[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 11 of the original VOA Khmer weekly series, airing Sundays in Cambodia.]
Cambodian citizens are rarely given a chance to be meaningfully involved in managing the country’s natural resources, even though they own them in principal, and they are unlikely to have a chance to do so in the near future, experts say.
The government’s working culture and the existing mechanisms for resource management are impediments to participation by citizens, who nevertheless find themselves wooed during elections.
“The government should listen to citizens’ opinions about the management of natural resources in Cambodia and other challenges, such as the degradation of the environment,” said Lao Monghay, a researcher at the Asian Rights Commission in Hong Kong. “The government must take these under consideration, respond and take effective measures.”
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 public input is important, but the public must be informed.
“The government won’t get it right unless the critical mass of citizens understands the issue,” Collier said. “The citizens have to get up and speak, especially [because] managing natural resources involves the future. These resources are going to run out. So extracting these resources needs to lead to a legacy of good investment for the future.”
Chea Vannath, an independent analyst and founder of the Center for Social Development, told VOA Khmer by phone that Cambodians’ knowledge about natural resources is limited, allowing policymakers to ignore them.
“Even though they see natural resource transactions, they do not know whether they are legal or illegal,” she said. “They don’t know whether they should stage a demonstration. They are not clear. If they raise their concerns about what impacts their lives, the concerns are usually stuck at local authority levels. There is no mechanism to pass the concerns from local authorities to provincial authorities to ministerial levels in the capital. There is no bridge to pass on such concerns.”
Despite such criticism, National Assembly Vice President Nguon Nhel told VOA Khmer by phone that the government encourages the public’s role in resource management.
“Now the government encourages people to form communities so that they can be owners of nature,” Nguon Nhel said. “We have forest protection communities, fish protection communities. So, they fish in their fishing areas and protect them at the same time. work with local authorities to arrest abusers. So creating communities is beneficial, so that people are able to exercise their rights of ownership.”
Sarom, a truck driver in Phnom Penh who asked he not be fully identified, told VOA Khmer by phone that he understands ordinary citizens have responsibilities, but political pressure and starvation hamper them from thinking about anything else.
“It happens only in developed countries,” Sarom said. “The development in our country is very little. About 30 to 40 percent of Cambodian people are poor. They are not simply poor, but the poorest, with nothing to eat daily. Therefore, how can people have a chance to think about natural resource management? When they are starving, they don’t have a brain to think about anything else.”
According to New Zealand’s International Aid and Development Agency, while 40 percent of the Cambodian population has expenditure levels well below the poverty line, with 15 to 20 percent in extreme poverty. And while their livelihoods depend heavily on natural resources, the country’s natural resources have been dramatically degraded.
Saroeun, a 45 year-old resident of Kampong Speu province, told VOA Khmer by phone that he knows that, as a citizen in a democratic country, he has a responsibility to safeguard natural resources, but can’t do anything.
He sees mountains near his home destroyed and carried off as rocks in trucks.
“First we lost natural resources that existed over generations,” Saroeun said. “When they destroy them, we lose them and their beauty. Transporting those [rocks] destroys the road. In the past, I didn’t know what they used the rock for, but since I was born I used to see more mountains than now.”