As Forests Fall, Carbon Credit Plan Faces Collapse

Community forest chiefs and rights groups in Oddar Meanchey province say logging is now so rampant they have finally given up hope that a U.N.-backed scheme to generate millions of dollars worth of carbon credits for the area and the country will ever get off the ground.

They say the project is effectively dead, and that some of the very people who spent years trying to conserve the area have finally lost hope and joined the loggers.

“The program here for carbon trading is dead,” said Din Heng, chief of the Andong Bor community forest. “The government was first committed to protecting these forests for carbon trading, but they are not doing anything to help us fight the illegal logging.”

His is one of 13 community forests covering a combined 68,000 hectares across Oddar Meanchey province anchoring what the government still nominally hopes will be Cambodia’s first forest-based carbon trading scheme, better known as REDD, for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.

Backed by the U.N., the plan aims to find environmentally conscious companies abroad who want to offset their carbon emissions by paying Cambodia to keep its carbon-hungry trees standing. Over 30 years, the project could potentially earn tens of millions of dollars to be split between state coffers and local communities.

After years of effort, however, the government has yet to lock in a single buyer. The trees it is trying to sell, meanwhile, are being logged at an ever-increasing rate by everyone from desperate cassava farmers to soldiers, according to community forest members.

In mid-2012, locals said that half of Andong Bor’s 6,114 hectares were already gone. Mr. Heng, the community forest’s chief, said another 2,000 hectares were cleared this year alone to make way for new cassava fields.

With grants from the NGO Pact, Mr. Heng and other community forest members were being paid modest stipends to patrol the project area on a regular basis and, with the help of local authorities, keep the trees standing. When Pact ran out of funding for the project and had to stop the stipends nearly a year ago, some of the members pooled their own money to keep the patrols going.

But Mr. Heng said their money—and patience—has run out, leaving the loggers, soldiers and desperate farmers unchecked.

“Some of the community forest chiefs are fed up with being ignored by local authorities when they try to fight illegal logging in the protected forest,” he said. “Finally, some of the community forest officials are now chopping down trees also.”

Malis Hoeut, chief of the 6,016-hectare Romdoul Veasna community forest along Oddar Meanchey’s border with Thailand, said his forest has been cleared almost completely.

“The local authorities have indulged villagers from other provinces who moved in and cleared the forest,” he said. “Now I can see that the carbon credit program has collapsed for sure, because almost all of this forest has been chopped down.”

The government and Terra Global Capital, the U.S. firm hired to broker the carbon sales, have years worth of satellite images they are using to track the change in forest cover across the project area, but are refusing to share it.

If Mr. Hoeut and Mr. Heng are right, though, the project has lost nearly 12,000 hectares in just two of the community forests, roughly 18 percent of the entire project area. And they say the same thing is happening in the other 11 community forests that make up the project.

Srey Naren, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, agreed. He said the project was beyond saving.

“The REDD project in Oddar Meanchey for carbon trading has collapsed without being pushed. Deforestation and land encroachment are out of control,” he said.

Earlier this year, military officials said they received orders to build bases and outposts inside the community forests in order to beef up the army’s presence along the Thai-Cambodian border, and have taken over thousands of hectares.

Pact said the pace of deforestation across Cambodia, among the fastest in the world according to independent analysis of U.S. satellite data, was worrying. But it declined to comment on the likely fate of the REDD project in Oddar Meanchey.

Deputy provincial governor Vath Paranin admitted to some logging but rejected the dire assessments.

“The REDD project has not collapsed because there are still a lot of trees standing,” he said. “We are not ignoring these cases [of logging], but there are some opportunists moving in to build houses.”

Terra Global said it had not measured the extent of deforestation in the project area recently, because it formally verified forest cover only every two years.

“The reports from the FA [Forestry Administration], communities and local partners would be a better source of information before the current deforestation dynamics in the project areas,” said Leslie Durschinger, Terra Global’s managing director, in an email.

Ms. Durschinger also said that there are still no buyers for carbon credits generated by the Cambodian project areas, due to what she characterized as an oversupply of sellers in the carbon trading market.

According to Pact, two companies prepared to buy the first $1 million worth of carbon credits from the project walked away after the government failed to sign off on the deal in May 2013 because it could not work out the bureaucratic details in time.

The Agriculture Ministry’s cabinet chief, Thun Sarath, said the government was now close to reaching deals with a few other companies, but he could not provide details.

He said he did not know how much of the community forests in Oddar Meanchey were left, but said that the Forestry Administration’s last project report, in April, was positive.

“The report said that the REDD program is going well,” he said. “They mentioned that the project in Oddar Meanchey is going well, not any problem.”

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