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The Lower Mekong River Region


H.E. Mok Mereth delivering his opening speechSecond regional workshop

Phnom Penh, 17/18 October 2002


Opening speech
His Excellency, Dr Mok Mereth, Minister for Environment

  • Distinguished delegates from China, the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and of course from Cambodia.
  • Valued partners from the development assistance agencies of Australia, Denmark and Switzerland, and from UNDP and the Asian Development Bank
  • Friends from the Mekong River Commission and international environmental organisations
  • Ladies and Gentlemen

Well, we are back in Phnom Penh for the second and final regional workshop in the Protected Areas and Development Review. It is only a few months since our last meeting, but in that time important work and consultations have been ongoing.

I have the pleasure of opening this important meeting in two capacities - First, as the Environment Minister responsible for Cambodia's national system of protected areas; and second, as the deputy chair of the National Mekong Committee.

Both functions concern the maintenance and management of natural resources and ecosystems which are so critical to our national development. We are only beginning to understand how important they are and why protection is essential across all sectors. This is a central finding of the PAD review.

Cambodia is deeply committed to protected areas as a key development strategy. This is clear from the size of the national system - it now covers 21% of our territory, up from around 19%, and the area is increasing. By 2005, we plan to have 25% of the country within protected areas. As a proportion of the country, it is one of the largest systems in the world. I believe this is an extraordinary and significant achievement for Cambodia's future.

Our protected areas are not set up to be locked away and isolated from everything around them. On the contrary, they need to be understood and managed as part of the wider natural and social system. Like the heart pumping in a body, protected areas supply and maintain the health and wellbeing of their surrounding landscapes. This is a very modern vision for protected areas - one which is appropriate and necessary for the 21st Century. For Cambodia, protected areas are a development strategy. This is what the PAD review has helped us to appreciate.

There are two serious challenges in realising this vision. The first relates to the role of protected areas in local community development. The second challenge is concerned with the role of protected areas in the productivity of different economic sectors. The fact that protected areas have a role at these two levels is not in question - in fact, in Cambodia's case, it is a vital contribution. The real issue is how to provide those contributions while maintaining the natural assets on which they are based. Simply, how do we use and conserve our protected areas for the greatest development benefits. I am talking about development in its broadest sense - one that includes health, education, cultural heritage, recreation and quality of life.

Reducing poverty is our immediate concern. So we need to introduce management methods which allow local communities to achieve their development goals by embracing protection. At our last meeting in August, I announced that the Royal Government of Cambodia had decided to designate 10 to 30% of each protected area as a buffer zone which is co-managed with local communities. The idea behind that initiative is to stop the steady degradation of protected areas from encroachment and overuse by giving local communities a sense of stewardship and control in protected area management. That's the theory! We are now slowly working to put it into practice but are not finding easy and would like to hear of your experiences.

Local community strategies can be quickly swept aside by large scale sector development. There is a great temptation for governments with pressing economic concerns to adopt the philosophy of "develop now and worry about environmental quality later". That approach does not work. It doesn't work because it views natural systems as something separate from development; freely available and infinite. They are not - they are the engine for development, and like any engine, they must be maintained and protected as though I lives depend on it - which of course they do!!

So here in Cambodia we are working with each sector to identify the benefits they receive from protection - and protected areas. Unless each sector fully appreciates that protection is a first step to productivity, the development engine will run out of steam. We need sectors to invest in protection because they recognise that it is in their interests to do so. That is another principle of development which the PAD review has help us better appreciate.

What are the next steps? The PAD review is drawing to a close in two months and will result in a wide range of policy proposals and tools. We can not let it rest there. The draft Cambodia national report sets out a program of protected areas and development activities that need to be implemented. We will be conducting a national round table to fine tune and endorse the report in November. The MOE and its partners within government will be immediately seeking to work the policy initiatives into our system. We will need help, and I hope our international partners can provide their strong support to implement the PAD program over the next few years.

At regional level, and putting on my hat as deputy chair of the National Mekong Committee, I will be looking to see the regional PAD report recommendations worked into the Basin Development Plan. That process too will require commitment and support if we are to have protection and conservation as a driving force of the regional strategy.

I believe we are at a turning point in how we view development - it relies on a deeper understanding of the fabric connecting our natural world with our economic activities. This view is reflected in the agreed environmental governance framework for sustainable development of the Greater Mekong Basin which identifies three pillars:

  • protected areas and the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity;
  • an effective and comprehensive EIA framework, and;
  • waste management and pollution control.

In many ways we have lost that traditional knowledge at the very time we need it most. So your work over the next two days in discussing and giving direction to the regional report is critical.

But as I advised you on the last occasion - too much work and no pleasure will lead to a dull report. Give some time while you are here to remember you are in a special place - and to enjoy the sights and sounds of Phnom Penh.

This is an important meeting - it is the final regional workshop in the PAD review. It has been a very rich and rewarding process involving a broad based partnership. We should ensure that this partnership continues.

Thank you and my best wishes for a very successful workshop.