat in Cambodia

"There are diverging ideas of what Cambodia’s environmental future should hold. One relies on tourism and preservation, the other recognizes the agricultural potential of Cambodia."

Robyn Sundlee MPA ’17

Reflecting on the Global Policy Experience in Cambodia

During the GPE, MPA students chose a policy topic relevant to the region they visited and produced an interview, film, or photo series that sheds light on the topic. Here Robyn Sundlee reflects on the process of creating a film about environmental policy in Cambodia.

If you are like me, you are contemptuous of overrun tourist destinations. (Even though you happen to be a destination-loving tourist.) If you are like me, you will be taken with Cambodia. Cambodia has a ballooning population, but many parts of the country give a sensation of solitude. When navigating the temples around Banteay Chhmar, we were surrounded by silence that has become rare in the Western world. In Koh Kong, we swam in a pristine river with only chattering birds to accompany us. These experiences confirmed what we suspected before visiting Cambodia — that it was a prime destination for those looking to escape the pollution of urban living.

We came to Cambodia with an intense interest in ecotourism that morphed into an interest in the environment as a whole. Due to its tragic past, Cambodia has not yet caught up to its industrialized neighbors. We wondered if this is at once a disadvantage and an asset. Cambodia is one of the last places in Southeast Asia where tigers still live in the wild and is also home to 17 other endangered species. We were intrigued to see if ecotourism had the potential to protect these vulnerable resources. However, the more we interviewed, the more our perceptions changed. There are diverging ideas of what Cambodia’s environmental future should hold. One relies on tourism and preservation, the other recognizes the agricultural potential of Cambodia and its growing hungry populations.

In the end, we focused on two of our interviews because they provided an elegant contrast of Cambodia’s different environmental stakeholders. The first was with two women who belonged to an ecotourism organization that took bird-lovers on tours to see Cambodia’s spectacular and rare species. They grew up in Siem Reap and have highly local concerns for the environment. Their livelihoods and passions rely on protecting Cambodia’s fragile bird-life. The other interview was with a Cambodian who grew up in the West. She works on food sustainability and takes an international lens to the environmental problems of all Southeast Asia. You want to stop deforestation but still have food for all? As she says, it’s a tradeoff.

We intended this as a video as a brief introduction for those interested in Cambodian environmental policy. It is a representation of the scale of concerns for environmentalists and brings up the thorny questions of who benefits most from environmental policies. Given another chance, we would have lengthened our video and narrowed our focus. But given our capabilities, this was a profound learning experience in both film and policy.

—Robyn Sundlee MPA ’17