In Cambodia, the Mekong River winds past Southeast Asia’s largest remaining lowland evergreen forest before filling up Tonle Sap, the region’s largest freshwater lake. The river, lined with valuable sand, is home to an abundance of endangered species like the Mekong giant catfish and giant freshwater stingray. It also holds more common fish species that make up the main source of protein for millions of Cambodians. The forests, too, house rare and threatened animals like the fishing cat and clouded leopard, as well as prized timber.
Rather than appreciating Cambodia’s natural beauty and biodiversity, many of the country’s well-connected tycoons have long seen it as a source of personal profit. Timber traders and sand dredgers, often closely linked to the Cambodian government, have plundered forests and rivers, destroying nearly one-quarter of the country’s tree cover in less than 20 years and sending riverbanks plunging into the water below. Mangroves, which protect Cambodia’s delicate coastal ecosystems from the elements, have also been cleared en masse to make room for agriculture projects and large-scale development.