Environment Minister Say Samal often gets bad press about illegal logging, deforestation and other issues, but as one of the youngest ministers in the government, he says he is slowly changing people’s attitudes and perceptions.
The 36-year-old Mr. Samal told Khmer Times this week that one of his biggest achievements as a minister has been to shorten the time period for the often controversial Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) to a maximum of 50 years, and he has also stopped issuing any more ELCs.
“I can tell you right now that there are no more [ELCs] to be given out,” he told Khmer Times in an exclusive interview.
He also spoke about his ministry’s efforts to eradicate illegal logging and claimed large-scale illegal logging had been stopped, but admitted that the illegal trade still existed, only on a smaller scale.
“You see, you can’t just stop something overnight – the remaining illegal logging. You have to create jobs for the local people to step away from illegal logging,” he told Khmer Times.
“We have to make an alternative, so it will take some time. Large-scale illegal logging has ended, but with the smaller-scale logging it used to be only men who carried out all these one piece of wood at a time, put it on their bike and then off they go.
“Now we have started seeing women taking that role as well, so this is quite difficult for us. That is something we have not seen before.
“They still extract [the wood] piece by piece out of our national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. We have to work harder to change their livelihoods or to create new jobs for them so they can move away from this altogether.”
Mr. Samal also talks about the years he spent in Australia getting a PhD and how those years changed him and made him environmentally aware.
As Cambodia’s Minister of the Environment, Australian-educated Say Samal is often in the firing line over issues such as illegal logging, land concessions, wildlife trafficking, illegal mining and much more. This week the 36-year-old minister told Khmer Times’ Alan Parkhouse about some of the challenges he faces and how he’s slowly changing people’s attitudes to the environment.
KT: What are the biggest issues you’ve faced since you became Environment Minister in 2013?
Mr. Samal: In two categories. Firstly, it’s waste management and the sewage problem here – we also have to deal with that across the country. The second category is the land disputes and illegal logging with ELCs [economic land concessions]. But I’m pleased to say that in just two and a half years we’ve been able to solve most of the problems, although there are still some remaining issues that we need to finish off. By and large we’re very satisfied with the reforms we’ve carried out.
KT: The illegal timber trade appears to be still going strong despite government efforts to stop it. What plans do you have to put an end to this trade?
Mr. Samal: Look, I don’t agree that it is still going strong. You see, in order to stop this illegal logging a number of steps were taken. We’re not denying that this is an issue. But also people started to politicize that. That’s the problem – the real problem in our society. In 2012, the government issued executive order 001 about these land disputes, so in this term we conducted a review and evaluation of all ELCs.
That was the second step for us. This second step for us was to review all ELCs. We cancelled many of the companies’ concessions and we also reduced the number of years that we leased the land for to 50 years. By doing that we also put an end to all these land disputes because many of these ELCs were involved in land disputes and we were able to eliminate the problem with that.
With the permission of the prime minister, I transferred all the ELCs under our jurisdiction to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Agriculture handed back all this conservation land under their jurisdiction. For us this was a turning point. This was a milestone, an historical step that we took that divided public functions between these two ministries. So now, for us, we primarily focus on conservation. And the Ministry of Agriculture focuses on productivity.
And we are not giving out any more ELCs – that’s it, that’s the end to all ELCs. And we are cracking down on this illegal logging in the eastern part of Cambodia and since we achieved that now we are expanding our operations throughout the country. So large-scale illegal logging has stopped. And we also conduct this public forum between the prime minister and the stakeholders, you know, to take this political consensus that we all have to manage our natural resources together, not just the government, not just the people, not just the NGOs, not just the communities, but this is the political consensus that we take.
The government also issued executive circular 005, that is to place responsibility between provincial authorities and also the central government in managing our natural resources as well. We’ve done that and we’re also starting to sell carbon trading – Disneyland bought carbon trading from us for $3 million a year in Mondulkiri, so this is, you know, a new thing in Cambodia.
We use conservation to generate income for the local community and also for the government and we are also pushing eco-tourism. You see, you can’t just stop something overnight – the remaining illegal logging. You have to create jobs for the local people to step away from illegal logging.
We have to make an alternative, so it will take some time. Large-scale illegal logging has ended, but with the smaller scale logging it used to be only men who carried out all these one pieces of wood at a time, put it on their bike and then off they go, right?
Now we have started seeing women taking that role as well, so this is quite difficult for us and they still extract piece by piece out of our national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. We have to work harder to change their livelihoods or to create new jobs for them so they can move away from this altogether. But overall, we are very pleased with our efforts so far, but we have to be realistic and say that we need more time to stamp it out altogether.
KT: Are you getting much cooperation from Vietnam and China?
Mr. Samal: Yes, Vietnam has announced their policy to end logging on their side of the border as well and also they cooperate with us to stop this illegal logging from entering their territory as well. We have been talking to China as well because the wood will go through Vietnam and be processed and then sent to China. We’ve been talking to them to find a way to stop this as well.
KT: Under questioning at the National Assembly earlier this month, you acknowledged that some government officials were involved in forest crimes. Have you identified those people and do you plan to take action against them?
Mr. Samal: There’s a lot of targets that we are currently reviewing and I can’t comment much on that because all these cases are under investigation.
KT: Do you think the dams being built on the Mekong River by China and Laos will have an adverse effect on Cambodia and would you prefer to see no dams on the Mekong?
Mr. Samal: The question for us is our national security. This issue has been politicized, and for a country like us, we’re stuck in the middle. For us, we need energy to build our economy. For us, exploitation of natural resources is not a long-term solution, it’s not a long-term option that we have. We don’t want to go that way either. We want cheap energy so that industry can take root.
