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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Keeping the Kingdom honest

Keeping the Kingdom honest

Cambodia needs transparent legal mechanisms to govern the development of its natural resources, preventing damage to society and the environment.

Over the past weeks, news on oil, gas and mineral mining rose to the attention of the media and the public with significant discoveries of silver, gold and bauxite, with Chevron also announcing oil operations to start in the Kingdom in 2012. While Cambodia has good reason to be pleased with these prospects, there are a number of important aspects that need to be considered in order to meet realistic public expectations and ensure good governance.

The task ahead of the Cambodian government is a large one. Cambodia will need transparent and accountable legal mechanisms and investment strategies in order to ensure that the valuable but finite extractive revenues will be reinvested into advancing important economic sectors, so that they provide opportunities for our country to grow. Provision of better social services such as healthcare and education will give everyone the chance to improve their standard of living, while investment in economic diversification will help ensure the competitiveness of other critical sectors such as garments, agriculture and tourism, which then can provide large and sustainable employment to Cambodia’s unskilled labour force. This is indeed a challenging task, and many civil society actors including Oxfam are prepared to support this preparation.

Recently, we’ve seen the Cambodian government establish specialised institutions to oversee oil, gas and mining development and start to take necessary steps towards responsible and accountable revenue management, including the recent disclosure of $26 million in signature bonus payments and social funds by PetroVietnam and Total. This is a good example that shows commitment to transparency.

Let me tell you about a large-scale gold mine I saw in Ghana, Africa. It was way beyond the small diggings we know from our small gem miners in Ratanikkiri and Pailin. One mining site seemed 100 times bigger than our Olympic Stadium, and all around were rumbling digging machines that had wheels the size of houses. Its depth was twice the distance from Wat Phnom to the Independence Monument. As Cambodia is preparing to reap the benefits of oil, gas and hard minerals, it has to reflect on the importance of balancing not only the potential benefits of these resources but also the social and environmental impacts.

From Oxfam’s experiences in extractive industries around the world, too often people’s livelihoods are interrupted and their communities are polluted by these projects. Operations at modern mines and oil projects can begin and end in fewer than 10 years. Communities must be prepared for sites to close. If reclamation funding or bonding for the cleanup is not properly negotiated, the community can be left with contaminated land and water, and no jobs. However, there is a way to ensure that this does not happen.

To ensure equitable benefit sharing, community participation in decision making is vital. Oxfam has developed a position paper on Free Prior and Informed Consent that gives the details on what we believe constitutes appropriate consultation. This includes adequate time for decisions to be made; disclosure of adequate and independently verified information about the potential costs and benefits of a project, and the absence of any coercion or intimidation within the decision-making processes. We know that what we are asking is realistic, as there are precedents for good consultation processes in countries around the world including Canada, Australia and the Philippines.

By having taken the first steps to meet realistic public expectations and ensure good governance, Cambodia can increase its opportunity for sustainable development as set out in the government’s rectangular strategy. There is also clear opportunity for Cambodia to stand out as a leader and influence policies regionally and beyond.

Solinn Lim is regional coordinator for the extractive industries programme of Oxfam America’s East Asia regional office .

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