Remarks by Ambassador William E. Todd at the Opening Ceremony for the YSEALI Generation: EARTH Regional Exchange

As Prepared for Delivery
Royal Angkor Hotel, Siem Reap
April 22, 2015

His Excellency Dr. Im Koch, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Education, His Excellency Tin Ponlok, Secretary General for the National Council for Green Growth, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Good morning, everyone.  It is my honor to be here with you today for this important occasion, as we open the first YSEALI Regional Exchange of 2015:  YSEALI Generation EARTH.  On behalf of the U.S. Embassy, I would like to first extend my sincere thanks to His Excellency Dr. Im Koch, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Education, and His Excellency Tin Ponlok, Secretary General for the National Council for Green Growth.  Your presence at today’s event highlights Cambodia’s commitment to youth engagement, education, and environmental protection throughout the region.

I would also like to thank Mr. Dan Ewert and the team from Cultural Vistas, who collaborated with our good friends at Pannasastra University – Siem Reap Campus to bring this remarkable event to Cambodia.  Your tireless work and the passion that you have shown in planning this workshop serve as inspiration to us all.  Please join me in giving a round of applause to the workshop organizers.

But of course, I cannot forget about the most important people in the room: the 72 young leaders that have come from every country in Southeast Asia to engage with one another, learn from leader mentors, and develop action plans to address the many challenges that our shared environment is facing today.  With your energy and creativity, each of you have the ability to help teach thousands more about the importance of protecting our precious wildlife, forests, and natural resources.  And what this YSEALI regional exchange proves is that you are not alone in this endeavor.

This week, you will have the chance to learn from leader mentors like Matthew Cosby, who is here to share his knowledge as a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also helps him in his role as an Urban Waters Ambassador for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  We also have Maureen Wolsborn, who has helped develop a number of key programs and initiatives back in the United States, including the Colorado Youth Advisory Council.  They are just two examples of the 24 leader mentors that have not only answered the call to be a leader in their local communities; now they are reaching out to youth in Southeast Asia to find innovative, sustainable solutions for environmental problems in the region.  For this and so much more, I would like to give you a round of applause as well.

This might be the first time for some of you to be in Cambodia; if so, I hope that you feel as lucky as I feel with each day that I am blessed to be here.  While I have served as the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia since 2012, being here in Siem Reap always reminds me of my first visit to Angkor Wat a number of years ago.  I can vividly recall gazing at the impressive architecture of the temple, a uniquely beautiful testament to a culture that has preserved throughout the years.  But I also think about the preservation of the environment.  Cambodia’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems support the livelihoods of millions of people.  The country’s precious forests and rivers are home to endangered animals like Asian elephants, Siamese crocodiles, and freshwater dolphins.  However, as in any nation that is developing as rapidly as Cambodia, these and other precious resources often come under threat.  Cambodia is now facing some of the highest deforestation rates in the world and the habitats of these animals are at risk of being severely damaged.  Unfortunately, Cambodia is not alone, as every country in the region must now deal with climate change, deforestation, and other environmental issues.

Finding a balance between the preservation of irreplaceable resources and conducting development activities that lift the population out of poverty can seem like an impossible task.  This challenge is why I can think of no better place to have the YSEALI Generation Earth regional exchange than here in Cambodia.   You are here to help with the discovery of new ideas and the implementation of strategies that will have a profound impact not just here in Cambodia, but throughout the region and the world.  The workshops, discussions, and site visits that you will conduct this week will provide you with invaluable experience and networks which I am sure will lead to the achievement of our shared environmental goals.

I am sure that many of you already know that today is Earth Day, which began in the United States in 1970 as a grassroots movement to show U.S. leaders that there was broad public interest in environmental issues.  Forty-five years ago, more than twenty million Americans participated in the first Earth Day event.  Today, Earth Day is observed in countries around the world and gives everyone an important opportunity to pause and think about the natural environment that feeds us and sustains us.  The commencing of this workshop is now part of this legacy.

Over the years, the United States has been working with Cambodia and other nations in the region to protect the environment.  For example, the U.S. government is training forestry officials to improve forest management, conserve biodiversity, and combat wildlife trafficking.  Through the Lower Mekong Initiative, a major program that brings together Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, we are supporting renewable energy activities, infrastructure analysis, and environmental conservation.  Looking comprehensively at a wide range of issues across the five countries, this initiative helps Cambodia and its neighbors plan and act together, becoming responsible partners in sustainable development for the benefit of all.  Over the long term, we believe these efforts will help protect Cambodia’s natural resources and have a lasting, positive impact on global efforts to meet the climate change challenge.

The U.S. Embassy is proud to support the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative here in Cambodia and throughout the region.  Recognizing that over 65% of ASEAN’s population is under the age of 35, YSEALI is a critical investment in the next generation of Southeast Asian leaders.  I have met some amazing young people through President Obama’s signature program for youth leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia.  Many of them are members of my Youth Council, who have also worked diligently to educate others about a number of topics, including environmental awareness.  Witnessing their efforts reminds me of the importance of protecting Cambodia’s natural resources as well as our commitment to the region’s greatest resource – its youth.  We invest so much into you not only because you are the future leaders of tomorrow, but also because you are taking action today.  I applaud all of you here today for the work being done to protect, preserve, and educate others about the environment.

In closing, the United States welcomes our continuing collaboration with Cambodia, ASEAN member nations, and the world for the development of sustainable environmental management and strengthening capacity to manage natural resources.  Just last month, First Lady Michelle Obama visited Siem Reap and had the opportunity to talk to young students about their opportunities and challenges for the future.  She urged them to speak up and get involved in their communities on the issues that matter to them.  I am pleased to know that all of you will be there – both now and in the future – helping others join these efforts to protect our shared environment.  Thank you all very much.