Lim Nguon Commentary: “Reflections from Southeast Asian Students”

I represent students of the Study of the United States Institute on Global Environmental Issues, funded by the U.S. Department of State, hosted by the Mansfield Center, and led by Dr. Len Broberg. The program is based in Montana, but includes study in Louisiana and Washington, D.C. We are a group of 19 undergraduates from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, and Vietnam, chosen by U.S. embassies to participate in this program. We share a common interest in learning about environmental issues in the U.S., as well as a strong desire to improve the environment in our home countries. I have been chosen to represent our group and share our impressions of our experience thus far.
We arrived in Missoula on July 1. During the past month, we have gained much experience during this immersion in American culture. Americans in general appear respectful of nature, in such ways as preservation of wildlife habitats. Through visits to the Blackfeet, Salish, and Kootenai tribes, we have learned how Native Americans not only live with nature but protect it from harm so as to preserve it for future generations.
We have learned that Montana’s Constitution embraces harmonization between people and natural resources. This sense of responsibility for the environment is impressive to us in terms of the quality of life. People here care about the environment while systematically managing natural resources. This is clear to us from the production and consumption of environmentally-friendly products such as biodegradable and post-consumer products. Waste management is another spectacular instance of proper environmental protection in the U.S. In contrast, in my home country of Cambodia, improper waste management causes air and groundwater pollution.
We believe this sense of community and environmental ethic are derived from the quality of education, the rule of law, the standard of living, and especially support from the government. Other major inputs include the level of environmentally-friendly technology and human know-how. In contrast, people in Southeast Asia struggle with balancing economic development and environment protection.
Another striking feature of American society is the way people come together from so many walks of life to sit at one table to build trust and find solutions. Despite their different interests, despite great difficulties that bring them to the brink of litigation, despite many years of struggle, they continue to sit together to talk rather than resort to lawsuits. What lies behind such long-term pursuit of negotiation? We have seen a number of reasons in our visits across the state, including meetings with the Blackfoot Challenge and the Blackfeet Tribal government and visits to the Rocky Mountain Front and Glacier National Park. These people wish to allocate proper use of natural resources while preserving them for future generations. What impressed us most is their shared great love of this picturesque land as stated in the preamble of the Montana constitution: “We the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of its mountains, the vastness of its rolling plains….” From a conversation with Salish Elder Louis Adams, I believe that it is this admirable great love that enables potential adversaries to resolve their differences to maintain this immensely beautiful landscape for hundreds of years into the future.
We are also impressed by the collaboration on environmental sustainability to address social issues in Montana. We studied the work of the PEAS Farm and Garden City Harvest to provide quality food to low-income populations. Missoula also has such places as Home Resource and Secret Seconds to create a culture of reuse, recycle, and reclamation. At the same time, such organizations dedicate themselves to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. Such organizations provide us with useful examples of addressing such issues of waste management and economic problem in our own countries.
We are wholeheartedly grateful to the U.S. Department of State and the American people who support us in education. We believe that through this precious program, we can enhance relationships and mutual understanding between the U.S. and our home countries. Thanks very much!
On behalf of the Mansfield Center of The University of Montana, and my colleagues Syifa, Koung, and Vin, I am Lim Nguon of Cambodia.

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