Illegal Logging Threatens UN’s Carbon Trading Project

The military’s ongoing clearing of community forests in Oddar Meanchey province risks derailing Cambodia’s first forest-based carbon trading scheme backed by the U.N., according to the latest assessment of the project.

Community forest groups, who stand to earn millions from the project, said Wednesday that they have proposed a meeting with officials at the provincial government’s headquarters in Samraong City for Wednesday in order to discuss illegal logging in the area.

Members of the network of 13 community forests that make up the 68,000-hectare project area have been complaining about illegal logging for years, and more recently about a proliferation of military bases in the forests.

Sarah Sitts, country manager at the international NGO Pact, said Wednesday that a team from the U.S.-based Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) was in the area in February for a “verification” visit, the final stamp of approval it needs before Terra Global Capi­tal, the scheme’s U.S. broker, can start to sell credits.

While Pact expects SCS to grant that verification later this month, Ms. Sitts said the team also raised serious concerns about the role the military was playing in logging.

“The verification team did note that the presence of the military could be a risk to the project in the future,” she said of their forest clearing. “If it was extensive enough, it could really threaten the whole credibility of the project.”

Ms. Sitts declined to share a copy of the assessment until it goes public. But if the team’s worst-case projection comes to pass, the millions of dollars the project aims to earn over the next 30 years—half of it to be set aside for the local communities themselves—could be lost.

With the potential risks down the line, and more projects from REDD—a U.N.-sponsored initiative for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and For­est Degradation—in the works around Cambodia, the outcome of the project in Oddar Mean­chey could prove critical.

With time, Ms. Sitts said, “there is a risk that the project will lose interested buyers and potential revenue. Instead, we want buyers to see that Cambodia is able to sell carbon credits so other buyers will come to the table.”

As part of the REDD initiative, the project aims to convince Western companies looking to offset their carbon emissions to pay for the carbon the community forests will keep locked up in their trees. The scheme only works, of course, if the trees remain standing.

Sa Thlai, who heads the prov­ince’s community forest network, has been warning that the military bases have been “destroying” the project for months, and that more than half of one of the 13 forests had already been felled.

On Wednesday, he said the clearing was still going on and that a pair of soldiers even briefly detained one of the network’s patrol teams last month, forcing it to give up a cache of wood and chainsaws they had just seized from a group of illegal loggers. He hoped Wednesday’s meeting at the provincial government’s headquarters would help them check the troubling trend.

“The meeting will be a chance for our network to raise our concerns about the continued deforestation happening inside the protected forest under the REDD program,” Mr. Thlai said. “The meeting will be a good chance to speak with military officials and make them understand that it’s important to move their bases out of the protected forest.”

Neither Lieutenant General Chhin Chanpor of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Region II, which oversees the province, nor RCAF Battalion II Commander Keo Thy, whose unit is building some of the largest bases in Banteay Ampil district, could be reached for comment. Lieutenant General Chhum Sucheat, spokes-man for the Ministry of Defense, could not be reached, either.

Whatever the future impact of the military bases, they have already forced the REDD project to cut by 5 percent the number of units, or metric tons of carbon, the community forests saved between 2008 and 2012—somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000—and should be up for sale by the end of the month.

The size of the cut comes from the project’s risk rating and will be up for review every two years along with the amount of carbon the area still holds.

Even so, Ms. Sitts said Terra Global already had one company lined up to buy some of the units, or credits, and has others interested, though she did not have the details on who they were.

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