Project Question: Can abstract human rights inform concrete environmental reform in Cambodia?
This research builds on seed funding for a project about “Promoting a Human Rights Based Approach to Sustainable Conservation and Natural Resource Management in the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, Cambodia.” This project was supported by the Commonwealth of Australia through the Australian National Commission for UNESCO of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Minister of Environment, Cambodia, His Excellency Dr Say Somal, has also generously supported this project. The project is about linking human rights and environmental protection.
The research takes place in the Boeung Tonle Chhmar protected area of the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, Southeast Asia. The Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and, being one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, supports more than 1.2 million people. The lake has a unique hydrological cycle with seasonal flooding (from the Mekong river) which creates a vast wetland area. The Boeung Tonle Chhmar area has been identified as a wetland of international significance and has been placed on the Ramsar Convention’s list of protected wetlands. The lake is also classified as a Biosphere Reserve in national legislation and the Boeung Chhmar area hosts a Protected Wildlife Sanctuary (a designated IUCN category IV protected area).
The Boeung Tonle Chhmar location is also home to a number of floating villages and communities have long lived in floating homes and buildings in this area; these communities rely for both sustenance and livelihoods on the natural resources of the lake. In a country where 85% of the population live in rural locations and an estimated one third of the population live on less than $US1 per day the reliance many have to the environment is of the utmost importance. In this project I am seeking to establish whether we can improve the management of this highly important wetland area. The project has generated empirical evidence about the extent to which human rights principles can inform conservation approaches in this location. This is an emerging area of inquiry in which environmental protection is linked explicitly to human rights norms. Preliminary fieldwork undertaken throughout December 2013 and January 2014 has provided some evidence that there is a disconnect in how people live with natural resources on a daily basis (e.g. catching fish for eating and selling) and the overarching legal and regulatory arrangements in which certain prohibitions on fishing place undue limits on these activities. Most of those surveyed, living adjacent to these highly protected areas, are well versed in the need to preserve the habitat and biodiversity of the wetlands and are supportive of the protection mandate. What we see from the fieldwork is the need to achieve both better human and environmental outcomes. The next step in this research is to determine whether the ideas around human-rights-based-approaches, such as accountability, participation and transparency in decision-making, might be used to inform conservation initiatives and increase the effectiveness of environmental regulation.