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The Lower Mekong River Region


First regional workshop

6 May 2002

Welcome speech by His Excellency, Dr Mok Mereth, Minister for Environment


Chief Executive Officer of the MRC, Mr Joern Kristensen;
Distinguished delegates from China, the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam;
Valued partners from the development assistance agencies of Australia, Denmark and Switzerland, and from UNDP;
Friends from international environmental organisations;
Ladies and Gentlemen;

Welcome to our beautiful country

It is a great pleasure for me to open this important regional meeting. It is a pleasure because the meeting represents a major watershed in our thinking about protected areas. We are in a transition. Protected areas have been viewed as places locked away and isolated from everything around them. We are now beginning to understand the complex and productive ways they are linked to the surrounding development landscape: And we are becoming more outward looking in our management of them. This shift in thinking and practice is essential for two reasons:

  • First, it is the only way in which all sectors will recognise the benefits of protected areas and invest in them; and,
  • Second, it allows us to increase the development benefits while better conserving the natural systems providing them.

This is not an easy transition. I have been Minister for Environment for ten years and for much of that time our national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other protected areas have been under siege from development pressures. It has been a continuing battle to control the harvesting of timber, wildlife and other products for short term gain. It has been a battle to prevent protected areas from being steadily eaten away by encroachment, construction and infrastructure projects.

These problems are not going to disappear over night. But I genuinely believe that we are at a turning point. In Cambodia, we are starting to have very positive experiences by bringing local communities into the management of protected areas. Collaborative approaches are challenging, but they are bringing improved fish yields, forest products, and additional income from tourism and significant improvements in conservation in the areas concerned. We need to understand these development dividends better.

In fact protected areas managers need to begin talking the language of development, and marketing their products and services more effectively. This may seem a strange thing for an Environment Minister to say. But, opening all the doors and windows of our house, does not meant selling off all the furniture. In fact the reverse. The more that key sectors appreciate the development and economic returns they receive from protected areas, the more they are likely to lend budgetary support for their maintenance.

Already this is happening in Cambodia. Our fisheries and forestry agencies, for example, are promoting fish habitat sanctuaries, forest protection zones, gene pool conservation areas and other forms of protection as a key ingredient in their sector development plans. The same is true for tourism. And we are beginning to think through how similar approaches can be applied to rural development, industry and agriculture.

One thing is absolutely clear - and I am sure it is something that will be repeated frequently at this meeting - protection of our natural systems and resources is not receiving the investment required for the job. There is no question about our government's commitment to protected areas - Cambodia has one of the largest systems in the world, now covering over 20% of the land area. That is a remarkable achievement through a period of relative instability. But that commitment is not fully translated into budget share, which in 2001 was 0.18% of national expenditure. This will need to change if the growing contribution of protected areas to national and local development is to continue. The source of that additional investment will need to come from all sectors and "users".

Let me finish, by showing you an interesting set of maps of Cambodia that demonstrate the opportunities and challenges we are facing. They relate our protected areas to population. It is a sequence I know that you will all identify with in your own countries.

Here is our growing protected area system covering most of the country's ecosystem types.

Map of protected areas in Cambodia

Wildlife sanctuaries

Multiple-use area

National parks

Water bodies

Protected landscape

Fishing areas


Ramsar site


Now overlaid on that, lets look at where most people live. Each dot on this map represents a village.

Map showing the protected areas of Cambodia and villages

Taking ten kilometres as the zone of influence of each village we can get a sense of the current intensity of pressure which local communities are placing on the protected areas system.

Map of protected areas in Cambodia showing  10 km zone of influence

Cambodia's population is increasing by 2.4% so the pressure is only going to increase. I see this trend as the most important opportunity we have for conservation. It can be a force for better protected area management and use. It can be a force for avoiding the negative consequences of large development and for ensuring that sectors invest in the system.

As an initial step early this month, the Royal Government of Cambodia, headed by our Prime Minister, His Excellent Samdech Hun Sen issued a clear decision to involve communities in co-managing of up to 30% of all protected areas as buffer zones.

I believe that this review of protected areas and development is an important step in improving our understanding of how to harness this force. I am following the Cambodian national review process closely, and look forward to benefiting from the collective wisdom of the experts participating in this first regional exchange.

I would like to express my special thanks to the three governments which are contributing to the success of this important review - Australia, Denmark and Switzerland. Without their strong backing, we would not be able to take this critical step forward in protected area development. UNDP has also been a strong partner in the review process.

My sincere thanks are extended to the MRC Secretariat for its support of the two regional workshops associated with the review. This is the first workshop…and I must say that I am pleased that the second meeting will also be held in Cambodia! There is a growing need for regional collaboration in this field and it is very significant that MRC is taking a leading role.

I wish you well in this most important mission. But I do remind you, that too much work without relaxation, may not bring the best results - please take time to enjoy the special hospitality for which we Cambodians are well known. I ask the MRC Chief Executive Officer to give you some time off to enjoy the atmosphere and culture of Phnom Penh.

Thank you and success in your work.