This past August I led Field Study trip to Cambodia and Myanmar as an optional 1-credit addition to the course “Environmental Governance in the Developing World,” which I co-taught with Professor Lin Yanmei as part of Vermont Law School’s Summer Term. It was the second year for the trip, which is designed to supplement our course and give students a chance to gain first-hand experience learning from local lawyers, activists, and regulators about the issues and challenges for implementing strong environmental governance.
This year, the trip started out in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we met with the Vishnu Law Group and heard presentations on their work on behalf of indigenous communities in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces that are being impacted by economic land concessions and land grabs. We learned that one of the biggest challenges local communities face is in obtaining community based land title for their lands. They need to go through a byzantine process involving three separate government ministries, and it can take many years.
After our meetings in Phnom Penh, we departed with a small team from Vishnu Law Group and several members of Young Eco Ambassadors, a local Cambodia organization that works to raise awareness on environmental issues, and headed for Mondulkiri Province. In Mondulkiri we visited with Phnong ethnic villagers in the Dak Dam commune to hear from them about their struggle with Mega First Corporation, which in 2013 had been issued an Economic Land Concession for rubber cultivation covering over 9400 hectares of forest in the Namlear Wildlife Sanctuary Zone. The five communities impacted by the project claim that the land concession overlaps over 3300 hectares of forest that they depend on for their livelihoods and for religious purposes. Additionally, while in Mondulkiri we also had the opportunity to participate in an Indigenous People’s Day celebration, which involved music, dancing, and a communal meal of a water buffalo that had been slaughtered that morning for the event. After Mondulkiri, we made the trip to Ratanakiri province, where Vishnu Law Group was representing a local community that had also been the victim of land-grabbing by a local businessman. On the way back to Phnom Penh from Ratanakiri, we were able to pass by and catch several good glimpses of the mighty Mekong River.
After a day of rest back in Phnom Penh, we traveled to Yangon, Myanmar, where the US-Asia Partnerships for Environmental Law has been working with local partners for several years now to support the development and strengthening of Myanmar’s environmental governance system. In Yangon, we had the opportunity to meet with the Rule of Law Centres – Myanmar and learn about the innovative work that they are doing all over the country to raise awareness about legal rights and processes at the community level. We also met with one of our long-time partners in Myanmar, the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, who gave an amazing presentation on the work they’ve done with the government, business community, and local organizations to strengthen capacity for good business practices.
The following day, we had the unique opportunity to visit the Thilawa Special Economic Zone just outside of Yangon, and were very graciously hosted by the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee. They provided a series of presentations for us on the environmental challenges that the SEZ had faced, as well as the management measures that they are putting in place to address these challenges. Finally, after our trip the the Thilawa SEZ, we returned to Yangon to meet with several lawyers from Earth Rights International who are very active with regard to a number of environmental issues in Myanmar, including the Thilawa SEZ. This meeting was an invaluable opportunity for my students to learn firsthand from local lawyers about the difficulties of pursuing environmental justice in a country like Myanmar. While in Yangon we also had some time to do a bit of sight-seeing, including to the world famous Shwedagon Pagoda. We are very grateful to all of our partners on the ground for their hospitality and generosity, and we look forward to doing this grip again next year.