Mok Mareth:"Don't touch the Cardamoms."
Excellency, can you tell our readers about your life before politics and your
rise to your current position?
I finished my agronomy engineering qualification and got a scholarship from the
French government in late 1971. After that I got a doctorate in biology, and in 1976
I returned to Cambodia.
I too was a victim of the Khmer Rouge regime. We lived like prisoners of war - we
lived in more difficult conditions than the people. Most of my comrades at the time
were killed by Pol Pot, so I was very fortunate to be a survivor. I don't know why
- maybe because I believe strongly in the Buddha.
I escaped from Pol Pot only in May 1979 and returned to Phnom Penh. Many of my classmates
were working in the municipality in different areas and I was appointed as chief
of service of the fisheries office in the municipality's department of agriculture.
Only three months later I was promoted to the steering committee for agricultural
development of the city. In the meantime I was also appointed a member of the municipality's
committee. The [CPP] didn't ask me to apply for membership - it was the same for
most intellectuals like me, but we used our skills to develop the city.
I had to [ensure a steady supply] of vegetables and other food to the city. Four
years later I was promoted to the post of deputy governor. At that time I was still
not yet a member of the party, until one more year [passed]. I then went for a month
to Ho Chi Minh City [to learn] administration and about the regime.
There were not many people working in the city, so I played two roles: one for the
party and also as the deputy governor. I worked there for ten years, and for two
or three years I was working on my own dealing with all types of issues.
I was responsible for managing the city, particularly the economic aspects. [Among
these was] working out how we could clean the city, keep the sewerage system working,
and control the flow of water in the rainy season. We had support from some experts
from Vietnam and also from NGOs.
About 1989 I moved to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF)
and was vice-minister. I was also appointed chairman for the national committee of
science, technology and the environment, and was dealing with UNTAC.
In 1993 I moved to be secretary of state at the Ministry of Environment (MoE) and
later became minister.
Prime Minister Hun Sen recently signed a sub-decree that will protect the Cardamom
Mountains. It has been a long and often difficult battle to gain protected status
for this area - what benefits will this bring to the country?
We are very, very satisfied with this decision and pay full respects to our Prime
Minister for the highest consideration on the protection of our national resources,
and particularly the Cardamom Mountains.
The Cardamoms play a very critical role for our nation's economy - it seems I am
talking too broadly, but if we talk economy there are aspects of environment such
as natural resources, rainfall, soil erosion, watershed management and bio-diversity.
We Cambodian people depend on this range of forest and mountains - if there are no
more forested areas there will be no more Great Lake or plains land. The scientists
[have long known this] - my old professors told us, 'Don't touch the Cardamom Mountains,
because they play a vital role for Cambodia. Don't just look at the forests, but
also other areas such as the impact on the livelihoods of Cambodian people.'
That's why we welcome [this decision]. We are cooperating with donors and particularly
the international NGOs like Conservation International and Fauna and Flora International.
We have this support from the Prime Minister and this is a really precious fortune
for our future and for today.
There are several environmental NGOs working in Cambodia - has the ministry gained
from their expertise, and if so, in what ways?
I cooperate well with NGOs in the environmental field. I already mentioned that
I was an important partner [with NGOs] in the Phnom Penh municipality, so I am in
touch with NGO work.
Most of the NGOs work at the grassroots and know the complete situation of our people.
When I was at MAFF I worked closely with them, mostly on community forestries. I
would sleep in the forests to learn about the important role of the local communities.
[They are] helping to satisfy the demands of local people and we are now making some
The eminent US economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs told a seminar August 5 that
protecting the environment was vital for alleviating poverty in Cambodia. Do you
think this is recognized by other branches of government, and if so, is enough being
done to ensure this is achieved?
The policy and strategy of our government is clear - through the SEDPI, SEDPII,
the donor meeting ... and the statement of our Prime Minister you can see goodwill
and commitment. But we face a lot of difficulties and challenges, and we need to
What country is poor like Cambodia? The people who have power, who have money, have
always their priority to exploit the natural resources. This is the main challenge.
The Prime Minister always stresses this - reform, reform, reform. And we see many
reforms are being done, and this is a step we have to take.
I have great hopes that there will be more and more progress in this area. [When]
we talk about natural resources and environment, poverty also damages the environment:
when the environment is poor, there is a combination of environmental degradation
and this increases poverty. We understand this well.
