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NGOs Too Lack Resource Protection Capacity

[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 10 of the original VOA Khmer weekly series, airing Sundays in Cambodia.]

While many civic groups have proven active in the realm of human rights, their involvement in protecting natural resources remains marginal, experts say.

“Not many non-governmental organizations act as watchdogs and write reports to inform either the public or the government” on resources, said Chea Vannath, the former head of the Center for Social Development, who is now an independent analyst.

People knowledgeable in the issues are limited, as is access to government information, while resource exploitation takes place in remote areas such as jungles or dangerous areas, she said.

“Most of the information is from international NGOs, who have been conducting research and writing about natural resource management in Cambodia,” she said.

The best known of these is Global Witness, she said, an environmental group that has written reports critical of the government’s exploitation of timber, oil and minerals.

Global Witness reports, which implicate senior officials and tycoons close family and friends of Prime Minister Hun Sen in the abuse of resources, are banned in the country.

Cambodia has 622 non-governmental organizations listed at the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia. Of these 418 are local, and 64 work on natural resources issues.

Cambodia’s civic groups “don’t have adequate skills” in resource protection, said Lao Monghay, a researcher for the Asian Human Rights Commission, which is based in Hong Kong. “In every sector we learn together. The government also learns, civil society also learns and the average citizen also learns.”

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 there’s no substitute for an informed society to watch the government’s natural resource management.

An informed society comprises a “critical mass” that understands the issue well, and civil society is one part of this, he said.

Seeing the absence of transparent management and weak role of civil society, a group of organizations joined to form Cambodian Resource Revenue Transparency, or CRRT, to report on resource management.

“Giving the public an opportunity to participate in public debate is an opportunity for them to participate in decision-making and monitor natural resource management,” Mam Sambath, the group’s director, said. “CRRT will try to seek important information for the people. They will receive information they deserve through all public forums. If there’s a public forum at the national level on natural resource management or the impact of the extractive industry, we plan to invite civil society representatives, government representatives or community members to participate.”

Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, which has projects dealing with natural resources, stressed the important role played by civil society in promoting the people’s awareness of resource management.

“First we help publicize laws or decrees concerning natural resource management to the community so that they are aware of their rights in managing natural resources,” he said. “The second is, some NGOs who are working in the community to help build capacity in the community, especially helping create natural resource communities, such as forestry communities and fishery communities, so that community members can work together to preserve and protect their natural resources.”

Kong Kimsreng, senior program officer for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, said his group has two main conservation projects: the Peam Krasaop site in Koh Kong province and the Ramsar site in Stung Treng province.

“We work with rural communities on natural resource conservation from the grass-root level to find out their concerns about participating in utilizing the natural resources,” he said. “When we know their concerns, we pass on the concerns to policymakers so that they can take the concerns into consideration and give some rights to people to use the natural resources in their areas.”