The government should declare a moratorium on issuing licenses for mineral exploration and extraction until Cambodia can safely manage an industry threatening to scar its landscape and uproot its people, nongovernmental organizations said Tuesday.
In a group statement ahead of next week’s annual aid-pledging conference, a collective of 20 development and human-rights NGOs said Cambodia has yet to map its most important conservation areas, title indigenous land or determine which areas are legally open to private development.
The group also highlighted what it said was flagging government performance in the areas of land management, agriculture, human development and good governance, traditional benchmarks in Cambodia’s development progress.
In a position paper contributed by the NGO Forum on Cambodia and Development and Partnership in Action, the groups said this year’s donor meeting should establish a new benchmark requiring the quarterly public disclosure of all mineral resource licenses, both pending and granted.
“I think it’s important that the government think again in terms of conservation and development, which is more important to them,” DPA Executive Director Mam Sambath said by telephone. “I feel that the mining sector is really affecting the livelihoods of countryside people, especially indigenous people.”
In their paper, the NGOs said mineral exploration licenses, currently granted at “an alarming rate,” now cover more than half of all of Cambodia’s environmental conservation areas.
“If exploitation on this scale goes ahead, the impact would be unimaginable to most Cambodians,” the report said.
The scant legal framework governing mining currently makes confidential all official documentation on companies involved in mineral exploration and extraction, meaning that environmental impact assessments are often kept secret as well, it said.
Villagers in Preah Vihear, Stung Treng and Mondolkiri provinces report unauthorized extraction and have been fenced out of their forests, given notice of eviction with no plan for resettlement or coerced into selling their land, the report states.
The NGO statement comes as the mining industry worldwide is experiencing marked contraction due to plummeting metal prices and the collapse of credit markets.
As a result, up to $50 billion in mineral development projects may be delayed, Credit Suisse Group said last month.
Australian miner Oz Minerals announced Tuesday it was cutting $440 million in spending by delaying projects, including the planned expansion of its flagship copper mine in Laos, and cutting operating budgets. However, company executives say its explorations in Cambodia will proceed as planned.
Suy Sem, minister of Industry, Mines and Energy, said Tuesday that explorations in Cambodia had not yet slowed as a result of the financial crisis but that authorities here had the industry well under control.
There is no need for any moratorium, he said.
“Companies are just walking through the forest and drilling some land to test for minerals,” he said, adding that the government would revoke the licenses of companies damaging the environment.
“Exploration does not affect the environment, but we have to be careful when they operate,” Suy Sem added.
Environment Minister Mok Mareth drew hackles from conservation groups in 2007 after saying Cambodia’s sanctuaries and protected forests, which cover more than a quarter of the nation’s landmass, were less than “sacrosanct” and could be mined.
The government has since said that conservation mapping for the most ecologically sensitive areas, required under the recently enacted law on protected areas, will only be performed after mineral deposits have been located.
Suy Sem also said that Cambodia is aware of what hangs in the balance.
“We wouldn’t do something to destroy our country,” he said. “The government has already reviewed the balance of damage and benefits from mining,” he said.
“If you knew there were a thousand tons of gold under a thousand trees, what would you do?” he asked. “We would choose to take out the gold, and we could replant the trees after that.”