So how can we protect our environment, how can we manage our forests, our water resources,
the Great Lake with its fish which is our staple diet, and so on? And pollution also
- we are very proud today because we can work well in this area and the owners of
factories respect us. So even though we have some problems I think we implement our
Can Cambodia balance the need to protect the environment with the demands that
alleviating poverty will make? I am thinking particularly of the rural majority who
rely on forest areas to supplement their meager incomes.
Yes - I have already mentioned this, and I applaud this. The forestry remaining
today is not well calculated. The 1998 satellite images show 53 percent total forest
cover, but I think it is less than that, maybe 40-50 percent.
I am very enthusiastic about my Prime Minister's decision to create the sustainability
of our national ecosystem. Cambodia should keep its forest cover at about 40-50 percent
of total territory. That means we cannot continue to destroy the forests for farming
or for other purposes.
That will be our declaration at the [Earth] Summit, which I already put in the statement
of the Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng in Rio. We are lucky because if we have this
goodwill and commitment of our Prime Minister for 40-50 percent of forest, and in
the meantime we plant trees in the degraded forests and keep these forests regenerated
in the community forests, I think we can maintain this and assure some ecosystem
balance in the country.
Environmental tourism is recognized as a key and sustainable way to earn tourist
revenue: what are your concerns regarding this, and will it work in Cambodia?
Tourism is a big total share of Cambodia's economy. Our temples attract many people
from all over the world, and we also have forests and national parks, so we can promote
this important national treasure for our national income.
[Tourism minister] Veng Sereyvuth talks about planning for tourism - we need to have
long-term planning, short-term planning and medium-term planning. That means we need
to prepare our tourist plan and ensure it is well-controlled.
I am very happy with this program, because it will ensure you can go for example
from Angkor Wat to Kampong Thom and to Kampong Som, so we spread the tourists throughout
the country. I think it is possible to do this, because we are not alone. We can
have investors, we can also borrow some money.
The MoE is one of the worst funded in the government: how much money would the
ministry need to fulfill all its tasks?
I don't complain about this, because I know the priorities of the government.
Also our environment is not badly degraded because we still protect our areas and
control pollution. We encourage factory owners to install waste disposal, and so
far 90 percent of the total polluting factories have [done so]. We don't pay for
this - the private sector pays. I don't want to complain and I think the government
will look after us and support us well in the future.
The rising number of imported pesticides that harm the environment is recognized
as a significant problem by local professionals such as local NGO CEDAC - how concerned
is the MoE with this, and what steps are you taking to combat this problem?
We really worry about the misuse of pesticides in our country. This is really
a great concern for our people. Last month TVK broadcast [a program] about pesticides
in vegetables. We are cooperating with MAFF to develop a pilot project to reduce
the use of illegally imported pesticides and use only legally imported pesticides.
A further problem is that other countries such as China seem to be using Cambodia
as a testing ground for genetically-engineered crops such as rice and cotton. Does
the MoE have a strategic plan to deal with this, and if so what does it involve?
I informed my Prime Minister about modified [crops] and the negative impact on
our farmers if we authorize a company to import GM rice. Last week my Prime Minister
denounced the use of GM rice because he knows this will affect our crops. He advised
the minister of agriculture to look at it.
As for the cotton in Kampong Cham: I learned this from the mass media, and we have
to be careful. I got permission from my Prime Minister that Cambodia will ratify
the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-Safety. When we get back [from the Earth Summit] we
will submit it to parliament.
More than two years ago Sihanoukville received a shipment of toxic waste from
Taiwan that caused many problems in the area. Has Cambodia banned the import of toxic
waste, and what steps have been taken in this important area to protect the environment
and people's health?
This was a great success for our policy, and we should thank my Prime Minister
also because he worked very hard to [ensure] the Taiwanese company transport the
waste back in a very short time. In some countries that would have taken three or
I calculated there was 3,000 tons of mercury waste, and this was concentrated pure
mercury. If this mercury was discharged in our waters, in the coastal zone or underground
water, we would have to abandon this coastal zone. So we have banned the import of
I recently got a request from a UK and US company through a Chinese intermediary.
If we took these tires - I don't know how many thousands of tons - they would
build one road for us with these new and used tires. The man showed me some videotape
and some pictures where they put two or three used tires and after that they put
filler and build a road.
I said: 'How long will these tires last? Will they stay there long or not?' He said:
'Long, long. They stay long in the US.' I said: 'No, this is your problem, not my
problem. I won't allow you to [dispose] of the waste in my country.' I rejected this
immediately. This was last month. There are many such requests - they always petition
but I always reject them.
