In the 32 environmental conservation areas now covering more than a quarter of Cambodia’s total landmass, there is gold, copper, chromium and bauxite.
Riches to help lift Cambodia out of poverty should not be beyond reach simply because they lie buried beneath the habitats of the spiny mountain frog, the chestnut-headed partridge, the green peafowl, or the roots of the Siamese cycad and other globally endangered animal and plant species, the government feels.
Indeed, the 47,845 square kilometers of land devoted to protecting them are hardly sacrosanct, Environment Minister Mok Mareth said in an interview Wednesday.
He also said that critics who feel his ministry is weak on enforcement, and routinely shoved aside in favor of more muscular industrial interests, simply do not understand the situation or his philosophy.
“When we developed that,” Mok Mareth said of Cambodia’s system of protected areas, first created in 1993, “we didn’t know all the potential of our natural resources, our richness.”
“So we need to have the exploration,” he said.
Indeed, the share of Cambodia’s territory set aside for conservation is unusually high.
According to a 1992 review by the UN’s World Conservation Monitoring Center, Cambodia’s current level of 26.3 percent is far higher than Thailand’s (16.3), the US’ (11), that of Belize or Indonesia (both 10) or Australia’s (5.3).
Many of the world’s protected areas are also legitimately open to mining. About 78 percent of South Australia’s 332 protected areas are open to mining, according to the state’s regional government.
But some question whether Cambodia has the means, or even the desire, to control how and where mines are dug, or to determine whether the environmental damage they cause is acceptable.
At a 2004 workshop, ministry officials and conservation NGOs found that mining was already occurring in nine protected areas and threatening 13 more.
Since then, the government has lifted the prohibition on mining in protected areas and has invited companies like BHP Billiton, Southern Mining Company and Oxiana Ltd to explore for minerals—sometimes in sanctuaries believed to be crucial for protecting biodiversity.
In July, the government and the little-known Australian firm Indochine Resources revealed that 180,000 hectares, or 54 percent, of Virachey National Park in Ratanakkiri province was to be explored for unnamed minerals.
All four companies have promised to be good to Cambodia’s environment.
But such deals are being struck even though many of the country’s protected areas are under-funded, understaffed, lack comprehensive management plans, and most importantly, do not have zoning to protect their most environmentally sensitive areas—problems outlined by the 2004 workshop and which, NGOs say, persist to this day.
Seng Teak, country director for the Worldwide Fund for Nature, said Thursday that certain “core zones” must be protected from mining, as the viability of other ecosystems depends on them.
“It’s called the ‘keystones,’” he said. “You can’t touch that area from a biodiversity point of view.”
A law on protected areas, drafted with technical assistance from the World Bank and expected to come before the National Assembly this month, does call for the establishment of four zone types, in only one of which—the “sustainable use” zone—can the government permit mining.
Mok Mareth said, however, that a consensus with other ministries had emerged that, pending the law’s adoption, even future core zones were not necessarily off limits for exploitation.
“We got already the reaction, even from the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Industry, Ministry of Agriculture and others,” he said.
“They also raised the concern: If I accept conservation of this area, a core zone, if we can find a billion dollars for the mining there, how can we exploit these millions of dollars in this area?”
“We did not define any core zones to date,” he said.
Current mineral exploration in protected areas was not a cause for concern, he added.
“There are too many people worried that it may destroy all the resources, all biodiversity, all ecosystems,” he said. “Of course, it’s right. It destroys some part, not all. We have to understand that.”
The ministry also obtains binding guarantees that companies will respect the environment and not harm indigenous rights, he said, adding that Cambodia was in the process of changing from “100 percent conservation” to a system that can accommodate development.
“I think that we’re in the phase of what we call transition,” he said.
However, Seng Teak said Cambodia is simply not yet ready to deliver its protected areas into mining companies’ hands.
“I think it may be too early to bring the companies in to invest in the protected areas. It has to have a clear zoning,” he said. “Giving the right to use the resources should be based on a clear land use plan first.”
In weighing development against conservation, Mok Mareth and the government are poised to make a fateful decision, Seng Teak said.
“The crossroads, the transition that he’s talking about is balancing the two, because the government sees economic development as a priority and conservation second,” he said. “It’s a challenge to make that decision.”
According to Mok Mareth, his ministry is not only meeting this challenge but able to impose its authority.
But an independent report commissioned by the UN Development Program found in April that “government commitment to [protected areas] is unclear,” as “they are not perceived as productive and profitable investments.”
Other ministries often bypassed the Environment Ministry in lobbying for concessions in protected areas while “the ability of [the ministry] to influence government policy is limited [and] depends on support from other ministries,” the report said.
Mok Mareth said that his own ministry had been unaware in July that more than half of Virachey National Park was now open to mining exploration.
But this was only because a letter had not been received and not because the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy had failed to inform the Environment Ministry.
“This is a problem of communication. It doesn’t mean that the minister of mining wants to keep this confidential,” he said. “When I learned of the mining in Virachey National Park, I asked the minister of industry. He said, ‘No, I sent [a letter] to you long time ago.’”
Industry Minister Suy Sem could not be reached Thursday.
SRP Deputy Secretary-General Mu Sochua said Thursday that the government’s attempt to strike a balance between business and conservation was likely to tilt too far in business’ favor.
“It’s a policy that is pro-business and anti-environment, totally,” she said. “Up to now we have had difficulty protecting these sanctuaries.”
“Now we have massive companies investing millions of dollars in a country where the rule of law is so weak,” she said. “The best that this kind of development, this kind of investment, can produce is employment that is not sustainable.”
“It’s going to be a disaster,” she said.
But Mok Mareth said the current moment represented an opportunity.
“You know, in harmonizing with other activities for economic growth, it doesn’t mean you have to protect for protection. It means conservation for economic development,” he said.
“If, for example, in a few years, BHP Billiton says, ‘Oh, there are not sufficient ores of bauxite,’ so then we can fill the wells and replant the trees and keep the same protected area,” he said.
“You say the ministry is weak. I say not weak because I enforce the law.”