New Code to Protect Environment, in Theory

After four years and five drafts, environmental groups will have one last chance to make their voices heard on what will become the most broad-ranging and aggressive environmental law Cambodia has ever enacted.

The Environmental Code began as a draft Environmental Impact Assessment law in 2012, before taking its current form early last year. The final draft is due to be put before Environment Minister Say Sam Al on December 25, said Brian Rohan, a lawyer with Vishnu Law Group, the public interest law firm drafting the code.

A national workshop on the latest draft will be held at the Ministry of Environment on the 24th and 25th, with environmental groups and other interested parties invited to attend.

While much of the framework set forth in the code seeks to give unprecedented power to local communities to manage and protect their land, many nongovernment groups and rural residents said they had either never heard of it or skeptical that it would change anything.

Among the litany of environmental issues that the ruling CPP has been slow in addressing, deforestation and land grabbing—both linked to upper echelons of military and government—have left some of the deepest wounds across the country.

Suy Jih is among countless Cambodians who feel betrayed. In 2012, he and two other villagers began a petition for a community land title, seeking legal control over nearly 3,000 hectares that yielded rice, fuel and firewood for some 500 Bunong families including his own.

This year, the chief of his village sold hundreds of hectares of that land to a Vietnamese company whose name Mr. Jih said he still doesn’t know.

“He shook hands and gave the land to a company,” Mr. Jih said. “He does not care about our lives—he cares about his own harvest.”

The company cut the forest on all the land, Mr. Jih said, but has yet to plant anything. Meanwhile, the chief recently came by with cash for the bitter villagers.

“Only 50,000 riels, 70,000 riels,” or $12.50 to $17.50, Mr. Jih said. “We don’t know how much he kept.”

In the country’s remote reaches, such abuses of power are common, said Mr. Rohan of Vishnu Law. The new code is meant to put a stop to them, bringing local communities and the government together to protect what natural resources are left.

“The power dynamics in the countryside play very strongly into this,” said Mr. Rohan, who arrived in Cambodia in 2003 and has worked extensively with indigenous communities. “It is very hierarchical.”

The Environmental Code sets forth a framework through which indigenous communities—at least those on designated conservation land—will automatically receive rights to co-manage this land with local authorities, without the expensive, yearslong process of petitioning for a communal title.

The draft is not without its flaws, Mr. Rohan said, and there are still issues to be ironed out before it is signed into law. A deadline has been set for the end of the year.

For one thing, though the code will designate an unprecedented amount of Cambodia’s land as biodiversity conservation areas, including all existing protected land, it does not yet contain any provisions for indigenous communities that don’t live on such land.

However, Mr. Rohan said it provides something that no previous environmental law in Cambodia has: “real rights and responsibilities for those [who] are most deeply connected to the land.”

Abuse is still possible, he said, but if communities are exploited, there is a clear redress structure, including criminal penalties for those who violate the co-management structure by selling land or allowing its use without the consent of the local community, for example.

“There are going to be a lot of people making a lot more noise, and they have the structure to make that noise,” Mr. Rohan said.

The real question, he added, is whether the people it’s designed to help will use it. “For communities to really believe they have real rights—that’s the problem.”

Sao Vansy, executive director of Indigenous Community Support Organization, which focuses on indigenous rights in Ratanakkiri province, is wary about the code. While his NGO is supporting some 40 petitions for communal land titles, he’s not sure it will be of any use to them.

“I haven’t seen the law,” he said. “Currently the implementation of the land law and forestry law is very slow and complicated. If they set up a new law…it could be good.”

However, he added, the CPP was apt to do anything to please voters before elections, and with two crucial elections coming in the next two years, he feared that the new environmental promises would again prove empty.

“From 1993 until now, it’s a very slow process for law enforcement.”

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