When industry takes root, there’s jobs for our people and then we can move away from a dependency on natural resources. We care very much about the Mekong – the Mekong gives us our lives, but we have to balance between our national security, between our energy demands. This is like a merry-go-round – if we don’t have enough energy to develop our country, to develop our economy, we go in one circle. It’s unfair for some countries, or some NGOs, to put to us that we should not build dams. But at the same time they did not offer any alternatives or a solution to us. For us as a government we have to take everything into consideration before we make a decision.
KT: Going back to ELCs, you have now stopped issuing more, but what about the ones that have been applied for and are going through the system?
Mr. Samal: I can tell you right now that there is no more to be given out. Now it’s a maximum of 50 years – we cut them.
KT: How do you plan to protect the country’s national parks from things like illegal mining, illegal logging and encroachment?
Mr. Samal: We conducted this new task force – well, not a new task force but we evolved it – to take more responsibilities not only on illegal logging but illegal mining as well. You come from Australia, a developed country, and it’s the same for us – we want our economy to be developed and not just to rely on natural resources, something that can earn us more revenue. Something that will distribute the wealth of our nation across the different sectors, to the people in our society.
I think the real issue is about trade, a fairer global trade that will help to develop the Cambodian economy. You can’t just come to us and say stop illegal logging. Stop mining. We want the same thing. That’s what we want too. But you have to find a way to help us, to build our economy and to create new jobs.
And also jobs that offer better salaries to our people as well. A better alternative. I think you have to be fair to us – I think we all need to stop politicizing the issues and I think we should all sit down and find a common solution to all this.
KT: As a minister, what do you think your biggest achievements have been?
Mr. Samal: I think the biggest thing that we have achieved in this term in the last three years are changing perceptions. At the Ministry of Environment we have been able to raise awareness of environmental issues across our society. I think that’s the biggest achievement and the legacy of us here at the Ministry of Environment.
KT: What do you think has been your biggest failure?
Mr. Samal: I have not been able to achieve all the things that I set out to do. We achieved a lot of them, but some of the things we haven’t been able to achieve.
KT: Are you confident of retaining your seat at the next national election, and if you do, would you still want to run the Environment Ministry, or would you prefer a change?
Mr. Samal: Look, we will win the next elections. But with my job here, I serve at the pleasure of the prime minister. I see myself as being a public servant, so I serve at the pleasure of my prime minister.
KT: Are you concerned by the bad press you sometimes get in the foreign-owned media?
Mr. Samal: Here in Cambodia, particularly the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily, I don’t think they do media or journalism very well – they politicize the issues. To me, I don’t think that’s good for our society in the long run. I was expecting them to be more mature. I was expecting them to show more responsibility in their reporting.
Having said that, I’m not saying they are the only ones – also local media, some of these are not reporting the whole truth or being sincere.
They always have a hidden agenda – Radio Free Asia, VOA. I would like to see that we have developed a strong media capacity and a media that is more responsible, a media that will help to build democracy. For me, I think the media has a significant role in ensuring democracy here in Cambodia and ensuring a strong, more gracious society for Cambodia. You have the freedom, but you also have to show responsibility. You can’t just say whatever you like. You have to fact check.
KT: What are your plans for the future?
Mr. Samal: We have a 10-year plan. When I came here [to the ministry] we made a point – it was like a renaissance of the ministry itself. We made a point that modernization of the ministry is a must. The way we modernized the governing structure of the ministry is we updated but also started building capacity and the capability of our staff – we need another five to 10 years to build up the in-house capacity because in the future we are going to face more challenging problems on environmental issues. Not just at home, but globally.
We want to be an active member of the international community – for example, we’re very proud to be a member of the international community in terms of combatting climate change and we’re very active and we show a lot of responsibility on our part as well in fighting climate change issues. But also, we need to train our staff to improve their capacity, and also the local authorities – city hall, provincial authorities. We need to increase their capacity in terms of environmental issues.
KT: When you went to Australia, were you surprised at how different Australia was to Cambodia and what were the main lessons you bought back from your education there?
Mr. Samal: Different perspectives, a different way to look at things. You see, in Cambodia, in the old way, when we studied at that time we memorized stuff, but you don’t really understand the content. So when I got to Singapore, they trained us to pass the exam [for Australia], but not how to solve the problem. But in Australia they train you how to solve the problem.
So I think that was the different perspective. So I was lucky that I went across all this. By the time I finished my PhD in Australia I had spent more than half of my life abroad. But I still called Cambodia home and I didn’t take up citizenship of any other country.
At that time my life changed because of the new movement on environmental issues. Then being appointed as the Minister of Environment, I was able to change things. I have helped change the perception of the people in regard to environmental issues. We have been able to make being “green,” being environmentally aware, we were able to make that sexy and a fashion here in our society, and I think that’s the biggest achievement.
I was involved in environmental movements since I was at school and I have been able to make real change here in society, and I’m very happy about that. You know, waste management was never a big issue for our people, but with the middle class expanding because our economy has been growing about seven percent in the last 20 years, that’s why environmental issues have become easier for us to take to our people and change their perspective and change the way they think.
The economy is the key to solving some of these problems. I think that in Australia in the last five years I was there, from 2004 onwards, I saw a drastic change in perception as well. In 1997 I remember Peter Costello, Australia’s treasurer at that time, used the word biodiversity in the parliament when he passed the budget and I think that was a key moment.
We are drafting a new law here we call the Environment Code, and this will reflect how far our society has come. This law will reflect the shift in our thinking – environmentally, economically, and this will set a new standard for our country for the next 20 to 30 years. I think we are going in the right direction and if we keep going this way, I think in the next 20 or 30 years we will see a very prosperous Cambodia.
For young people like me in our society, it’s better to make computer chips than potato chips.
A video of this interview can be found at: www.khmertimeskh.com