[Editor’s note: Asean integration will start at end of this year, opening the region to a free flow of goods and services across borders. But many analysts say Cambodia will have a difficult time integrating and benefiting from the cooperation. There are other downsides, as well. VOA Khmer recently spoke with Toek Vannara, director of the NGO Forum, to discuss the likely environmental problems Cambodia and other countries could face if they do not act to protect their natural resources.]
VOA Khmer: Could you tell us about your concerns regarding environmental problems that we may face when the Asean countries integrate?
The important issues are related to the management of natural resources after the integration of Asean at the end of 2015. This is an important issue, which occurs in the Greater Mekong sub-region. We’ve seen that forests have been turned into plantations, meaning agro-industry, so that countries process raw materials to export to Asean states, as well as other countries internationally. This could cause significant impacts. Turing forests into plantations could lead to the lost of the forests, biodiversity, and agriculture issues.
We’ve seen this kind of land use in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma. They have turned natural forests into plantations. The other concerning issue is forest watershed management. Also, each country is competitive on energy. Some countries have a number of energy developments in the lower Mekong region. There are major scale hydropower developments on the Mekong River. This could lead to challenges of food shortages, because it negatively impacts fisheries, agriculture, water systems and biodiversity, as well as the state of the entire Mekong River itself. Cambodian people, as well as other people living in the Mekong River basin, will be hurt. They rely entirely on the use of water resources of the Mekong River to support their livelihood.
What are the reasons behind the change of forests to plantations?
The main reason is that countries in the region believe that in order to produce raw materials for export, they have to produce processed products that can compete with those of other countries. We’ve seen that Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia have turned much of their forest to plantations. That’s why we’ve seen in Thai and Cambodian markets, there are many kinds of processed food from agricultural products, for example, canned pineapple and rambutan. These come from turning natural forest to agro-industry in order to export to countries in the region. They [the governments] think that these can provide people work, which leads to an economic boom.
If you look at the state of their livelihoods, sustainability, the government has to think about balancing the economy with preserving natural resource, so that we can give space to people who live under the poverty line to be able to live their lives, since those forest and wild products are collective resources. We have to guarantee the balance, or else some people, whose skills and knowledge are limited, can’t live up to and adapt to Asean integration. They could lose a chance to get food. We have to think about biodiversity and ecology. If we can protect them well, we can ensure people’s wellbeing.
I’ll give you the example of the Mekong River. If the water gets contaminated because of major hydropower dams or agro-industry, or water waste flows into the river; 60 million people that rely on the river resources will face health issues. Then who will be responsible for their health? Poor people who are affected by the water will spend their money on healing. Their livelihoods will also be affected.
What should the government do to balance the economy and the environment?
They have to have a clear plan for the use of collective resources. For example, the Mekong River flows from China through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The five countries should have a master plan to equitably and sustainably make use of the river. The countries on the upper Mekong should leave space for the countries on the lower Mekong, so they can benefit from the development of the river and can use resources equally to support livelihoods. We believe in a master plan with the approval or consensus from the six countries on how to benefit from Mekong equally and sustainably.
What should the government do to make sure that people benefit from Asean integration?
The government should accelerate the recognition of forest-related fishing communities, communities in protected areas and indigenous communities. They especially should accelerate the registration of collective land for indigenous people, so they have a legal framework to protect the forest. A legal framework means recognition of their rights to better protect, use and manage natural resources.
Who profits from the environment when Asean integrates?
If we talk about the major agro-industry, we see Thailand and Vietnam, because they are advanced in the development of agro-industry, and they have achieved a lot in agricultural markets. Laos and Cambodia still have a lot of natural resources, but industrial crops are still in small size. So the countries like Laos and Burma, which have opened to a free economy recently have to weight what to do to better profit from the environment, while the three mainland countries in Asean have industrial developments.
What kind of people will be affected from this integration?
People who have low knowledge and don’t know how to use technology. They cannot be an entrepreneur, or become the owner of a small or medium-sized enterprise, or become the owner of a factory, because of their technical skills and knowledge, especially indigenous people. They will be affected by change, turning natural resources to afro-industry.
What provinces will face the biggest environmental impacts?
We can’t tell. If we do not have any good management, every place will be exposed to environmental damage. Environment and natural resources, as I said, are divided into two types. Green areas consist of forest resources, biodiversity, wildlife, and water resources. And brown areas relate to solid waste that is sent from industrial plants, cities and downtowns.
What should the government do to protect the environment?
I'm talking about the natural landscape regarding this topic, so I’ll focus on forest-related matters. Forest resources in the Asean region, as well as in Asian countries, means Asean countries in the Mekong River region. When we strengthen Asean connectivity, it means connection, infrastructure, in order to improve transport from country to country. We have to clearly separate protected areas, such as national parks and preservation areas. We have to ensure that major plans won’t damage core areas, as we develop key infrastructure, such as Asean railroads, or any shortcut roads. Regarding the development of energy-related, large-scale hydroelectric dams on the main areas of the Mekong River, we need to think about the possible impact on food security. These are major issues that we have to consider. We also have to think about the impact of the turning forests into plantation, and what level we can and can’t do it.