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NGOs call out holes in EIA law

Fishermen that would be affected by the proposed Areng Valley hydropower project
Fishermen that would be affected by the proposed Areng Valley hydropower project fish in the Mekong River in 2012. Civil society and NGOs are concerned with a new draft law that would see indigenous groups unable to oppose unsustainable development projects. INTERNATIONAL RIVERS

NGOs call out holes in EIA law

The Ministry of Environment is close to finalising a draft environmental impact analysis (EIA) law for development projects, but NGOs and civil society groups raised concerns that the draft law, as it stands, prevents indigenous people who live on the land from opposing such projects.

Speaking at a national consultation workshop in Phnom Penh to garner feedback on the draft law, NGOs and rights groups said that while the article assures indigenous groups a “free, prior and informed consent” process, it also allows projects to go ahead in the case of a disagreement.

Markus Hardtke, Southeast Asia program coordinator for German conservation group ARA, said there seems to be a battle within this draft between promoting sustainable development in Cambodia and the creation of another administrative tool or income-generating instrument for the ministry.

“There has to be a ‘no project’ option, otherwise you do not have a serious implementation of sustainable development. You cannot decide for whatever reason that the project has to go ahead and you mitigate and tinker at the edges to make it look a little better,” Hardtke said.

The free, prior and informed consent principle under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, says indigenous people shall not be forcefully removed from their land without consent and fair compensation.

After questions were raised about the contradictions in the article, Danh Serey, director at the Department of EIA, said the clause will be reviewed.

Another contentious part of the draft was article 4, which says the law does not apply to state development projects and activities that relate to national security, sovereignty or disaster management.

Serey said that further clarification on the kind of projects this would entail will be subject to a sub-decree that will be issued at a later date.

Speaking at the workshop earlier, Environment Minister Say Samal said the law, once approved, will be an indicator for the government to make better decisions before approving development projects.

“The new Environmental Impact Assessment Law marks an important shift to a more transparent and accountable environmental management,” Samal said in his opening remarks. “With this new law, we will be able to ensure that all future development complies with the government’s nature conservation and environmental protection standards.”

The EIA draft law has been in development since 2011, and will incorporate elements of a sub-decree on Environmental Impact Assessment Process issued in 1999.

Yesterday’s conference included private sector and civil society participation, aiming to gain feedback on a law that will cover EIAs for projects, including hydro dams, investments at economic land concessions and construction projects.

Having an EIA law in place is one thing, but implementation of the law is another thing, said Srey Chanthy, independent economic analyst.

“Uplifting the EIA sub-decree to a law and making it more comprehensive is great. But paper on the shelf is never good; implementation and enforcement has to be in tandem,” he said.

Stephen Higgins, managing partner of Cambodia-based investment firm Mekong Strategic Partners, said the draft law is a positive step for the investment environment in Cambodia and attracting quality projects.

“Investors who are put off by this law are probably the type of investors that Cambodia doesn’t want in the long term. It doesn’t necessarily mean that projects won’t go ahead, but they will need to take into account local communities and environmental issues,” he said.

Tek Vannara, executive director of NGO Forum and a participant at the workshop, said this law will push investors to be more transparent on the impact of their operations to the ecosystem.

“The gap of imbalance over conservation and development is still big, especially with joint-ventures between local and international investors, which mostly focus on natural resources. Some companies have no standard on resettlement and compensation,” he said.

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