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Cambodia: Working to avoid the resource curse

By Andrea Perera
Meng Mom (far left) and her family live so close to a Chinese gold mine in Cambodia, they can reflect their home in a mirror while standing in front of the exploration pit. Photo: Isabelle Lesser / Oxfam America.

In the northeastern forests of Cambodia, indigenous communities make little contact with outsiders. Roads leading into these communities are usually muddy and treacherous, only traversable by skilled motorcyclists, each willing to slosh through the muck or whip through densely thicketed ravines and gullies. 

Travel from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, to places like these usually takes a two full day’s ride, from dawn til dusk. And that’s if the river near the end of trip is low enough to pass.

With the recent discovery of gold, bauxite, and other minerals in these forests, however, once remote areas like these are now seeing a steady trickle of new visitors. Roads wide enough for tractors and trailers are popping up here and there, neatly dug out and graded. When the weather is dry, you can see the heavy equipment from mining companies lumbering past, inscribed with the characters of the company’s Chinese or Korean owners.

It is a moment of great change, opportunity, and risk here. There has been a boom of foreign investment in the extraction of the minerals in the forests -- and oil and gas off and onshore. Major investors include Chevron, BHP, and Total. Minor investors include Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, South Korean, and Vietnamese companies, which can be hard to identify by name, let alone to glean  further information about. 

“We ordinary people do not even know the names of the companies. They won’t tell us,” said Meng Mom, who can see and hear the exploration pit of a Chinese gold mine from the front steps of her home in Prey Meas village, otherwise known as the “Forest of Gold” in Mondulkiri province.

 The Cambodian people, while enthusiastic about the news of the resource discoveries, are largely under-educated about the associated threats. While they see the possibility of new jobs, they know very little if anything at all about the looming potential of a “resource curse” in Cambodia -- when countries rich with national resources become poorer because of their extraction. 

Community response

More than 50 percent of Cambodians are under the age of 30 as a result of the genocide, which ended in 1979. This younger generation and the growing “middle class” have begun to demand a better quality of life, which includes responsible governance at all levels. This new wave of interest in governance represents real potential in Cambodia. If the younger generation can be reached via mass media and the Internet, they could work to hold their government accountable about its collaboration with foreign oil, gas, and mining companies.

Within the forests where minerals have been discovered, the people are much less empowered. Many living in the forests are indigenous groups; they are often distrusted by the rest of the Khmer population, and are put at a disadvantage by weak land titling laws, which do not usually recognize their traditional occupation of the land. As a result, indigenous communities, which depend on the forests and the surrounding land for what they can collect for food, water, fuel, construction materials, and medicine, receive very little information. And they may not always receive fair compensation for relocation if mining operations move in. The situation is particularly difficult for women, who often need their husband’s permission to be included on land titles.

Government and company response

Several government development plans have put the oil, gas, and mining industries at their core. The government is making good steps toward the development and strengthening of relevant legislation including a petroleum law.  However, often there is a lack of law enforcement, and environmental compliance is often ignored. The government is considering whether to sign on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which sets a global standard for transparency in oil, gas, and mining. In the meantime, they have developed an inter-ministerial working group on extractive industry revenue management under the banner of Public Financial Management Reform and committed to embed EITI principles in the laws and regulations that are being developed.

Oxfam’s response

Oxfam America continues to advocate greater space for meaningful civil society participation in the decision-making process of all aspects of extractive industries with the Cambodian government and its development partners, such as international financial institutions and bilateral donors. This includes continued advocacy for adoption of EITI. 

In addition, Oxfam’s work has focused on bringing together public sector, private sector, civil society, and international development agencies from throughout Southeast Asia to address issues related to the governance of oil, gas, and mining in Cambodia and the region. It will only be through a transparent and accountable process that the region can harvest the potential from this resource extraction, and use those profits to help poor people through development.

Oxfam and partners have hosted a series of workshops and public forums at communal, provincial, national, and regional levels in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Indonesia, which seek to make connections between private and public groups, discuss ways to create an adequate legal and regulatory environment to manage the nascent extractive industries, and manage unrealistic expectations of what the sector could produce. We are also working to empower women in leadership roles at the grassroots level.

“There is real potential that resource revenues gained from extractive industries can help people move out of poverty,” said Brian Lund, regional director of Oxfam America in East Asia, at an Oxfam workshop on governance of extractive industries in Southeast Asia in April 2010. “But for this to become a reality, the issue of governance at national and regional levels must be addressed.”