In Defence of the Conservation Sector

There has been a great deal of criticism of conservation NGO’s working in Cambodia recently and as someone who has worked with the conservation sector here for the past decade, I would like to make a defense of their position. I have worked with all of these groups to some degree and feel that much of the criticism being leveled at them is very unfair. There have been accusations of corruption, of being overly eager to tow the government line and avoid confrontation. Some have suggested this is to keep themselves employed, others that they have failed to push the government hard enough to stop land clearance and illegal activities or to fight the ever increasing number of economic land concessions that have appeared over the past few years.

Unlike other sectors of the aid industry that concentrate for example on health or people related issues, the conservation groups are trying to protect a natural resource that has been the countries major sources of income for several decades, the forests. This is something that other sectors do not have to deal with, no one is going to complain if an Oxfam or Save the Children want to help the needy, however when a group wants to stop a forest being cut down they face huge pressure as this is a very valuable resource that many people and businesses want a piece of. Cambodia desperately needs to improve it’s economic standing and as in every other country on the planet the government here is seeking to make use of it’s natural resources, which consists largely of trees and land. Unfortunately we have to accept that some forests will be cleared, that some hydro power dams will have to be built, it is a matter of trying to persuade the powers that be to look carefully at each project and ensure that these developments have a minimal impact on the environment and rural communities that rely upon them. The Cambodian government has every right to exploit it’s forests if it so wishes and the fact is, should an NGO in any sector be too vociferous, the government could simply ask them to leave the country. As foreigner’s we should remember that we are guests here.

There has been a lot of talk of corruption and some of this is in truth fair. However, these almost entirely relate to a handful of the government staff that all of the conservation NGO’s are obliged to employ. They have no choice in this and their complaints have until recently fallen on deaf ears. I would like to make it clear that there are many good and dedicated people from both the Forestry Administration and the Ministry of Environment, so it would be grossly unfair to label them all as corrupt. However there have been several well-documented instances of collusion in illegal logging in a number of supposedly protected areas, including Virachey National Park and in the Cardamom Mountains among others. All of the groups have had problems with corrupt staff in the past and last year, when Prime minister Hun Sen very publicly removed Ty Sokun as the head of the Forestry Administration, most if not all the groups took the opportunity to raise the issue of corrupt staff with the government and have them removed.  From what I have seen most of the bad apples now appear to have gone.

There is also the issue of corruption in general in Cambodia to consider. Due to pathetically low wages corruption has unfortunately been a necessity for many to even survive. Often, higher paid positions are openly bought and sold and the purchaser in turn must recoup their ‘investment’ as it were, which just exacerbates the situation. Corruption is a hugely complex issue here and is not as clear-cut as some may believe.

For me, if it were not for the efforts of the conservation NGO’s over the past decade there would be little of Cambodia’s forests left today. One look at ‘protected’ areas like Snoul or parts of Phnom Aural, which have little or no foreign NGO involvement, have been totally decimated. In effect the conservation NGO’s have become ‘fire-fighters’, trying to keep the destruction to a minimum. They are up against so much money and power, which most other NGO sectors do not have to deal with and I feel the people criticising them would do well to remember this.

For me the main failing of the foreign NGO’s has been the lack of communication with the general public. While there’s been a lot of work with communities at a local level, little has been done to raise awareness of environmental issues with the general population. Tree-huggers like myself generally accept that the average person really couldn’t care less about some trees or a cute and cuddly animal. Let’s face it most of the population have bigger problems like feeding themselves. However, for any conservation effort to succeed in the long term there must be more involvement from Khmers, they need to be leading the fight. This can only happen when environmental issues are brought to the attention of the public, in my opinion particularly with the youth, who of course will be the future decision makers. In most other countries there are locally respected intellectuals that help to raise these kind of issues, unfortunately, due to Cambodia’s well documented recent past, the Kingdom currently has few if any such people, so the foreign NGO’s need to work to fill this void in the short term. Not an easy task.

On the bright side I have to say that students here are starting to take an interest in their environment and I have met and worked with some very good Khmers in the conservation sector in my time here. I am at least a little optimistic for the future. So long as there is something left for them to protect.

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About Allan Michaud

English Wildlife Photographer/Environmental Filmmaker based in Cambodia
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One Response to In Defence of the Conservation Sector

  1. Graeme says:

    I accept that conservation NGOs have been trying very hard and have shown high commitment. Like Allan says, however, sometimes it depends on how and where the effort is employed. For me, I think the greatest threat to any natural resource is corruption and imbalances in power. That means politics – not necessarily party politics, but politics.

    So, in order to deal with the problem, we have to deal with the cause – which means politicization. But being political requires that we are adept at seeing and analyzing the system of power, and being strategic. It is the voters of Cambodia who have the main role in controlling their government. But people need to be united together as a civil society and they must have the idea that it is their role and responsibility to control their lives and their government. If NGOs of any type say that it is the role of NGOs to lead, they are undermining the role of civil society (non-constituency based NGOs should be service society rather than civil society). So non-Cambodia-constituency based conservations should not be trying to conserve forests. They, and other NGOs, should be supporting a civil society from village level to national level which is organized, independent and politicized. This is generally not what I see happening.

    But this is not a new thing. Analysis of the role of NGOs all around the world has been similar. It is peoples organizations and movements that make a real difference. They are the real civil society and the civil society that can make change. All the planning and marketing strategies of NGOs, however, set NGOs up with grand visions and state a huge power to achieve results – as primary agents of change. Well, I am sorry, that is just not the case. The only sustainable impact that NGOs will really have is in the support of a politicized civil society. Humility is required rather than grand visions and frantic implementation to fulfill them.

    I refer people to a long term study of NGOs: Bebbington A., Hickey, S. and Mitlin, D., 2008 “Can NGOs Make A Difference? The Challenge of Development Alternatives, Zed Books, New York. The general conclusions I have described above and it is not just for conservation NGOs – it is for NGOs in all sectors. Please NGOs “lead from behind” and transition to “supporting from behind”. If not, you will protect something for a short term but will undermine the power systems required to protect things for the longer term.

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