Cambodia’s building blocks: part 2

Cementing Cambodia’s future, but at what cost?

By: Janelle Retka and Leng Len - Photography by: Thomas Cristofoletti - Posted on: October 2, 2018 | Business

As the Kingdom’s construction boom continues, the local production of cement has evolved alongside it. But potential environmental issues may prove costly

The $262m state-of-the-art Chip Mong Insee Cement production plant stretches across 110ha of land in Cambodia’s Kampot province, glorious rolling hills of plant-covered limestone serving as its backdrop. The factory site is practically spotless, not what one might expect from a production facility with the capacity to pump out 5,000 tonnes of cement a day.

“There’s a connection between being as good for the environment as possible and economic value,” said Aidan Lynam, the group’s CEO, in a sleek conference room in one of the capital’s sea of concrete buildings. “I hope you didn’t see any dust. There should be no need for fugitive dust or particulate emissions because the technology in the last 30 years is well in place. And you know… there’s value in dust. I see a stack emission, and I see dollars going out the stack – it’s just wasteful.”

In addition to mitigating environmental impacts like these – which are important considering cement production globally accounts for 5% of the world’s carbon footprint – Cambodia’s cement factories are also required to invest in corporate social responsibility projects in an effort to counteract the negative impact on the country and bolster the development’s benefit.

For CMIC, this takes the form of an intensive vocational training programme to turn local students into certified technicians, plus infrastructure developments in surrounding neighbourhoods. But some worry the efforts to cut down on negative impacts and give back to locals is not enough to counterbalance environmental loss.

A worker supervises one of the students of the enterprise-based vocational education program at the Chip Mong Insee Cement factory

Kiri Bopha Rompern pagoda is a 10-minute drive from the plant. At the religious site, a 10-metre-long cement Buddha is sprawled across the base of a limestone mountain. It loomed behind Rin Nonn, a 35-year-old chief monk draped in orange robes, as he boasted of the recent improvement to the pagoda in the shadow of the ascetic.

“Ever since Chip Mong Insee Cement arrived, our pagoda has improved in infrastructure and facilities,” Rin Nonn said.

The changes to the pagoda are visible – if not in the Buddha statue, then in the large cylinder filled with filtered drinking water that was added to the site for the use of schoolchildren and visitors, or the two bathrooms with hand-washing stations that were installed. Rin Nonn said at least 20 tonnes of cement for repairs and building projects have been donated to the pagoda. Bags of dry cement with one of CMIC’s brand names, “Camel”, stretched boldly across them in capital letters are stacked in the pagoda hall to his left.

But in almost the same breath that he celebrates CMIC’s contributions to the pagoda, the monk shares an aching concern. He fears that the karst behind him could take a hit amid the growing number of cement factories in the area, and feels responsible for protecting the biodiversity and wildlife it hosts. Kampot province’s skyline is dotted with dozens of these limestone mountains.

“I’m quite worried, to be honest. The locals are not going to be the ones to destroy the karsts – it’s up to the government,” he said.

Rin Nonn is referring to the growing list of cement factories quarrying the nearby karsts, which requires approval from the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

CMIC is one of three licensed cement factories currently operating in Kampot, with a fourth in Battambang province. Together, the four can produce 7 million tonnes of cement a year, up from 3.4 million tonnes last year. With two additional factories licensed by the ministry to quarry limestone for cement production, government officials have predicted that local capacity will soon hit 20 million tonnes annually.

K-Cement factory_Kampot Province_Southeast Asia Globe_2018
view of K-Cement factory from above in Kampot province

The demand for cement is propelled by the country’s continued construction boom and its reliance on concrete, of which cement is a key ingredient. Last year, the value of development projects rose year-on-year by $6.4b, or 22%, from the year before. After a slight lull in investment plans at the start of the year ahead of a July general election – internationally critiqued as a sham – the trend is likely to continue.

“CBRE observe a number of [development] parties planning to launch projects, many of which are at a larger scale than have been seen in the past,” said James Hodge, associate director of leading real-estate firm CBRE Cambodia. “Both new players and existing groups are considering developments in a wide variety of sectors, with a particular focus on the edge of Phnom Penh, as well as in secondary urban locations.”  

While local cost per tonne of cement hovers around $90 compared to a 2016 average cost of $71 for imported cement, the growing local production provides some stability to the construction industry.

“Concrete is a major component of construction projects in Cambodia, we see very few steel buildings here,” Hodge added. “As concrete can be produced in-country, the prices of this commodity are generally more stable and supplies more reliable than for products that need to be imported… When construction materials need to be imported, this can also add to the risk of delay to a project. The fact that a major component of many projects can be reliably produced in Cambodia itself is of comfort to developers, ensuring that they can be more confident in the financial projections of their development before construction begins.”

A history of quarrying

While the exploitation of the karsts suddenly ramped up with the increased local demand for cement and the recent arrival of new cement plants, some of the province’s karsts have long been disturbed by hammering.

The country’s first cement factory opened in Kampot in the 1960s and quarried limestone karsts until the Khmer Rouge era. Activity picked back up after Pol Pot’s fall, but the plant couldn’t compete against Thailand’s low cement prices, and the plant shuttered shortly after the turn of the century.

