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Locals Want More Say in Resource Development

[Editor’s note: VOA Khmer recently spoke with specialists in the field of natural resource management in developing countries and learned that Cambodiais 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 16 of the original VOA Khmer weekly series, airing Sundays in Cambodia.]

Local communities, civic groups, media and even law enforcement often have the least opportunities, if any at all, to get involved in the management of timber, oil, minerals and other resources, experts warn.

That means policies that are often set by international experts and the government are little understood by the people most affected.

Petter Stigset is a senior advisor for oil and development at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, which works with Cambodian National Petroleum Authority.

Involvement by many groups can help shed light on how resources are developed, he said.

“To get the civil society, to get the media involved, to get NGOs involved, to try to find out what is actually happening, and to have a good and constructive dialogue with the authority, with the government, it’s really the most important,” he said. “Also, to be able to ask the right question and make sure that no damage is being done to Cambodians and the Cambodian economy.”

More local groups are becoming aware of their role.

“However, we see that participation of civil society and the public is limited in the drafts of bill, policies and decrees, in particular the policies and laws related to the management of natural resources,” said Mam Sambath, Chairman of Board of Directors of Cambodians for Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency. “I think the government should be encouraged to see the important role of the community and the public so that it provides the community with adequate opportunity to share its inputs to make the policies and laws accurate and to effectively protect the benefits of the country and the local community.”

Nguon Nhel, vice president of the National Assembly, said the government understands the importance of stakeholders, especially local communities. The government has encouraged the formation of groups to care for fisheries and forests, he said.

Even so, some groups say they have not had the influence they would like.

Ly Lim, chief of the Romeas Pon Mchul Forest Community, in Kratie province, has been trying to build local networks of forestry communities that might be able to lobby at the provincial level. So far, he said, communities have not had a chance to participate in decision-making “at all.”

Sroeun Mach is a representative of a minority Pnong ethnic community in Keo Seima district, Mondolkiri province, and a member of the National Network for Social and Environmental Impacts by Extractive Industry. In his area, the Cambodian Highlight Mineral Company, Ltd., has been licensed for gold exploration.

“I have never had an opportunity to voice my concerns,” he said. “When they came, they did not inform our local community. They came with their teams and security guards. We saw them digging near our [tropical] trees, from which we take wood oil for living.”

A representative of the company said it had twice discussed its operations with the community in an attempt to solve unforeseen impacts. It also allows villagers to collect from trees on sites where the company is licenses, the official said.

Even so, Sroeun Mach would like to see more engagement from his community in the entire process.

“I would like to request the government that before granting concessions to private companies to invest for the country’s development, the government should come down and study, so that our community can give inputs and be informed,” he said. “If the government does not come down to study and [continues to] allow private companies to do business, it will impact most of the ethnic identity in my Mondolkiri province.”