NGOs in Cambodia: Accommodation with the regime can be very profitable.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 20 2011 12:40 PM

Silence of the Lambs

For do-gooder NGOs in Cambodia, accommodation with the regime is very profitable.

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"There is a percentage of families that are not very keen on agriculture," Gauntlett acknowledged to the Post. "You can bring the cow to water, but you can't drink for it."

WA has protested development projects that have had a direct impact on its programs in Cambodia, including the above-mentioned titanium project in Koh Kong, which Hun Sen canceled two months ago. Gauntlett issued a statement hailing the prime minister for having "looked so deeply into this proposed titanium mine and taken the effort to weigh the consequences that this project would have on the rainforest and the local people."

Gauntlett declined to comment for this story, but WA provided a general response: "The blame game doesn't work for groups like us inside Cambodia. We have to be careful and build alliances that are sometimes uncomfortable. It's delicate because the government can shut down an NGO whenever it wants. But we work on the inside, quietly, and get things done. We've been able to get things done and reverse concessions by working quietly inside the government and reminding it of its own legal obligations."

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I spent two days in Sihanoukville, a seedy but gorgeous coastal town whose beaches and islands have been sold off by the government to developers allegedly planning eco-friendly luxury hotel and condominium projects. "Those who lived or worked there were turfed out—some jailed, others beaten, virtually all denied meaningful compensation," said a 2008 story in the Guardian. The newspaper quoted a British property developer, Marty Kaye, who said, "Nowhere else in the world could you create your own kingdom from scratch. … It's fantastically exciting, the opportunity to zone [a] whole island, to see where the luxury exclusive villa plots will be, for the Brad Pitts, etc."

The developers need green consultants to navigate the local scene and to write environmental-impact assessments that are supposed to ensure that their projects are eco-friendly. International NGOs have been happy to oblige, among them Fauna and Flora International, which has "built strong relationships" with the Cambodian government. FFI's website says that its activities have served to protect the environment "whilst building good governance and alleviating poverty."

In 2008, a Hong Kong-based investment company called Lime Tree Capital was awarded a 99-year lease on an island near Sihanoukville called Koh Rung Sangleum, which it plans to fully develop with resorts and hotels. The only problem was that the island was home to a fishing village with 92 families, which was a nuisance for Lime Tree.

Lime Tree hired FFI as its eco-consultant, and the NGO dispatched several staffers to the island (where they spent a large part of their time snorkeling with a local diving company, sources told me). FFI apparently provided Lime Tree with a development-friendly report, because the company subsequently filed a master plan saying there was little biodiversity on the island and hence not much to conserve. According to a story in the Phnom Penh Post, FFI staffers made a later trip to the island and told villagers they would be restricted to a tiny 12.3-hectare piece of land and ordered them to immediately stop cutting down trees and constructing any new buildings.

Villagers complained to the local government about Lime Tree's plans, leading the company to rethink its initial proposal and offer a better deal to local people. Eighty villagers signed a document (with their thumbprints) demanding the removal of FFI's lead staffer on the project, saying he had lied to them about how much forest and village land would be conserved under Lime Tree's proposal.

Ally Catterick of FFI said in an email that her group takes "a practical approach to engagement and work with a diverse range of organisations, including some sectors and companies that have traditionally had a significant impact on biodiversity but have committed to improving." She said FFI's objective in the island project was "to conserve the biodiversity" and "assist local communities to use the natural resources of the ecosystems sustainably." Catterick declined to disclose how much FFI was paid by Lime Tree, saying it "cannot disclose contractual remuneration for our services without the agreement of the contractor."

The complicity of the greens is matched by NGOs operating in other areas, including anti-poverty outfits. "The NGOs desperately want access and the basic equation is that the government grants it to them in exchange for their silence about corruption or anything else remotely controversial," says the Western expatriate who has worked on land issues. "At a certain point you have to ask yourself, 'Where is this going, and what are we accomplishing?' "

Ken Silverstein is a contributing editor at Harper's magazine.

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