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Cambodia's National Assembly welcomed Oxfam America's message late last month that Cambodia can steer clear of the resource curse if it learns from the experiences of other countries. The National Assembly invited Oxfam to help create a new petroleum law, which could ensure that oil revenue spreads wealth in a responsible and transparent way.
"Cambodia needs a very good new petroleum law and expertise from Oxfam and World Bank would be very interesting," said Than Sina, chair of the National Assembly's planning and investment commission, at the first national public forum on extractive industries in April.
Oxfam America organized the event in Phnom Penh, which was attended by more than 130 members of the public, media, government, the private sector, and diplomatic missions.
"It would be a big opportunity for the government to draft a good law. We can't do it by ourselves, but with the help of Oxfam and other groups we have a good chance of making it work – other wise, Cambodia will be like Chad," Sina added. In Chad, a much vaunted plan to direct oil revenues towards poverty reduction, backed by the World Bank, has unraveled and the population has seen few concrete benefits from the oil boom there.
Chevron and other companies are currently exploring oil fields in Cambodian territorial waters. It is possible that oil production could begin in 2010, although the probability of finding significant oil reserves is not known. Sina said that oil and gas exploration represents a great opportunity for Cambodia because other natural resources such as timber and fish are quickly depleting.
Oxfam welcomes and supports the government's intention to work with other organizations to make development that supports poor communities part of the agenda. Our work centers around helping civil society and the wider population engage with the government before the new law is created. The current Cambodian Petroleum Act regulations were adopted by the Council of Ministers in 1991.
Oxfam's extensive extractive industries program in South America, Central America, United States, West Africa, and East Asia seeks to ensure that oil, gas and mining projects are designed in ways that respect the rights of the poor, and contribute to the long-term reduction of poverty.
In several countries, Oxfam has supported local groups to influence the development of new petroleum and mining laws. In Bolivia, for example, the new government's hydrocarbons law increased the rights of local communities to be consulted before oil and gas projects moved forward, and gave the National Assembly the ability to approve individual projects.
"The promise of oil wealth for Cambodia presents an opportunity to reduce poverty. But, experiences from other countries show that, on a variety of economic indicators, those that become dependent on oil as their leading export have often performed worse than countries without oil," said Ian Gary, extractive industries policy advisor for Oxfam America.
"While no country is perfect, there are positive elements of particular country experiences that Cambodia could draw upon. Nigeria, for example, has completed three audits under the "Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative," Gary said.
Oxfam also highlighted the experience of the joint government and civil society Petroleum Revenue Oversight and Control Committee in Chad. While the Chad experiment with oil revenue management has largely unravelled, this Committee formed in 2002 and tasked with approving social spending projects using oil revenues, made some strides to provide checks and balances in government spending. "In many countries, local civil society organizations have played a crucial monitoring role to try to ensure that oil, gas and mining revenues are used for beneficial purposes," Gary said.
Cambodian civil society could draw upon the experiences of other national level coalitions involved in the global Publish What You Pay campaign, which is a coalition over 300 NGOs worldwide who calls for the mandatory disclosure of the payments made by oil, gas and mining companies' to all governments for the extraction of natural resources. Publish What You Pay also calls on resource-rich developing country governments to publish full details on revenues.