The extraction of Cambodia’s natural resources is a sovereign matter and not to be dictated to the government, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Wednesday.
Speaking in Phnom Penh at the launch of a government study on trade strategy, Hun Sen said he was responding to a report that six of Cambodia’s largest conservation organizations are seeking to meet with Environment Minister Mok Mareth later this month to discuss resource extraction in protected areas.
“This morning I saw in the newspaper that there is a group that wants to meet with Mok Mareth about conservation,” the premier said. “We are balancing between conservation and development. Underneath the soil there are valuable minerals, gold and diamonds,” Hun Sen said. “We’re doing exploration. Don’t be suspicious of us,” he said.
In an Oct 31 letter, BirdLife International, Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International, Wildlife Alliance, the Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF said recent remarks by Mok Mareth suggested their work over the last 12 years had been “in vain.”
In a Sept 12 interview, the minister said Cambodia had the right to extract all of its natural resources, even in the most sensitive parts of protected areas deemed crucial to preserving biodiversity.
A meeting between Mok Mareth and the NGOs is scheduled for Dec 18.
Hun Sen said decisions on natural resource extraction were Cambodia’s to make alone.
“Some countries cleared their forests for development but now they are preventing us,” he said. “Cambodia is a sovereign state. We will act.”
In an e-mail Wednesday, Mok Mareth said he intended to stress the balanced nature of government policy at the Dec 18 meeting with the conservation groups.
“I will have more explanation to the six NGOs to be sure that the national strategy on the conservation and the development is well balanced,” he wrote.
Bas van Helvoort, spokesman for the group of six NGOs, said in an interview Wednesday that the organizations were not seeking to dictate policy to the government.
“We fully acknowledge Cambodia’s sovereign right to pursue its own mining policy in this country,” he said. “We’re not opposed to any kind of development but we like to have it carefully planned to make it environmentally sustainable and socially equitable.”
In his speech Monday, Hun Sen said he had in the past taken decisions that favored development over preservation.
“I didn’t agree that we should make the Cardamom [Mountains] a World Heritage Site. There is hydroelectricity in the mountains. It is our battery,” he said.
In April, a confidential review commissioned by the UN Development Program claimed Hun Sen had opposed naming the Phnom Samkos and Phnom Aural wildlife sanctuaries as a UN World Heritage Site.
The 334,000-hectare Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, which spans Pursat, Koh Kong and Battambang provinces, is now being explored for millions of tons of minerals, including antimony and chromium.
Balancing environmental concerns with commercial interests has recently preoccupied officials in neighboring Thailand, The Bangkok Post newspaper reported Wednesday.
The Thai Industry Ministry has suspended 56 gold exploration license applications, 44 of which were submitted by the Australian mining firm Kingsgate, pending a review by the country’s Environment Ministry, “especially for sites in reserved forests and public areas,” the newspaper reported.
Mok Mareth said Monday that the Cambodian Environment Ministry is drafting standard contracts to ensure mining companies respect the environment.
“We now will require all companies to sign this contract,” he said.