The MoE's responsibilities include protecting the marine resources - the recent
announcement of oil and gas exploration in the Gulf have obvious environmental ramifications.
What are your comments on this?
The recent information I got from the Petroleum Authority and the Ministry of
Mines and Energy made me very pleased, because there is no gas or oil in the Great
But other information I have received [shows] there is some in Pursat and in Battambang.
Exploration doesn't have a big impact on the environment, but if we have sufficient
resources we have to look to preventing the negative impacts of extraction. We do
have to exploit our natural resources.
Going back to the MoE's responsibilities: among these is a shared one with MAFF
to monitor illegal logging. Other government officials have said in the past that
this has been a difficult relationship, with responsibility not clearly defined between
the two - what is your opinion on that?
The MoE and MAFF can be considered as two brothers in the same family. We don't
fight each other, but we consult each other.
The way we work may be different from the independent monitor [Global Witness] and
the Department of Forestry and Wildlife. Sometimes the independent monitor reports
without considering the complete solution for the department. There are many more
problems at the department than with us. I used to talk with Global Witness and advise
that they should try to work more closely with them than us, because we have some
problems but we solve them immediately in the protected areas.
Maybe the relationship will improve. We need the independent monitor, but [also need
to decide] how can we work more closely. The MoE works in protected areas and we
don't have many problems. When Global Witness informs me that illegal logging is
taking place I immediately send my staff there and solve the problem. Maybe with
the forestry department there are too many problems, and maybe Global Witness can
help other people to work with the department.
The policy of our government is very clear. Our Prime Minister says that forests
are the life of the government - he is always like this. The forestry department
understands this also and they should be committed to this decision. I am committed
to this decision.
The Earth Summit is being held in South Africa shortly: will you attend the summit,
and if so, what are the areas you consider most important?
We have a national committee for the summit chaired by me. The delegation will
be led by [Sar Kheng] and will include me and [Minister of Commerce] Cham Prasidh
as well as some officials from social affairs and planning.
We are clear: we will encourage - we cannot say oblige - the summit to incorporate
the blueprint agreed at the Rio Summit and in Bali. We don't need to discuss too
much there. There is no need to renegotiate about north-south, about south-south.
I think that we should go straight to implementation.
There is the issue of access for trade along with globalization. However, that doesn't
mean cancel the debt, because this all comes from the taxes of people in developed
countries. Some people say cancel all the debt but I don't request this. I am not
extreme. We have to pay back the debt.
We will decide with the mainstream on the policy on globalization, on Doha, on Monterrey.
We should not [rely] too much on overseas development assistance - we should
look at foreign direct investment. We should promote the belief of local investors
in the policies and the stability of the government. In this way we can develop the
country - then we can tackle the issues that we decide to prioritize.
First I think we should [consider] energy like other countries. It is critical for
Cambodia. We shouldn't use inefficient energy sources. In the meantime we need to
preserve our forests because our people depend on them. But how many millions of
tons do they cut for firewood? So we will look at renewable energy, wind energy or
even expensive sources like solar energy. We also have to look at [other sources
of] available energy like gas.
We will build [Cambodia] not only with energy but also by considering water. We have
excess water in the rainy season that damages our national economy, and then we have
drought. I think water is another important topic for Cambodia.
How can the poor access clean water? This is related to other issues. We go straight
to the forests, to fish management, and of course agricultural development in the
rural areas. Like Professor Jeffrey Sachs said, I really agree with him: we need
agriculture to sustain our national economy. These are the main issues we raise in
Finally, you have reached a senior position in government and within the CPP.
What else would you like to achieve in the political sphere?
I am very proud to be a member of the CPP, since I was a little slow like other
intellectuals to become a member of the party. This party is very solid and has clear
policies, strategies and commitments for the nation.
Since we liberated from the Khmer Rouge we got support from the Vietnamese and the
Soviets, but we have always tried hard to keep peace. I respect the party for that
because its ideology is for the peace of the people. Now we have national reconciliation.
Peace is unbelievable.
Secondly most CPP members work with the grassroots and help the people. I like this.
Of course there are some people who are corrupt and so on - everybody knows
this - but we will [overcome] this. Through the strategic reform of the government
and with the support of the international community we can have a corruption law
in the near future and solve our problems. If the CPP continues its clear political
strategy, then it can satisfy the people.