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Cambodia’s Minister of Environment Talks about Dams, Logging, Corruption and Eco-Tourism

James Brooke and Allison Ludtke / Khmer Times Share:
Cambodia’s Minister of Environment Say Samal talks to Khmer Times editor-in-chief James Brooke at the Environment Ministry on Sihanouk Boulevard, Phnom Penh. (KT Photo: Allison Ludtke)

PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) – At age 34, Minister of Environment Say Samal is the youngest of Cambodia’s 28 ministers with a portfolio. Samal was  allotted a position in the National Assembly as part of the Cambodian People’s Party’s effort to rejuvenate a movement that basically has run Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge fled the capital 35 years ago. Say Samal is a son of Say Chhum, the CPP secretary general. Samal graduated from high school and university in Australia and is seen as part of a new generation of Cambodian ministers who are bringing wider world experience to their work.
The Minister received the Khmer Times on the second floor of the Ministry of Environment, in an air conditioned room with thick curtains to muffle the noise of Sihanouk Boulevard below. He said he came directly from a meeting in an adjacent office, where he had cancelled six old concessions to cut timber. Two years ago, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a stop to the issuing of new timber permits.
KT: What is the goal of Cambodia’s forest policy?
Minister: “We are not giving any more concession land. We want to see the forest regenerate on its own. Hopefully, with good timber, we can turn into furniture. We need to try and generate a domestic industry of furniture making, instead of exporting rough, unpolished wood.Secondly, in Cambodia all of our protected areas have villages. We need to push people to do something that can really generate income for the family things like  planting crops and, raising animals that can be sold to the market. We need to increase the family economy, to strengthen their capacity to be on their own, rather than dependent on the forestry product.”
KT: Many tropical nations, – such as Brazil and Costa Rica, – have developed strong rural economies based on eco-tourism. In Cambodia, international tourist arrivals are up 10 percent this year, more luxury cruise boats are coming up the Mekong. How do you see the future of green tourism?
Minister: “We want to turn the protected communities into tourist destinations, where tourists get to spend a few days, they can also taste local foods, and learn about different cultures. Some village people are ethnic people. By establishing community we are trying to preserve their cultures. We want to train our rangers to be tour guides. Let people appreciate the beauty of this variety.”
KT: In Brazil, the Green Party went in one generation from zero votes to 19 percent in the last presidential election. In Cambodia, is green tourism for foreigners only?
Minister: “What I am trying to do is turn this into a domestic market.
I want Cambodians sitting in a living room, with a family. Daddy or Mommy can say, we can go kayaking down a mountain river, or biking in Kirirom (National Park). I want this to become part of our life.”
KT: Your ministry’s work often collides with economic interests. What are you doing to cut corruption in the field, to get your directives implemented, beyond the confines of this pleasant, air conditioned room?
Minister: “First you have to explain to the staff that their mission here is to serve the interests of the Cambodian people. We need to change the working regime.
I find this quite simple. It is not as hard as you may think. People really see it’s for the betterment of society. When you don’t have hidden agendas, when you put everything on the table, people will see.”
KT: Two weeks ago, The Global Post had an interesting article on air pollution causing acid rain that may erode the ancient carvings of Angkor Wat. What is the solution?
Minister: “Air pollution is going to be difficult. It comes not just from here, but from other regions. We are discussing the need to reduce vehicles going to Angkor (Archeological) Park. They are installing an air monitoring station in Angkor.
This is just an idea: we need to discuss a mass transport system for Angkor- something like (Bangkok’s) SkyTrain.” He said he favored tourists moving through the Park in electric or natural gas powered vehicles powered by natural gas. And, in remoter areas, visitors floating through the Park on rubber rafts.
KT: Let’s talk about power. Cambodia has a fast growing economy, a young population, and high electricity prices. A recent article headlined that Cambodia has the potential to be “a solar superpower.” What is the future of solar?
Minister: “Talking about household use, that’s viable. As a main source for the country, probably not. In small industry it may be a good investment.”
He recalled that in Australia many solar powered houses sell power to the national grid during the day, when families are at work or at school.
KT: Cambodia is building a series of large dams that will displace many people. What is your response to critics of dam construction?
Minister: “It is quite a complicated issue. For us it’s about energy security, about the price of electricity to run our economy. We need to think about this; what are the options for Cambodia, – or any other country – in this Mekong region, besides building dams? We have to look at the problem as a whole.”
KT: Thai fishermen living on the Mekong complained last week to The Financial Times that unexpected water surges swept away boats and wiped out riverside garden plots. They suspect unannounced water releases from dams on the Chinese Mekong, – about half of the river’s total length. – Caused the problem is Cambodia’s voice heard on Mekong River matters?
Minister: “We are concerned because the livelihood of our people still depends on the Mekong River. This is another thing we need to incorporate into our thinking and decision making process. We have discussions with the Mekong Commission talking to one another about this issue. But as I said, there are a number of factors.” He agreed that energy is crucial for development.
KT: Ever since the dawn of time, fish and rice have been staples of Cambodians’ diets. Now, fishermen increasingly complain that fish catches are declining. What’s happening?
Minister: “We cannot depend on wild catch. Traditionally, Cambodians don’t eat fish from aquacultures, But now they do and that’s a good sign. Vietnam and Thailand have aquacultures. To overcome this problem, aquacultures are very important in the long run”
KT: We are now in the rainy season. How do you see the flooding in Phnom Penh, home to almost 15 percent of the nation’s population?
Minister: “Unfortunately people use the flash flooding in Phnom Penh to exploit – or commercialize – for political purposes. People claim that we fill all these lakes, and  that is the main cause of flooding in Phnom Penh. They think it is a clever political point they make. But Phnom Penh is a flood plain city, not as bad as New Orleans. We built this city, then we built dikes. The city government and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have been working to build a new drainage system. Even now, the duration of flooding is less than previously. Before, it could last a couple of days. Now it’s down to a couple hours. This is not sewage water; this is rain water.”
KT: And the charge that streets flood because uncollected garbage clogs storm drains?
Minister: “I’m trying to change the way we see things. We see clean water as a utility, electricity as a utility, but we don’t see collecting rubbish as a utility.” He said he tells mayors to treat garbage collection as a core public service will.
KT: In a few years, you undoubtedly move on from the Ministry. How do you leave a greener Cambodia? 
Minister: “Environmental education is the cornerstone to the whole problem. In order to change the perception of the next generation and to protect our biodiversity, we need to involve education. We are drafting an environmental education curriculum, and we are getting a positive response. We see schools introducing it now. The key is kids.”

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