Officials and lawyers are in ongoing discussions about amending the forest, fisheries and protected areas laws to transfer natural resource protection and conservation functions from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to sub-national level administrations.

According to Sak Setha, permanent secretary of state for the Ministry of Interior, other related complex issues have already been reconciled.

Setha said on December 6 that there were proposed amendments to three laws on forestry, fisheries and protected areas. Most of them, he noted, have been agreed upon but there is still ongoing debate concerning the transfer of the conservation functions of the forestry and fisheries aspects to the sub-national level.

Setha said the transfer of these functions needs to be studied carefully because it involves natural resources, sustainability and conservation work and the implementation must be done smoothly.

“Only the transfer of functions issue remains outstanding, while the rest of the changes to forest policy have already been agreed upon. This law covers all of the forests, both environmentally protected and agriculturally managed, because in the past the law only applied to forests that were managed,” he said.

According to Setha, many chapters of the law have already been written, but the remaining two chapters on the structure and conservation role of the ministry and the chapters on the punishments for related offences are still being discussed.

However, he stated that the issue of punishments would not really be a problem because it can only refer back to the three existing laws covering forest crimes in order to be consistent with the Criminal Procedure Code, though he remains unsure as to when the draft law would be finalised.

Pen Bonnar, senior land and natural resources investigator for rights group Adhoc, said on December 6 that the law in the amendment was sufficient, but it did not clearly define the roles of the various government entities involved.

He said the law must define the role of each institution in order to bring perpetrators to justice. The law would only be effective if the offenders are punished according to the law consistently.

“In the past, wrongdoers serving in official capacities created a system to protect each other so that the law only applied to weak people or just a few powerful people, but rarely. This has resulted in an anarchy of deforestation, draining lakes and land grabbing – all of it in a totally lawless manner,” he said.

Bonnar is of the view that the amendments to the laws will not be effective if officials are not held responsible for their implementation and for enforcement of the law or lack thereof.

“They can amend the law 100 times if they’d like, but until there is some accountability it won’t protect Cambodia’s natural resources,” he said.

Ngan Chamroeun, interior ministry secretary of state and head of the National Committee for Sub-National Democratic Development, said on December 6 that the law needs to be amended because it gives monopoly powers to ministries in both prevention and litigation of natural resources and conservation-related cases.

He said the amendment will make it easier for the government to enforce the law and to override the legal powers that grant exclusive domain to the Forestry Administration or Fisheries Administration because there should be other institutions participating through the devolution of power to the sub-national level to help suppress natural resource crimes.

“Let the sub-national authorities help with these investigations instead of having the agriculture ministry work on it alone. Then whoever sees these crimes taking place can crack down immediately and file the cases with the court.

“The complainant won’t have to transfer it to the forestry or fisheries administration as the sponsor in order to file a complaint with the court, which is the situation right now and we have to change it,” he said.