Prime Minister Hun Sen said the Tonle Sap River basin should not be designated a World Heritage site on the grounds that fishing and the development of oil and mineral resources might be constrained as a result.
“Soon there will be oil underground—not only in the sea,” he said Monday at a two-day conference hosted by the Asian Development Bank in Phnom Penh.
“When we admit it into World Heritage [listing], we have to discuss it with others. It is ours—why do we need to consult with them if it is ours?” he added.
Hun Sen also said that he was concerned such a designation might impinge on the region’s thriving fishing industry.
“Khmer people have been catching fish since Angkorian times,” he said.
“They are used to getting fish for eating and…they would not be able to,” if the Tonle Sap area became a World Heritage site, he said.
Teruo Jinnai, who heads the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Cambodia, said Tuesday that designation as a World Heritage site would not affect fishing.
Less clear, he said, was what such a designation would portend for natural resource development.
An application for World Heritage designation for the Tonle Sap would have to be made by the Cambodian government, and no such application has been made. However, Unesco, which serves as the secretariat for the World Heritage list, has been encouraging the government to apply, he said.
In 1997, the Tonle Sap lake and surrounding floodplain were designated a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, which established zones with different levels of protection and development for the area but also permitted natural resource extraction, Teruo Jinnai said.
There are no financial penalties for violating protective conditions set out for World Heritage sites.
Urooj Malik, the director of ADB’s agriculture, environment, and natural resources division in Southeast Asia, said he believed the Tonle Sap should be designated a World Heritage site.
“Nearly 3 million people depend on this area for their livelihood,” he said. “It’s not just a national resource. It’s a regional resource because of its connection to the Mekong River.”