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Experts Gather to Debate Mineral Extraction

Mineral extraction and development experts opened three days of meetings with government officials Tuesday in an effort to ease Cambodia’s move into a lucrative sector expected to bear fruit in the near future.

“Currently, knowledge about oil, gas and mining in this country is limited,” Douglas Broderick, the UN’s chief Cambodia coordinator, said in opening remarks Tuesday, before extraction experts from across Asia. “Learning from the lessons of others will help Cambodia in the extraction industry in a way that will bring benefits to all.”

Cambodia has the potential to yield silver, gold, oil and other precious minerals in at least a dozen provinces. Exploration is already underway, but there are wide concerns the industry’s abundant profits will not help all Cambodians and could find their way into the pockets of the rich, powerful or corrupt.

“The sharing of information is so critical,” Brian Lund, regional director for Oxfam America, which sponsored the conference, told reporters Tuesday, calling this week’s meetings “a starting point.”

Members of the government, private sector and civil society were all realizing the importance of minerals in the development of Southeast Asia, he said.

“Cambodia is a part of that,” he added, warning that possible downsides of extraction must be countered with clever management.

First up for Cambodia is oil and gas, which some estimates predict will start to flow by 2013, with an estimated revenue stream of $1.7 billion by 2021. Next would be mineral extraction, which could start bringing in money by 2015.

Experts warn that without transparent means to distribute the wealth of these industries, profits will not filter down to everyday Cambodians. They point to Cambodia’s disastrous forestry policies of the 1990s, when most of the country’s timber resources were cut down and sold off—legally and illegally—in trade that benefitted an elite few.

Tuesday’s meetings were a start at mitigating those concerns, participants said.

“Debate is a positive process that will ensure that Cambodia adopts good governance and, in the long term, develops a strong mining sector,” Richard Thompson, an international investment expert from the UK, said.

Meanwhile, Hang Chuon Naron, secretary general of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, said Cambodia now must “balance taxation and build up the capacity of government officials.”