Cambodia's Famed Kampot Pepper Withers in Scorching Heatwave

"It is so hot this year, no rains, and we have no water to water the pepper plants," says farmer Chhim Laem. TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP
"It is so hot this year, no rains, and we have no water to water the pepper plants," says farmer Chhim Laem. TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP
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Cambodia's Famed Kampot Pepper Withers in Scorching Heatwave

"It is so hot this year, no rains, and we have no water to water the pepper plants," says farmer Chhim Laem. TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP
"It is so hot this year, no rains, and we have no water to water the pepper plants," says farmer Chhim Laem. TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP

Farmer Chhim Laem shakes his head as he walks between long rows of dead bushes, their brown leaves scorched by heat and drought that have devastated Cambodia's famed Kampot pepper crop.
Known for its intense floral flavor, Kampot pepper is prized by top chefs around the world and sells for up to $200 per kilo.
Nurtured for generations in two provinces in southwest Cambodia, the pepper industry survived the genocidal Khmer Rouge and decades of instability, but now faces the threat of extreme weather driven by climate change.
"It is so hot this year, no rains, and we have no water to water the pepper plants," Laem told AFP. "So they all died."
South and Southeast Asia have sweltered in recent weeks under record temperatures, with governments closing schools, people dying of heatstroke and farmers praying for rain.
Scientists warn that human-induced climate change will produce more frequent, longer and more intense heatwaves.
In parts of Cambodia, the mercury nearly hit 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit) in late April -- after a six-month drought that pushed farmers to a breaking point.
All 264 of Laem's pepper bushes perished, the 55-year-old explained, thanks to water shortages and hot weather.
Production has grown in recent years, boosted by the European Union granting the spice a "protected geographical indication" in 2016 -- meaning that only pepper grown in a designated area can be called Kampot.
The Kampot region produced about 120 tonnes of peppercorns last year, but farmers say that excessive heat and rain have made 2024 the worst on record.
Laem earned about $1,000 from his farm last year, but said he expects a fraction of that now.
"I am so sad, but I don't know what to do," he said.
'The worst year'
Nguon Lay is a fourth-generation pepper farmer, harvesting nine tonnes from his nearby five-hectare farm last year.
But the 71-year-old farmer expected to harvest nothing this year.
"This year we meet the biggest obstacle," he said, while examining a dying pepper bush.
Torrential rain destroyed the plants' flowers earlier in the season, with more dying in the prolonged drought that followed.
"So it is the worst year. We don't know what to do. We see problems, but we can't resolve them," Lay said.
Like other farmers, Lay said he knew the problems came from the weather and the environment.
Several ponds used to water his plants have dried up, and his workers only water the crop once every five days.
"We have been prepared. We know about climate change, we have stored water, we built roofs to protect our peppers from the hot weather, but it was not enough."
"So many pepper plants are dying," he said, adding that he no longer goes to his farms because it is too painful.
"This year we think we will get nothing," he said, adding that what little can be harvested is of lower quality because of the weather.
'Fight against nature'
Kampot pepper gained global acclaim during the French colonial occupation of Cambodia when it was exported widely, but the industry was nearly wiped out during the Khmer Rouge era.
In more recent years it has bounced back, gracing hip restaurant menus across the globe.
The pepper comes in green, black, red and white varieties -- the color changes as the corn ripens, with green the youngest and white the most mature.
Lay said consumers had no idea of the difficulties facing Kampot farmers, but they will soon see the effects.
"For 2024 and 2025, we won't have abundant pepper for them to eat," he said.
"It is zero!"
Kann Sinouch, president of the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association, said he expects this year's pepper yield to be halved -- and warned of an export shortage in 2025.
He told AFP the changing weather meant farmers were unable to expand their farms, and instead were stuck struggling to keep their existing plants alive.
But Chan Deng, who has been growing pepper since the 1960s, said he would not surrender to the unpredictable weather.
"This year, it is strangely hot," Deng, 67, said.
His pepper yield plummeted from 300 kilos last year to around 10 kilos in 2024, with 20 percent of his plants dying due to the hot weather.
But Deng said he will dig more ponds to store water, hoping that in three years a good yield will return.
In the meantime, he said, "we will fight against nature".



Hollywood Movies Rarely Reflect Climate Change Crisis. These Researchers Want to Change That

This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)
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Hollywood Movies Rarely Reflect Climate Change Crisis. These Researchers Want to Change That

This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from "Don't Look Up." (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)

Aquaman might not mind if the oceans rise, but moviegoers might.

That's one of the takeaways from a new study conducted by researchers who set out to determine if today's Hollywood blockbusters are reflective of the current climate crisis. The vast majority of movies failed the “climate reality check” proposed by the authors, who surveyed 250 movies from 2013 to 2022.

The test is simple — the authors looked to see if a movie presented a story in which climate change exists, and whether a character knows it does. One film that passed the test was the 2017 superhero movie Justice League, in which Jason Momoa's Aquaman character says, “Hey, I don't mind if the oceans rise” to Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne, The AP reported.

But most movies fell short — fewer than 10% of the 250 films passed, and climate change was mentioned in two or more scenes of fewer than 4% of the films. That's out of touch with a moviegoing public that wants “to see their reality reflected on screen,” said Colby College English professor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, lead researcher on the study.

“The top line is just that the vast majority of films, popular films produced over the last 10 years in the United States, are not portraying the world as it is,” Schneider-Mayerson said. “They are portraying a world that is now history or fantasy — a world in which climate change is not happening.”

Researchers at Maine's Colby College published the study in April along with Good Energy, a Los Angeles-based environmental consultancy. The results were peer reviewed, and the authors are seeking publication in scientific journals. The researchers view the test as a way for audience members, writers and filmmakers to evaluate the representation of climate change on screen.

Some results were surprising. Movies that at first glance appear to have little overlap with climate or the environment passed the test. Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach's emotive 2019 drama about the collapse of a relationship, passed the test in part because Adam Driver's character is described as “energy conscious,” Schneider-Mayerson said.

The 2022 whodunnit Glass Onion and the 2019 folk horror movie Midsommar were others to pass the test. Some that were more explicitly about climate change, such as the 2021 satire Don't Look Up, also passed. But San Andreas, a 2015 movie about a West Coast earthquake disaster, and The Meg, a 2018 action movie set in the ocean, did not.

The authors narrowed the selection of movies by excluding films not set on Earth or set before 2006 or after 2100. They found streaming services had a higher percentage of movies that included climate change than the major studios did.

The study is “valuable for marketing purposes, informational purposes, data accumulation,” said Harry Winer, director of sustainability at the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Winer, who was not involved in the study, said it could also help serve as an incentive to connect audiences with climate stories.

“The audience will be more open to hearing a dialogue about what is right and what is wrong,” Winer said. “It's a conversation starter.”

The study authors said they see the climate reality check as a kind of Bechdel-Wallace test for climate change. Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist, is credited with popularizing that test in the 1980s by incorporating her friend Liz Wallace's test about gender representation in film into a comic strip. The test asks if a movie includes at least two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man.

Bechdel herself spoke highly of the study's climate test, which she described as “long overdue” in a social media post during this year's Academy Awards season. Bechdel said in an e-mail to The AP that “for a movie set in the present to ignore this existential threat just doesn't make sense anymore" in the age of climate change.

“I do worry that screenwriters might do it in a kind of rote way, which could be counterproductive, just like rote ‘strong female characters’ are," Bechdel said. "But injecting an awareness of our communal plight into the stories we ingest seems like a no-brainer.”