With a mixture of hope and hard-earned scepticism, environmentalists from around the country will today get an opportunity most had never dreamed possible: an audience with the prime minister.
About 500 civil society activists have been invited to Phnom Penh for the first National Forum on the Protection and Conservation of Natural Resources, where Prime Minister Hun Sen is scheduled to give opening remarks. Activists will then have a chance to give statements in front of the premier and other top government officials.
“This is a forum to listen to concerns and to show our commitment to protect and preserve natural resources,” Ministry of Environment spokesman Sao Sopheap said.
While activists interviewed yesterday were circumspect about the chances of their recommendations being implemented, they said that the forum is nonetheless an important chance to have their voices heard.
“There is probably some political motivation behind the forum, but I don’t care so much about that. This is the first opportunity for civil society leaders to stand in front of Prime Minster Hun Sen and talk about deforestation and illegal logging,” said But Buntenh, a monk and environmental activist attending the forum.
“Most of the country’s leaders will be there and they haven’t heard from civil society leaders before.”
Buntenh says he plans to speak exclusively about the need to protect the Prey Lang Forest, the largest lowland evergreen forest in Southeast Asia and a place continuously threatened by illegal loggers.
Eight members of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a grassroots group that has long conducted forest patrols and confronted illegal loggers, will also be in attendance.
“We want to ask the prime minister why there is still illegal logging and poaching in protected areas,” said Chea Sokhoeun, a member of the network’s steering committee.
In May, the government passed a sub-decree that created almost 432,000 hectares of protected land in Prey Lang. But activists say the designation has done little to stop the loss of biodiversity, and that officials continue to turn a blind eye to loggers.
During today’s forum, PLCN representatives will submit a proposal asking the premier to recognise their role protecting the forest and to provide technical and financial support for their forest-patrolling efforts.
Curtis Hundley, a representative of Winrock International, a non-profit that helped organise activists to attend the forum, says environmental protection is gathering steam in Cambodia.
“There is a lot of momentum now and donors are very interested in supporting this,” Hundley said.
“If the government really wanted to stop illegal logging, I believe it could be done quite quickly and it would last,” he added. “And maybe it’s time . . . We have an aggressive Ministry of Environment and I have a lot of confidence in the minister and his team.”
Others have been less confident in recent government efforts. A Post investigation earlier this year found that a much-heralded crackdown on illegal logging in the eastern provinces was riddled with graft and had done little to stymie the flow of timber to Vietnam.
Activists attending today’s forum, meanwhile, say they’re excited the prime minister is starting to pay attention to environmental issues, though some are concerned that the number of attendees at today’s forum could mean their voices will be drowned out.
“It is a very big forum and I’m afraid there won’t be time for us,” said Heurn Sopheap, another member of PLCN’s steering committee. “But no matter what the result of the meeting, we will continue to work to protect our forest.”