Cambodian villagers fall victim to UN forest scheme to reduce greenhouse emissions

Cambodian villagers fall victim to UN forest scheme to reduce greenhouse emissions

Behind the advertising and glossy brochures, TIM FREWER finds a starkly different reality in a Cambodian province.

Coming up to the Paris Climate Change Conference in November 2015, the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) is poised to become one of the main strategies for countries to fulfil their pledges to reduce emissions.

Many questions remain about how REDD+ will work—specifically how it will be financed and link up to carbon markets and the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions that Annex 1 countries to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are to make leading up to Paris. Nevertheless, REDD+ is now entrenched in major international governmental networks and is being pushed within forested countries across the world.

Cambodia, with its specific political geography of aid-dependence and history of major donor projects to address deforestation, has, unsurprisingly, become a playground for neoliberal mechanisms to deal with climate change. Home to the world’s first voluntary carbon market REDD+ project, as well as being one of the earlier REDD members and participants in the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, Cambodia is now ‘scaling up’ its first two voluntary carbon market REDD+ projects in anticipation of new, national-level REDD+ finance after the Paris talks. Experts, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and consultants are busily preparing new safeguards, gender assessments, benefit-sharing systems, and monitoring and evaluation systems.

Like so many development projects conducted in aid-dependent Cambodia, realities at the village level differ markedly from the glossy brochures and project documents produced in capital cities. The first REDD+ project, which started in 2008 in the northern Cambodian province of Oddar Meanchey, offers a plethora of lessons on conservation and market-based approaches to climate change. Yet the national-level REDD+ program with its millions of dollars of funding and dozens of experts and consultative processes appears incapable of tackling these issues, tending to veil the fundamental problems in warm and fuzzy buzzwords such as ‘full and effective participation’, ‘community empowerment’ and ‘gender equality’.

Frontier province

Oddar Meanchey can be characterised as a frontier area, with rice and cassava production currently the predominant livelihood activity. Following the end of armed resistance by the royalist Funcinpec party and the fall of the Khmer Rouge in the area, the province saw rapid in-migration from 2000.

Until recently, Oddar Meanchey was primarily covered in secondary and disturbed forest. By the early 2000s, however, it had been cleared of most valuable timber, largely by Thai logging companies.

There have been very real trade-offs between forest conservation and agricultural expansion, as the conservation of forest land is a barrier to cassava and rice expansion, which offers at least a minimal existence for the land poor—and an alternative to dangerous cross-border work in Thailand. Early arrivals in the province were easily convinced of the benefits of community forests (CF)—especially if they were located a reasonable distance from farms and ‘empty land’ that they hoped to gradually expand into. By the mid-2000s, however, when in-migration increased and hundreds of thousands of hectares were put aside for economic land concessions—at one stage covering almost one-third of all land in the province—the frontier had well and truly closed, and subsequently land prices rapidly increased.

Consequently, the REDD+ program has encountered some serious conflicts, mostly due to competition over land. In one village, in 2014, more than 100 villages, wielding knives and axes, attempted to protect rice and cassava land that they claimed the REDD+ program had impinged upon. In another, the CF committee unexpectedly expanded forest boundaries into local farmland, even burning houses, farming huts and cashew nut farms that stood in their way.

In some cases, local soldiers had taken over the forests and were extracting rents from people entering and leaving them. Those who challenged these arrangements have faced serious violence.

In another case, it appears the Forestry Administration (FA)—a government authority under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and one of the major proponents of the REDD+ scheme—was involved in a major operation to evict 200 hundred households from a national park and adjacent community forest. The operation included the burning of 128 houses and a violent, forced eviction. But the REDD+ program also appears to have exacerbated a much more banal violence. Of 290 surveys conducted in villages participating in the program, nearly half of the respondents had had to pay informal bribes to either CF committees or soldiers to enter the forests to collect non-timber forest products (NTFPs) or small qualities of timber.

In some cases, local soldiers had taken over the forests and were extracting rents from people entering and leaving them. Those who challenged these arrangements have faced serious violence. Others who patrol the forests to protect them have been injured.

Once the initial $2 million in donor start-up funding dried up and one of the major implementing NGOs stopped providing any assistance, the whole CF network began to unravel in the face of pressure from local military units and land speculators connected to local-level authorities. The only successful CF of the 13 in Oddar Meanchey province is run by a charismatic monk with close connections to the provincial governor and the FA, and who receives separate individual funding from a range of donors. Yet he governs the forest in a near-despotic fashion, preventing one village from collecting resin, evicting another from land within the forest’s border which it has farmed before the forest was established, and imposing heavy fines, and even jail terms, on anyone who dares to engage in small-scale timber felling.

