Many of Cambodia’s citizens live in abject poverty, some on as little as 50 cents per day, and the country’s economy depends heavily upon the tourism industry just to eek by. But all of that could change in coming years with the discovery of new oil wells in the Gulf of Thailand, The New York Times reports today – but will it be a turn for the worst?
Top officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have been feeding the excitement this year, offering extravagantly optimistic estimates that the oil money could start to flow within two to three years.
But all of this is not necessarily good news.
For many struggling countries, like Nigeria and Chad, oil has been a poisoned bonanza, paradoxically dragging them into deeper poverty and corruption in what some call the oil curse.” [NYT]
The concern is that with Cambodia’s shabby financial infrastructure, a sudden influx of oil money will not (as it has been promised) be used for development and the reduction of poverty, but will instead line the pockets of top officials.
The Times has been right in this kind of prediction before – a 1981 article on Nigeria talked of newfound oil wealth as “Mixed Blessing” [Times Select]. Today, the situation has only degenerated; last Tuesday, PBS’s Frontline reported on why over $400 billion in oil money in the Niger Delta hasn’t been used towards anything meaningful.
There are other reasons for concern: Cambodia’s government has yet to get a handle on the rampant clearing of its forests, even though deforestation was attributed as a major cause to a flood in 2000 that affected millions of lives.
In another example of being unable to properly maintain valuable resources, in an entirely different context, Cambodia has still fallen short of creating tourist restrictions to prevent further erosion at its beautiful Angkor Wat temple.
Power corrupts, as the old adage goes, and the temptations birthed by black gold have created some of the worst situations of our time – Sudan, Nigeria, and Iraq, just to name a few. It will be interesting to see how the Cambodian nation fares should Chevron’s high expectations pan out; we can only hope that such newfound wealth will not lead to the further demise of a rich environment, or to deeper suffering in a country that has only recently emerged from darkness.