Hopes, Doubts as Environmental Code Finalized

The new Environmental Code, a sweeping piece of legislation that is set to overhaul how protected and communal land are governed and give unprecedented control to the Environment Ministry, was finalized on Sunday and will be released to the public this week, those involved in drafting it said.

Environment Minister Say Sam Al, who must sign the code before it is sent to the Council of Ministers for review, has said the new law, complete with its own courts for environmental disputes, is nothing short of revolutionary—a vision shared by the lawyers who have been working on it.

“With its provisions on access to information, public participation, explicit safeguards and citizens’ rights, the code will be the most comprehensive piece of human rights legislation ever enacted by the Cambodian government,” said Brian Rohan of the Vishnu Law Group.

Under the code, some 40 percent of Cambodia’s land is put under the control of the Ministry of Environment. All of that land, as the law stands, is eligible to be jointly controlled by local authorities and the communities who depend on it for their livelihoods.

Many of those who would be most affected by the law remain doubtful about how much change it will bring, and whether it will offer them any land security at all.

Cambodia’s northeast—particularly within indigenous societies who use land communally —is buzzing with discussion about the new law, said Ly Sam Oeun, a community leader in Ratanakkiri province’s Krolah village.

“Word is getting around, even to those who live far from town,” Mr. Sam Oeun said. “The people who have seen the law, they say the law is good.”

But good intentions don’t mean successful implementation, he said, adding that most rural residents would wait and see how things went before forming a judgment.

“[Indigenous communities] haven’t seen or met the people in charge, those who lead the government and use their power over the people. If these people don’t practice the law, things will be the same,” he said.

Others have made up their minds about the Environmental Code already. Bun Thai, a monitor for rights group Licadho in Ratanakkiri, said local officials had convinced him that the law would only hurt the indigenous communities it is meant to help.

“It will still be difficult for the societies. They will still have to apply for the rights and title to co-manage their land with the government,” he said. “The new process is faster and more convenient, but only for the government.”

Moreover, he said, he was uneasy about how the law would share power between the ministry and local communities.

“It won’t really be [their] title,” he said, explaining that under the new law there were a number of ways a community could lose rights to co-manage land.

“If I buy a moto and you—the state—can take it back anytime you want, well, it’s not really my moto. We’re just borrowing land from the state.”

Thomas Gray, director of science for the NGO Wildlife Alliance, had the opposite concern —that the law gives too much power to local communities.

“As it is currently worded, the entire protected areas system could go under collaborative management. No other country in the world has made such a dramatic experiment,” he said.

He pointed out that collaborative management would allow communities to use land for purposes other than strict conservation, including leasing parts of it to private companies.

Co-management is only one of many measures that will be up for discussion and potentially revision in the weeks to come, as the code is made public and reviewed by the environment minister. The law will need to be passed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet and voted on at the National Assembly and in the Senate before it comes into force.

The law itself covers a wide range of topics, from transparency in how environmental impact assessments are conducted to protecting communal fisheries and curbing noise pollution. Forceful provisions regarding access to information are included throughout.

“Reform doesn’t come easily,” said Mr. Rohan, acknowledging fears that the code’s more promising measures would never be implemented. However, he added, the best hope for preserving Cambodia’s fish and forests was to give the law a chance.

“Once this code is enacted all of us—citizens, civil society, partners, all of us—will have a decision to make,” he said. “Do we sit on the side and dismiss it as political trickery, or do we each do whatever we can to bring it to life?”

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