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A household on the edge of a community forest ekes out an existence clearing degraded forest for cassava production.

Nearly all the people I interviewed in villages participating in REDD+ had never heard of the program, and showed little interest in it. Many—especially the poor and near-landless—simply did not go to distant CFs and saw little benefit in taking time out of farm work to protect forests. Over 75 per cent could not recount any benefit from the program. More disturbingly, many of the CFs have not been entirely cleared of landmines.

Yet project documents and advertising material present the situation quite differently. One report erroneously concluded that the REDD+ ‘contributed to tenure security’. But 15-year agreements to allow communities to manage CFs do not constitute tenure security. Less than one-quarter of those surveyed had tenure for their agricultural land, while nearly half had lost land either to a company, local authorities, soldiers or the CF itself. Even with protracted court cases and desperate pleas from people who had lost their livelihood for higher-level intervention, the REDD+ program has ignored them.

A portion of the credits generated by the project have been sold by a private broker, Terra Global Capital, to the Carbon Neutral Company, and are also being marketed on the USAID-backed platform, StandforTrees. Claims made on their websites border on the absurd. Carbon Neutral claims 8000 fuel-efficient stoves were given out in participating villages, but only two of the more than 200 people I spoke to had received stoves—and neither of them associated it with CFs or the REDD+ program.

StandforTrees claims the project empowers ‘100,000 households with clear, legally recognised land rights’—but again, where land certificates have been provided they have nothing to do with the REDD project.

Unpaid efforts

Carbon Neutral claims the project will provide ‘20 person days of employment each year per household’. I could not find anyone at the village level who had been employed by the REDD program, but many complained about receiving one-off $50 dollar payments to entire villages to conduct years of forest patrolling activities. When I told villagers they were supposed to be paid for their efforts, many were shocked and angry to the point of tears. But there are many more commonplace misrepresentations that tend to serve the project’s aims, such as characterising village participants as ‘forest-dependent’. Less than one-third of those I interviewed had ever collected NTFPs from community forests, and when they did, it contributed only modestly to their livelihoods.

Over 60 per cent of those interviewed had debt of more than $200—a significant amount for rural Cambodian farmers—of which repayments are largely dependent on cassava production, a crop that farmers cannot consume. Differences in life trajectories for nearly everyone interviewed were highly correlated to the size of their landholdings, debt loadings, cassava harvests and capital derived from off-farm work.

Project documents also tend to state that ‘migrants’ are a major driver of deforestation in the province, which is placed in contrast to the authentic ‘communities’ supposedly at the centre of the project. In fact, less than 15 per cent of people interviewed were native to the province. Most have come to the province within the last 15 years, making it extremely problematic to make arbitrary distinctions between ‘communities’ and ‘migrants’.

This narrative tends to legitimise the claims of earlier migrants—especially those with larger landholdings—and demonises later immigrants, especially the capital- and asset-poor, who are forced to clear marginal forest lands.

Finally, there is the assumption that Cambodian government institutions, such as the FA, work in the interests of villagers and are even capable of working autonomously of vested interests.

Severe limitations

Project documents present the FA as ‘an implementing partner,’ and the REDD+ program has invested significantly in the FA bureaucracy. Yet the FA has faced severe limitations in preventing the mass pilfering of natural resources. For many villagers, the FA is far from being a partner they can rely on to provide public services. Instead, they feel intimidated by the administration, and do what they can to evade it.

Overall, REDD+ is based on a perverse logic. It uses—if not blatantly exploits—some of the poorest, and those most likely to be affected by climate change, to engage in the messy, time-consuming, labour-intensive and dangerous work of protecting forests, which are of global benefit.

If used as an offset program, REDD+ merely postpones the urgently needed structural changes of Annex 1 economies, which are the primary source of dangerous climate change. If used as a market mechanism, REDD+ exploits the labour of the poor to produce profit for predominantly Annex 1 country entities, without any promise of reducing emissions or protecting forests.

Main photo:
Cambodian forest (Prey Lang Community Network, Wikimedia Commons).

Tim Frewer is a postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who has been researching and working in Cambodia over the past 10 years.

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