On a smaller scale, 54-year-old farmer Tong Phoeurn recalled when she and hundreds of villagers would roam the bases of the surrounding karsts, hammering at the limestone to sell chunks to middlemen as material for building houses, a practice that bolstered the income from their often meagre crop yields.

“Almost everyone in the village participated in rock breaking,” a 60-year-old neighbour, who wished only to be referred to as Nhour, added. “It was good money to earn and we didn’t have to pay for food because we would pick food along the way… We were free to pick on any karsts we wanted to.”

The practice earned them about $2.50 a day each – “worth a lot more then”, Nhour said.

Nhour, 60, a villager who lives near the K-Cement factory

The miners were technically breaking the law, a Ministry of Mines official told the Phnom Penh Post in 2003, but officials considered the damage a small cost to pay for the farmers’ financial stability.

Around that time, the Ministry of Environment approved environmental impact assessments presented by four aspiring cement factories, making large-scale production imminent once again. Environment officials at the time voiced mild concern over the large-scale environmental impact, while Ministry of Culture officials mourned the potential loss of ancient temples and sculptures dating back to the Angkorian era that dot the karsts. Still, in 2007, K-Cement, which declined to speak with Southeast Asia Globe, was the first factory to begin local production. It is now the longest-running cement factory in the country, with production on par with CMIC’s but across two factories on its site.

With the plant’s opening, the farmer Phoeurn said, the village-level rock breaking came to an end as locals were banned from roaming the karsts. This sparked frustration both that locals had lost a source of income and that the companies’ large-scale quarrying would cause significant damage to their homeland, she said. 

Rin Nonn, the monk, also didn’t care for the sight of nearby peaks being flattened as tonnes of limestone were peeled away by the cement factories now dotting the hillsides, worrying that the karst at his pagoda, on which the enormous Buddha rests, might meet a similar fate. So a few years back, he joined a committee to advocate for their preservation.

“This was to help wildlife preservation, [keeping the karsts] as a shelter for wildlife, plant life, biodiversity and other natural resources,” the monk said. “I tried to get the local authorities and community to protect them… [so that the trees on them] can grow bigger and benefit the community… But when the government conducted an EIA [environmental impact assessment], they found that [quarrying the karsts for limestone] didn’t affect anything.”

So maybe there’s no need to protect all karsts, he hypothesised, if there is no environmental impact or loss in biodiversity from the quarrying – but his pagoda’s karst can’t go, he said. “If a company were to come purchase the karst, make an EIA and plan to develop it, we would protest.”

Phnom Penh’s cement sprawl has spread to the island of Koh Pich

Environmental impact

Environmentalists have pointed to rich and rare biodiversity in the millions-of-years-old karsts that should be preserved. Recent surveys show they are sometimes home to unique bat species. Over a dozen previously unknown species of snails have been discovered on the karsts. Studies of plant life are likely to produce never-before-seen species, considering their unusual topographical qualities.

“They’re essentially little islands of arid land vegetation in the middle of an ocean of wet vegetation, because the water seeps through the rocks so the plants have to deal with six months of drought and exposure to the sun,” said Andrew McDonald, a botany professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in the US who has worked on environmental surveys and conservation in Cambodia dating back to 1993.

While the local production of cement may give stability to the construction sector, McDonald said it could endanger the greater stability of the country.

Instead, he suggests that karsts in Laos be quarried and transported downstream for cement production since they number in the thousands, rather than a handful, and are clustered far from communities in remote areas of the country near the Mekong.

“Neighbours to Cambodia have a surplus of it, and Cambodia does not,” said McDonald. “[If] Cambodia takes out those karsts, they will be taking out unique biotas that are the last vestiges of the natural fabric of life in Cambodia… The value of these resources is really incalculable.”

When McDonald first arrived in the country, it was one of the greenest in Southeast Asia before suffering some of the most rapid deforestation in the world.

“Cambodia was [also] thought at the time, in 1993, to have the highest population of tigers in the world. Arguably, there are no tigers in Cambodia today – maybe a few will wander in here and there,” he said. “This has happened in 25, 30 years, and people will pay attention to the tiger because it’s a charismatic creature, but [it’s] nothing compared to the entire landscape… We’re moving from the forests now to the earth – consuming it. Is this not a catastrophe?”

Bags of cement are loaded on a train inside the Chip Mong Insee Cement factory in Kampot province

These grand-scale changes have taken place largely in spite of the government’s environmental impact assessment requirements, which were first established in 1999.

That’s likely because EIA results can easily be manipulated due to a low threshold of data requirements in Cambodia, according to Aaron Saxton, a technical adviser to a company that conducts EIAs in the country.

To assess the impact a project has on air quality, for example, only two samples are required to be taken over a period of time – compared to the Environment Ministry’s hourly sampling of Phnom Penh air quality, which shows dramatic fluctuation of pollution throughout the day and night.

“That is not statistically significant. You cannot draw any amount of information from two tiny pieces of data, because they could be outliers, they could be anomalies,” Saxton said. “[With] air quality levels or the water quality levels or the noise levels or whatever, you cannot tell me you can draw a conclusion on that data with the set you’ve given me. So what that enables people to do is you can misconstrue the data.”

