Gov’t Debates Ethnic Minority Say Over Development Projects

Facing pushback from a provincial official, the Environment Ministry on Wednesday defended provisions in a draft environmental code that would give indigenous minorities a strong say over proposed projects that could impact their communities.

The exchange came during a public workshop in Phnom Penh on the government’s proposed Environment and Natural Resources Code, a sweeping bill that would combine and update all environmental laws in hopes of improving protection and management.

The country’s many ethnic indigenous minorities have long complained of being steamrolled by government-backed projects, including dams and rubber farms, with little to no input and at the expense of their land and culture. The draft code would require their “free, prior and informed consent” before such projects are approved.

At Wednesday’s workshop, however, deputy provincial governor of Stung Treng Duong Pov said the code should also include clear exemptions to prior consent rules in order to maintain the government’s ability to push ahead with projects deemed to be in the country’s best interests.

Though the deputy governor did not identify any specific projects, his province is home to what will be the country’s largest hydropower dam, the Lower Sesan II, when it opens next month. Some 5,000 people have been forced out of their homes to make way for the reservoir; many of them, including some predominantly-ethnic minority communities, say they had little or no chance to weigh in on the evictions.

“This is something that we have concerns with, a little concern,” Mr. Pov said. “Because if the indigenous minorities have concerns, we cannot proceed.”

The code “should state that the expropriation law can be applied,” he said, with the requisite opportunities for affected communities to negotiate compensation.

If those communities can veto projects that stand to serve the broader public good, Mr. Pov said, “then such a project cannot proceed and there will be huge economic impact. So I think we need to be flexible.”

However, Chea Sam Ang, who runs the Environment Ministry’s nature conservation and protection administration, sounded unequivocal about the need for prior consent for indigenous minorities.

Before making any decision concerning indigenous ethnic groups, “it is required to have approval from the ethnic group first, with prior and full consent, and free, without any fear,” he said.

Mr. Sam Ang said the code would give “priority, rights and advantage to the ethnic minorities.”

“If you don’t thoroughly review it, there will be misunderstanding, because there could be misunderstanding when [people say] we don’t need the indigenous groups for every decision. It’s not true,” he said.

“Before making any decision, we definitely need to have an agreement first.”

However, the code also refers to “involuntary resettlement” when “unavoidable.” It does not appear to specify under what circumstances that could apply.

Choeun Sreymom, one of about 100 Stung Treng families still refusing to leave their homes for the Lower Sesan II reservoir, welcomed the draft code’s proposal to give indigenous minorities the chance to reject projects.

But she also complained that officials often ignore legal provisions with impunity and said the new code would only be as helpful as the government’s will to enforce it.

“Those who are supposed to implement it, they never enforce it, they only act against the law,” said Ms. Sreymom, an ethnic Bunong.

“If we are offered rights to raise our concerns and they listen to our approval, it would be very right.”

An independent 2012 study concluded the dam would reduce fish stocks by nearly a tenth across the Mekong River Basin, a major hit to a staple of the local diet. The government says Cambodia needs the dam, and several more still pending approval, to reduce some of the highest electricity prices in the region and help spur investment.

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