By: Our Correspondent

 

 

cambodiamineCambodia’s
once-abundant natural resources, whose timber reserves already were
stripped to fund its disastrous civil war, are ripe for more
exploitation. Saddled with a weak and often corrupt government, it is
now in danger of seeing its mineral rights looted, as even officials
charged with protecting the environment say the time has come to
sacrifice some protected areas to mining development.

Environment
Minister Mok Mareth said in a recent interview that a balance must be
struck between conservation and development, hinting that the balance
would fall on the side of development. "There are too many
people worried that it may destroy all the resources, all
biodiversity, all ecosystems," he said. "Of course, it's
right. It destroys some part, not all. We have to understand that."

In
considering exploitation, the ministry obtains binding guarantees
that companies will respect the environment and not harm indigenous
rights, he claimed, adding that Cambodia was in the process of
changing from "100 percent conservation" to a system that
can accommodate development.

"We're
in the phase of what we call transition," he said.

The
issue of how that transition is handled came to the fore in recent
weeks when, through a little-known Australian firm, Indochine
Resources, two flamboyant Australians won the right to explore for
unnamed minerals in 180,000 hectares, or 54 percent, of Cambodia’s
Asean-heritage listed Virachey National Park. The concession itself
was as big as 254,600 hectares.

Both
the Cambodian Environment Ministry and the World Bank, which has
funded the management and conservation of the park to the tune of
nearly $5 million, were caught by surprise.

The
two are geologist Jeremy Snaith and David Evans, who in April became
known across Australia as the “bananas in pajamas” after
their nude antics aboard a Sydney-Abu Dhabi flight and subsequent
arrest for sexual harassment and drunkenness forced them out of their
company, Jupiter Mines. That an area so large and so sensitive was
now in the hands of men ensnared by a drunken slapstick scandal gave
pause to some. The World Bank, for one, announced it was seeking
clarification from the government.

“[W]e
continue to encourage the government of Cambodia to make good choices
when they pick business partners… to ensure that their
partners are committed to socially and environmentally responsible
development,” a World Bank official wrote in an email.

A
rumor in Phnom Penh held that a more reputable Australian mining firm
also seeking the concession had been beaten out by Indochine
Resources. The case is only one chapter in an unfolding story in
Cambodia, which devotes a surprisingly large share of its territory
to conservation. According to a 1992 review by the UN's World
Conservation Monitoring Center, Cambodia's set-aside level of 26.3
percent was far higher than the land reserved for conservation in
Thailand (16.3 percent), the US (11 percent), Indonesia (10 percent)
or Australia (5.3 percent).

The
country’s 32 environmentally protected areas, such as Virachey
National Park, cover more than a quarter of its landmass. These areas
also contain gold, copper, chromium and bauxite, creating the
potential for Cambodia’s regulators to see dollar signs without
foreseeing desolation.

Critics
question whether Cambodia has the means, or even the desire, to
control how and where mines are dug, or to determine whether the
environmental damage they cause is acceptable. Global Witness, the
environmental watchdog, has contended that the country’s
natural resources until now have formed little more than a cash cow
for the country’s elite and that exploiting Cambodia's
resources in the absence of the rule of law will not necessarily lead
to development or increased prosperity.

For
their part, government officials have in recent months repeatedly and
rather ominously from the point of view of environmentalists, said
that riches to help lift Cambodia out of poverty should not be beyond
reach simply because they lie buried beneath the turf of an
endangered species.

Environment
chief Mok Mareth maintained that the 47,845 square kilometers of land
devoted to protecting the environment are hardly sacrosanct.

Critics
who feel his ministry is weak and routinely shoved aside in favor of
more muscular industrial interests simply do not understand, he
added.

"When
we developed that," Mok Mareth said of Cambodia's system of
protected areas, first created in 1993 around the time that the UN
mandate period ended, "we didn't know all the potential of our
natural resources, our richness. So we need to have the exploration.”

Cambodia
is hardly different from much of the rest of the world, where many
protected areas are also routinely open to mining. Authorities permit
mining in about 78 percent of South Australia's 332 protected areas,
according to the state's regional government.

In
Cambodia, however, the matter comes down to a question of management.
At a 2004 workshop, Environment Ministry officials and conservation
NGOs found that mining was already occurring in nine protected areas
and threatening 13 of them.

Since
then, the government has lifted a prohibition on mining in protected
areas and has invited companies like Indochine Resources as well as
BHP Billiton, Southern Mining Company and Oxiana Ltd to explore for
minerals   sometimes in parts of sanctuaries believed to be
crucial for protecting biodiversity.

All
four companies have promised to be good to Cambodia's environment.
But such deals are being struck even though many of the country's
protected areas are under-funded, understaffed, lack comprehensive
management plans and most importantly, do not have zoning to protect
their most environmentally sensitive areas. These problems, outlined
by the 2004 workshop, persist to this day, NGOs say.

Seng
Teak, country director for the Worldwide Fund for Nature, said last
week that certain core zones must be protected from mining, as the
viability of other ecosystems depends on them.

It's
called a core zone, he said, "You can't touch that area from a
biodiversity point of view."

Mok
Mareth said, however, that a consensus with other ministries had
emerged that even future core zones were not necessarily off limits
for exploitation.

"We
got already the reaction, even from the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry
of Industry, Ministry of Agriculture and others," he said.

"They
also raised the concern: If I accept conservation of this area, a
core zone, if we can find a billion dollars for the mining there, how
can we exploit these millions of dollars in this area?”

“We
did not define any core zones to date," he added.

However,
Seng Teak said Cambodia is simply not yet ready to deliver its
protected areas into the hands of mining companies.

"I
think it may be too early to bring the companies in to invest in the
protected areas. It has to have clear zoning," he said. "The
right to use the resources should be based on a clear land use plan
first."

In
weighing development against conservation, the government is poised
to make a fateful decision, Seng Teak said.

"The
crossroads is balancing the two, because the government sees economic
development as a priority and conservation second," he said.
"It's a challenge to make that decision."