As an increasing number of oil and mining companies turn their sights on Southeast Asia, Oxfam America is working to prepare the region for the impacts the industries will have on people and the environment.
After a preliminary meeting in August, Oxfam brought together a number of key organizations in January, including World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and PACT Cambodia. The groups reviewed proposed oil and mining projects and discussed ways to ensure that future revenues contribute to sustainable development in the region.
In recent months, companies from the US, China, and Australia have scrambled to obtain mining rights in Cambodia, a country rich in untapped resources. BHP Billiton, Southern Gold, Oxiana, Chevron, and other companies have signed deals with the government to explore indigenous lands, including protected forests, for minerals such as bauxite, gold and copper and offshore areas for oil and gas.
"The rapid pace of the development means that we might not have a say about if it happens, but more how it happens," said Warwick Browne, a program officer in Oxfam America's East Asia office.
The future revenues from the extraction of resources could add up to several billions of dollars a year in the near future, according to estimates by local organizations. That amount is expected to dwarf Cambodia's current economy, which is currently based on foreign aid, agriculture, and garment manufacturing.
With that sort of cash influencing the government's actions, Oxfam and other non-governmental organizations say they will have to act as watchdogs over the burgeoning extractive industries, making sure that the affected indigenous people get a say in the whole development process—and if and when oil and mining projects should even move forward on their ancestral lands.
"Now they're just exploring, but it's important to get people involved early on. By participating, we want to avoid environmental, social, and cultural impacts," said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of The NGO Forum on Cambodia, an Oxfam partner. "We also want to empower communities to have some decision-making power."
NGOs have long played an important role in advocating for Cambodian people and their rights over natural resources. Back in the early 1980s, when the country began rebuilding after the devastating reign of the Khmer Rouge, groups like WWF and WCS began their campaign to conserve the forests of the northeast highlands, those threatened then by a sudden influx of illegal logging, and now by the extraction of minerals.
The organizations made the issue a zero-sum game, said Joe Walston, country program director for WCS. There was little conversation about how logging revenue could help Cambodia, only about how it would hurt the affected ethnic communities and biodiversity. With mining, the groups need to think more broadly and consider how mining could actually fuel the economy, Walston said.
The biggest challenge for Cambodia will be avoiding the "resource curse." when countries rich in resources are essentially cursed by their bounty instead of blessed by it. Unable to translate their resources into a strong economy, some countries actually become poorer when large-scale mineral, gas, and oil companies generate export revenues that are either squandered or misused.
"Oxfam and its partners need to engage with the government and corporations to make sure that affected communities are not left worse off," Browne said. "At the same time, Cambodia needs to follow best practices and international standards so that oil, gas, and mining can be managed in a just and equitable way."