There is also no public database displaying the archive of EIAs submitted to the ministry. Without this or a requirement of consultants to assess the impact of a proposed project in the context of previous developments – such as cement factories that have already begun quarrying – larger-scale impacts on the environment could go unseen by decision-makers vetting EIAs.

“The consultancy isn’t expected to think about the cumulative impact of multiple projects in the same region. You’re solely focused on that plant,” Saxton said. “If you’re the sole provider of information to a decision-maker and… those dots aren’t connected, then you’re going to have – you could have – significant problems in the future.”

The cost of economic development

Sok Oror, who directs the Environment Ministry’s EIA department, held up a heavy document detailing the assessment requirements and reeled off chapters, articles and dates. The report, he said, must be composed of a litany of data points and plans for a development, which companies have to deliver to the ministry to get an environmental green light on their project.

He said the companies making the plans employ one of 15 consulting firms from a list provided by the ministry to conduct the assessment. Once the firm has retrieved the method [of developing], test the quality of water [and] the surface groundwater” – the information is submitted to a think tank within his department for deliberation. Additional data might be requested and the ministry will then balance the cost to the environment against the economic benefit to the country, he said through a colleague’s translation.

One hundred years later, the resources will be scarce. For economic development, we need to use our resources before we import.

If a proposal does move forward, the company is required to invest in corporate social responsibility projects, giving back to the community by way of developments such as the water tanks at Kiri Bopha Rompern pagoda. It also has to contribute a predetermined amount of money each year to the ministry’s Environmental Endowment Fund.

“How does the government use this fund? Restoring the environment,” said Oror. “For example, biological ecosystems, training human resource development and rural development in order to compensate for what we lost environmentally from the project. There are a lot of questions: ‘You created a loss to the tiger community, so you need to pay $3,000.’ So are you paying for a tiger fund? No. We’re talking about overall environmental investment and mitigation. We can’t replace that, but we can mitigate.”

But, asked if mitigation efforts will be enough to protect the country’s karsts from the same extinction its tigers faced, Oror cut to the chase: “One hundred years later, the resources will be scarce.” His position on the quarrying remained clear: “For economic development, we need to use our resources before we import.”

View of the Chip Mong Insee Cement Cement factory

The current approach of quarrying in Cambodia is likely the most environmentally responsible way to supply cement directly to where it’s needed because of the cost and carbon footprint of transporting limestone from another country, CMIC’s Lynam said. He said the destruction should be slow-going, and estimated that the karst the company is currently quarrying will take 80 years to hit ground level. Even then, he said, karsts are like the tip of an iceberg. Once the company hits ground level, they can continue a more energy-intensive process of drilling limestone below ground rather than moving on to a new karst.

“There are four players in the country. There are more than four karst hills in the country,” Lynam said. “But those four karst hills are like a sacrifice to the gods – it’s a sacrifice to the population… There’s no other place that we’re aware of where there is limestone in the country. So four karst hills will be consumed by the human beings in this country for the purposes of shelter, infrastructure.”

Conservation biologist Neil Furey, chief editor of the Cambodian Journal of Natural History, said it’s impossible to say whether the quarrying would, indeed, be small-scale.

“Bear in mind that aside from [Fauna and Flora Inter-national] and [the International Union for Conservation of Nature], the environmental/conservation sector has entirely overlooked limestone karst in Cambodia – and, as far as I know, no karst in the country is protected for its biodiversity by virtue of being included in a national protected area,” said Furey. “Needless to say, without such data, no one can really say whether current karst exploitation or future plans for [the] same is ‘minimal’ or not.”

The prospect for new cement plants is under consideration in a near future.

Oror, of the EIA department, pointed to Ministry of Mines and Energy mapping that he said delineates which karsts are off-limits for quarrying and which can be mined for limestone, saying the other ministry has “a clear plan” for the karsts.

Yos Mony Rath, director of the Ministry of Mines and Energy’s mineral resource department, confirmed in an email that the karsts had been mapped but did not respond to repeated requests to view the maps.

“We have mapped out the areas where limestone… [is] located, which areas are suitable for production and which areas are preserved for other purposes,” he said. “There is no doubt that the demands for cement will continue to grow as [the] construction sector is still flourishing and infrastructure needs will continue to emerge as the country is developing into the next level… The prospect for new cement plants is under consideration in a near future.”

But if the quarrying scales up too much, McDonald said, it will be an irreversible loss to the future generations of Cambodia.

“The solution is to stop for a second. Stop the deal-making, truly assess, employ the expertise you have in your ministries and make decisions that are going to be for the benefit of the next generation,” he said.

“When we assess the value of land of either a forest or even a limestone mountain, we do so in terms of the commodity that can be produced and its value – not really the whole picture. In the case of Cambodia, the… landscapes are like every country. This is the identity of the country. You lose your identity when you destroy your landscapes.”

Sand, Cement & Brick: This is the second in our three-part series on the true costs of Cambodia’s building blocks. Read part one here

This article was published in the October 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.