Environment and natural resources policy and administration

The 7th National Consultation Workshop on the Draft of the Environment and Natural Resource Code of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Photo by Open Development Cambodia, taken on 22 March 2018. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

With 76% of its people living in rural areas,1 Cambodia holds one of the largest shares of rural population in the world, while the livelihoods of almost two-thirds of citizens depend on agriculture, forestry and fishery.2 In the face of the ongoing expansion of development and infrastructure projects, facilitated by capital inflows and investments, the environmental preservation and effective management of natural resources is of vital importance for the well-being of millions of Cambodians.

Cambodia’s natural ecosystem is highly rich and varied, including many different types of forest and flora, minerals, coral reefs and a wide number of wildlife species. Despite nearly 40% of Cambodia’s land being protected under law, worsening environmental degradation is causing irreversible damage to the ecosystem, threatening biodiversity, wildlife and natural resources. Forest land conversion for agricultural purposes, mining and extractive activities are accelerating rates of land degradation and deforestation. Together with illegal timber harvesting, wildlife poaching and over-fishing, these activities are generating serious risks for soil fertility, carbon sequestration and watershed stability. Deforestation further exacerbates Cambodia’s high vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, intensifying floods and droughts. As wet seasons change and become less predictable, livelihoods from rice cultivation, fishing and agriculture are endangered.3

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) recognizes the importance of the country’s natural resources and biodiversity. The role of the government in protecting the environment and natural resources is established by the Constitution of Cambodia, which states the responsibility of developing precise management plans for preserving land, water, air, wind, geology, the ecological system, mines, energy, petrol and gas, rocks and sand, gems, forests and forestry products, wildlife, fish and aquatic resources.4

Legal environmental framework

Cambodia’s Rectangular Strategy – Phase IV embodies an inclusive and sustainable development for the country by establishing the direction of environmental governance in four main areas:

  1. Promotion of agricultural and rural development
  2. Strengthening of sustainable management of natural and cultural resources
  3. Management of urbanization
  4. Ensuring environment sustainability and readiness for climate change.

The current legal and policy framework for environmental governance is made up of the following policies, legal documents and plans:

The Ministry of Environment (MoE) is the ministry with overall responsibility for environmental governance. However, acknowledging that this is a cross-sectoral issue that requires strong collaboration, other governmental bodies are directly engaged, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME), Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MOWRAM) and the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC).

The MoE is in charge of developing national and regional environmental management plans to identify key environmental challenges and the means to address them.5 Before issuing any decision or undertaking any activities related to the preservation, development, management or use of natural resources, ministries must consult with the MoE.6 The main legislation regarding environmental protection and natural resource management is the 1996 Law on Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Management (“Environment Law”), which has paved the way for the design of national and sectoral plans.

Cambodia first defined its protected areas in a 1993 Royal Decree, with this content expanded in the Protected Areas Law (2008) for the management of community protected areas. The Protected Areas Law establishes that the Ministry of Environment (MoE) is responsible for managing Cambodia’s protected areas,7 while the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has jurisdiction on protected forest and fish sanctuaries. In 1999, Cambodia joined the Ramsar Convention, under which the Kingdom commits to the use of wetlands and water resources in a sustainable manner. To date, Cambodia has five Ramsar sites totaling 85,235 hectares – Stung Treng, Boeung Chhamar, Koh Kapik, Prek Toal and Stung Sen – which are designated as globally important sites.8 The legal framework for managing forestry and fisheries is provided in the 2002 Forestry Law and 2006 Fisheries Law. The rights of communities to protect and manage forests and fisheries are recognized in Sub-Decree on Community Forestry Management and Sub-Decree on Community Fisheries Management, respectively.

Interactive map of Cambodian natural protected areas (1993-2020)

Projects that might generate potential environmental impacts must conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), regardless of whether they are publicly or privately funded,9 as established by Chapter III of the Environment Law. EIA reports must incorporate considerations on climate change, protection of cultural heritage and ethnic minorities/indigenous peoples.10 Striving to meet international standards, the EIA framework keeps advancing in gender equality provisions and public participation (10th Draft Version).11

In February 2020, the MOE issued Prakas No. 021 on the Classification of Environmental Impact Assessment for Development Project.12 This classifies investment projects based on their nature and scale and specifies whether they are subject to an initial environmental impact assessment (IEIA) or the full EIA. This new regulation addresses previous uncertainty about the legal requirements and also details under which conditions an Environmental Protection Contract (EPC) is needed. Prakas No.021 is an updated revision of Sub-Decree No.72 from 11 August 1999 and the Prakas No. 1428 on public service fees dated 20 November 2014 issued by the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF).

Finally, Cambodia’s National Environment Strategy and Action Plan, 2016–2023 (NESAP) aims to ensure that environmental protection and sustainable natural resource management are pillars of the country’s socioeconomic development. The NESAP—Cambodia’s first national environment plan since 2002—provides the country with a road map for achieving a number of its Sustainable Development Goals.13 NESAP provides a detailed analysis of the state of the environment in Cambodia, and outlines priority policy and governance improvements and financing mechanisms that can help the country achieve environmentally sustainable economic development. A $260 million pipeline of current and planned environmental projects and programs is included in the NESAP.

A legal framework in expansion

The MoE began drafting a comprehensive Environmental and Natural Resources (ENR) Code with the purpose of improving the sustainable development of the Kingdom by protecting the environment and conserving, managing, and restoring natural and cultural resources. The draft Code includes general principles, environmental impact assessment, strategic environmental assessment, and biodiversity and protection of endangered species. It establishes biodiversity conservation corridors to provide linkages and protection for high-conservation areas. It also addresses protection of cultural heritage, public participation and access to information, a collaborative management process and dispute resolution procedures.

The ENR Code was expected to bring tremendous advances in environmental governance, through an increased capacity to regulate, protect and manage biodiversity and natural resources. However, after multiple reviews of the law, the 11th draft has not yet been approved, while a number of concerns have been raised by CSOs and environmental experts, including limited representation of communities and participation in all stages of the project, a lack of recognition of indigenous peoples claims and the use of ambiguous terminology.14

At the same time, the government is as well drafting a Coastal Master Plan covering popular tourist beaches in Preah Sihanouk province. The aim is to enhance environmental protection and make the coastline attractive, clean and accessible for tourists. A strip 50 meters above the sea will be set aside for public use.15 In early 2020, an updated plan came out, which includes the expansion of the beach front area to promote tourism while ensuring sound ecological development.16

Further regulation is urgently needed to ensure the sustainable development of Cambodia, protect the livelihoods of its citizens and preserve the country’s biodiversity and natural resources, while addressing the important environmental impacts generated by climate change and the drivers of economic growth, especially tourism and industry.

Last updated: 09 November 2020

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