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Conferences call for action

Pathways to sustainable development in the Asia Pacific region are often sidestepped

in favor of fast track highways to economic growth, said participants at two recent

conferences on the subject in the capital. Among the costs were increased poverty

and the marginalization of already disadvantaged people. Environment Minister Mok

Mareth said little progress had been made on sustainable development goals in the

region.

"In the decade since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 we have learned much about

sustainable development, but our action is not in accordance with that knowledge,"

he said. The summit, he said, was a "wake up call" for Cambodia, which

with its unique environment, culture and history should create its own path learning

from the mistakes of other nations.

In his opening speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen told delegates the government recognized

the need for radical reform in resource management.

"There is a crucial need to preserve the forests for future generations and

maintain the ecological and biodiversity balance," he said.

That was easier said than done, said Tep Bunnarith, director of the Culture and Environment

Preservation Association. Although there were laws protecting natural resources,

implementation was weak, he said.

"[It seems good] on paper, but I'm not so sure they can implement it,"

he said. "If the government wants to commit to protecting natural resources

it has to commit to making laws and enforcing them."

Civil society groups at the first meeting included NGOs, women's organizations and

indigenous people's groups. They were angry over the government's lack of commitment

to sustainable development in the ten years since the Rio Summit. The result of that

was that natural resources were exhausted and communities lost autonomy over their

traditional resources which increased poverty.

NGO Forum's Mak Sothearith agreed the government acknowledged the need for sustainable

development, but said mismanagement, corruption and lack of enforcement meant policies

were largely toothless. He said concession companies exploited natural resources

at unsustainable rates, depriving many of the country's rural population of their

traditional livelihoods. He said Cambodia's journey to development should be a slow

one.

"This is the time for us to learn the lessons of countries such as Thailand

and Malaysia and make sure these mistakes are not made [here]," he said. "There

is still time to take a different path and to find a new way of doing things."

Around 100 representatives from civil society met at the Asian Regional People's

Forum November 25-26 to discuss sustainable development. That meeting was followed

by a gathering of 500 government and civil society delegates at the Asia Pacific

Summit on Sustainable Development November 27-29. The two conferences are preparatory

meetings prior to the world summit in South Africa next year.

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