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Laws, But No Teeth, in Resource Protection

[Editor’s note: VOA Khmer recently spoke with specialists in the field of natural resource management in developing countries and learned that Cambodia is not alone in struggling to use natural resources to benefit its citizens. The resource curse, where natural riches fail to help the poor, is a worldwide scourge, the global experts told VOA Khmer in numerous interviews. Below is Part Seven of the original VOA Khmer weekly series, airing Sundays in Cambodia.]

Cambodia may have laws on the books to protect its natural resources, but experts say enforcement of these laws is wanting. Cambodia was once rich in timber resources, but much of that was logged out, and some continues to be, despite laws against it. Now, mineral and oil wealth are threatened by the same problems.

Management laws are ill-implemented if they are implemented at all, said Robert Mather, a regional representative for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which has projects with the Ministry of Environment in Stung Treng and Koh Kong provinces.

“If you look at the actual implementation, I mean, clearly the allocation of human resources and the allocation of budget is nowhere near sufficient for the jobs that need to be done,” Mather said. “They have little manpower, they have very little budget, or even no budget at all, for the implementation of the activity, for patrolling, for enforcement. There’s no overall long-term strategy for the management of the area, and there’s no clear management plan and management objective.”

Jacob Jepson, deputy head of mission for the Royal Danish Embassy and the Danish International Development Agency, which has a wide range of projects assisting the government in natural resource management, agreed.

There has been some improvement in national agencies, and despite plenty of people in government workable systems and strategic planning are lacking, he said.

The National Assembly promulgated the Environmental Protection and Natural Resource Management Law in 1996; the Law on Management and Exploitation of Mineral Resources in 2001; the Law on Forestry in 2002; and the Law on Fisheries in 2006.

Mather acknowledged that Cambodia has the most up-to-date laws on natural resource management, some of the best among neighboring countries. However, he said, its law enforcement ranks near the bottom.

However, some international organizations working in Cambodia say the government has made some progress on the bumpy road to effective law enforcement. It has shown some willingness to work with partner organizations.

Mark Gately, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cambodia director, said he felt positive about the country’s future law enforcement.

“I come back to the whole question of society, which is basically the 30 years within the situation of almost permanent civil unrest,” Gately said. “So after that kind of thing, it takes a while for the system to develop, for those rules and regulations to be implemented. Our experience has been very positive in working with the government in the protected areas we are focusing on. You know we have very, very capable government staff working with us for many years.”

Those years of turmoil ended with Cambodia transitioning to democracy, but lacking in the checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Paul Collier, an Oxford University economist and author of “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It,” told VOA Khmer by phone that check and balances, which are non-existent in the poorest nations of the world, play an important role in natural resource management.

“The electoral competition determines how you acquire power, and check and balances determine how you use power,” Collier said. “It turns out the electoral competition is the thing that’s doing the damage with democracy, whereas strong checks and balances make a resource boom good. And so, what the countries of the bottom billion need is very strong checks and balances. They haven’t got them. They got instant democracy in the 1990s; election without check and balances.”

In Cambodia, that has meant questionable law enforcement, said Lao Monghay, a researcher for the Asian Human Rights Commission.

“The government must report to the National Assembly about law implementation,” he said. “For example, the implementation of specific laws, such as laws on forestry or mines, or petroleum or gas, has to be reported to the National Assembly, who has the responsibility to oversee law enforcement. The mechanism is in place, but there is no implementation. The deal has mostly been done through the ruling party.”

Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, an umbrella group of non-governmental agencies, acknowledged that the government has adopted some resource management laws, but law enforcement has yet to reach an acceptable standard.

“Actual law enforcement is still limited,” he said. “We still have land problems and forest problems, such as anarchical logging and land grabbing. These problems still exist, which impacts our natural resources.”

However, Nguon Nhel, a CPP lawmaker and vice president of the National Assembly, told VOA Khmer by phone that the Assembly always urges the government to enforce laws effectively—and Cambodia has adequate laws on natural resources.

“We have proper laws to protect the natural resources of the country and people,” he said. “We punish those who violate the laws.”

Ty Sokun, director of the Agricultural Ministry’s forestry administration, which is one of the state agencies that enforces laws to protect resources, told VOA Khmer that his agency has made efforts to enforce laws by stopping timber export and by replanting trees instead.

“We have strengthened law enforcement, sharpened technical skills and carried out international forestry management strategies for ASEAN,” he said.

But Hom Sakunth, director of Cambodian Community Development, who is working on natural resources in Kratie province, said he was disappointed with the ineffectiveness of law enforcement by those responsible for it.

“When we look at their activities, they seem to be considerably active, but I wonder why illegal logging and timber transport still takes place,” he said. “Talking about forest rangers, they are positioned everywhere. There are checkpoints on every road, but trucks carrying timber still safely cross checkpoints and reach their destinations.”

A villager in the province’s Snuol district raised similar concerns.

“No one helps protect the forest from being illegally logged,” the villager said. “Chainsaws and hundreds of ox carts keep coming. Roads have been destroyed. Forest is destroyed everyday.”