Environmental activist Dr Francis Glémet arrived in Cambodia about three weeks ago with no contacts and no introductions. Since then, he’s been knocking on doors, burrowing his way through Phnom Penh’s media and academic circles and calling up government officials.
The retired pharmacist, who speaks too fast in the joyful accent of southeastern France and likes having dessert in the middle of the afternoon, is an unlikely prophet with a simple gospel: No government, not even a poor one, can afford to ignore pollution and global warming any longer.
Jumping from one topic to the next, his conviction evident, he spewed in a recent interview a litany of pollution-related ailments: asthma, cardiovascular disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s, heavy metal poisoning, all sorts of cancers, and the latest, diabetes, recently found to be facilitated by air pollution. Not to mention the decreased fertility that, in the very long run, could mean the slow extinction of humanity, he added.
He spewed solutions, too: incinerating trash, at least, if not recycling it; prohibiting a dangerous chemical in plastics; reducing packaging; requiring particle filters on new and diesel cars; public transportation in the capital, and so on.
“It’s true, this discourse is out of this world [in Cambodia.] But I believe that today, whatever the contingencies of a country are, we all live on the same Earth. The global problem will catch up with us sooner or later,” he said.
Glémet is the president of France’s National Medical Coalition for Health and Environment, or CNMSE, a year-old alliance of 3,500 health professionals who want people to live green, if for nothing else, to preserve their lives. All volunteers, the members reach out to officials and media wherever they travel in the hope of influencing policy and creating an environmental consciousness.
Dr Claude Thuan, a French endocrinologist who traveled with Glémet, is his sobering voice.
“We must go step by step,” Thuan said. “What Dr Francis Glémet talks about is an ideal, but the ideal doesn’t exist [in reality].”
Cambodia has many other issues to address, Glémet conceded, and he is not optimistic about the results of this month-long visit.
“It is by repeating things, it is by having loudspeakers,” that you get results, he said. “It’s certain that this first mission may end on just being listened to. If we are listened to, somewhere we’ve opened a door.”
Glémet met with Heng Nareth, director of pollution control at the Ministry of Environment.
“I explained him the situation in our country: water pollution, air pollution, waste management,” Heng Nareth said Monday.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s just only an NGO. We really appreciate his NGO’s contact with the ministry, but he did not say any promise,” he added, before hanging up the telephone when asked about the government’s anti-pollution measures.
That is a typical reaction: Governments are interested in the message but want him to bring ready-to-go projects with funding, even though CNMSE has no budget, Glémet said. Meetings in Cambodia went well, but funding is always the issue, he added.
“We don’t have financial means; we only have our knowledge and our good will,” he said.
“Our mission is first and foremost to sound the alarm.”
And alarm there must be, explained Minh Cuong Le Quan, manager of the climate change unit at the environmental NGO, Geres. Recently, Cambodian farmers were among the first to feel the effects of global warming, when swarms of brown grasshoppers, and droughts followed by unusually strong rains, destroyed their crops.
“The interest that people have in protecting the environment is not ideological; it’s existential,” he said.
However, the link between pollution, climate change and health problems is still something few Cambodians understand and need to be more educated about, Le Quan said.
For instance, when trash is burned in heaps on the side of the road, including plastic waste from the textile industry, dioxins are released and eventually find their way into the food chain, he explained. When chickens were found to contain dioxins in 1999 in Belgium, it created a scandal all over Europe.
“No scandal comes out in Cambodia because people are not aware and we’re used to living in a very contaminated environment,” he added.
The government is conscious of environmental issues, but because of Cambodia’s usual governance issues, not enough is done, he said. For now, it would be more effective to appeal to economic interests, by advertising the business opportunities in waste management and other green industries, he added.
There is also a need for more-accurate studies of Cambodian pollution on which the government could base its policies, he said, a view echoed by Glémet.
One rare study, led by researchers from Japan’s Kanazawa University with help from Cambodian officials, showed the concentration of hydrocarbon particles in Phnom Penh to be more than seven times that in Bangkok, based on samples taken in 2005.
The goal is to spare Cambodia the vertiginous rise in the incidence of cancers and other diseases seen in the West in the past two decades, said Glémet, who goes back to France on Thursday and plans to return to Cambodia for another “mission.”
“To walk around at 5 pm, and to have red eyes, to have a pressing coughing fit and to practically lose your voice, as happened to me yesterday [Feb 1], it means something,” he said. “It’s true that when you live in this country, you get immunized, but for how long?”