in Cambodia

Conservation International, illegal logging and corruption in the Cardamoms, Cambodia

The Phnom Penh Post has published another article in its investigation into corruption and illegal logging on a Conservation International project: “Rangers paid by an internationally funded conservation organisation have been directly profiting for years from the very trade they are supposed to be preventing in southwest Cambodia.”

Thap Savy worked at Conservation International. He photographed a “bribe book” that allegedly shows how CI-supported Forestry Administration and military police officials profited. But when he spoke up about the corruption, he was sacked. “I saw CI took the money from the illegal loggers. I came to talk personally and complain to the CI director [Seng Bunra], that’s why I was sacked,” Thap Savy told the Phnom Penh Post.

Thap Savy was not the only person speaking out about the illegal logging. In June 2009, the head of one of CI’s community management committees wrote a series of reports to the government and Fauna and Flora International. He reported that rangers paid by CI were selling off confiscated rosewood from Central Cardamom Protected Forest.

David Emmett, Senior Vice President for the Asia-Pacific Field Division at CI, described a December 2011 article in the Phnom Penh Post exposing the illegal logging as “dramatically inaccurate and patently untrue”. But Seng Bunra, CI’s Cambodia country director, has now told the Post that CI is planning to investigate the allegations. The alleged offenders are not CI employees but Forestry Administration rangers. However, CI provides grants to the Forestry Administration “and [CI] monitor[s] progress on agreed tasks and deliverables on a monthly basis”, Seng Bunra told the Post.

CI maintains a ranger station in O’Som commune, which is part of the Central Cardamom Protected Forest. The Post describes parts of the commune as looking like the aftermath of a war zone:

Large swaths of forest in the commune have been completely gutted, leaving just stumps and eroded soil in a charred, barren landscape.

Between 2008 and 2011, Agence Française de Développement gave CI US$1.1 million for its Cardamom project. More funding has come from GEF, the United Nations Foundation, USAID, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Save the Tiger Fund, DANIDA, and Disney Foundation. CI explains on its website that,

GCF [CI’s Global Conservation Fund] is also working with l’Agence Française de Développement and Fauna & Flora International to design a sustainable financing mechanism for the Central Cardamom Protected Forest.

“Sustainable financing mechanism” is a euphemism for “market mechanism”. A recent paper by Sarah Milne of the Australian National University and William M. Adams of the University of Cambridge, in Development and Change looks into some of the flawed assumptions in the establishment of Conservation International’s payments for environmental services (PES) scheme in the Cardamoms.*

The authors describe the CI project as “a ‘REDD-like’ PES scheme”. The paper is particularly interesting given the way the project has turned out, with the allegations of widespread corruption and illegal logging.

The PES project was designed by head-office staff in Washington DC in late 2005. “The project in Cambodia is considered highly successful by its implementers,” Milne and Adams write.

The paper looks at five communes within the CI PES project area. Each commune receives payments ranging from US$7,160 to US$18,360. The amounts were calculated to match the opportunity cost of conservation, based on the expected rice yields from newly cleared land. Other non-monetary or difficult-to-quantity costs such as harvesting of non-rice products from shifting agriculture plots (such as vegetables, fruit, fuelwood, wildlife and grass) were ignored. The authors explain that,

Although project managers recognized that the opportunity cost calculations were not technically accurate, they were used to negotiate the commune’s ‘willingness to accept’ price for commitments to stop deforestation.

To set up a PES scheme requires a single seller who can enter into agreement with a single buyer. In this case the single seller is the community. CI staff found that some communes were ethnically mixed or “internally conflicted”, yet they deliberately avoided questioning the idea of “community” and considered them as homogeneous entities. CI’s “communities” were created around the requirements of the PES model. “The outcomes,” Milne and Adams write, “were inevitably shaped by pre-existing power structures.”

Milne and Adams write that Commune Councils that are used as representatives of local communities in CI’s project, are dominated by elites who “are able to continue their own land-clearing activities unhindered”.

The paper highlights a problem that is far from unique to CI or Cambodia. The definition of the problems in the Cardamoms and the solutions (PES in this case) were drawn up by economists in Washington, expatriate staff in Cambodia, foreign biologists and government staff. Community perspectives were thus excluded. Milne and Adams write that,

PES models therefore empower buyers to define the nature that they want to save and how, while leaving little scope for participatory or bottom-up natural resource management.

By focussing on compensation for “avoided deforestation”, CI’s project undermined villagers’ claims to fallow land that appeared to be “forest”.

CI project staff were not interested in who was cutting trees. In one agreement negotiation meeting in 2007,

certain committee members argued that it was unfair to force villagers to comply with PES contracts if powerful others in the commune were still allowed to cut forest. Committee members pleaded for help from the NGO to defend their forest and land resources, but this was ignored. Instead, project staff said: ‘We are not talking about that today. . . we don’t care about who is cutting the forest, we just want to know how much was cut’.

Under the CI project, deforestation was a community-level problem, and the community was left to work out who is cutting the forest and how to stop them. CI staff defended this as the most “cost-effective” approach.

In fact, it appears that CI staff only heard what they wanted to hear. As the article in the Phnom Penh Post concludes,

Community members, consultants and staff repeatedly told CI’s management about the illicit timber trade that was taking place since 2009, but instead of acting on these concerns, the organisation simply denied it was true.
Millions of dollars in foreign donations go into CI’s programs to protect the CCPF.
Donors may want to know why millions of dollars in illegal timber are going back out.


[*] The authors do not name Conservation International in their paper: “We do not believe that our arguments would be strengthened by specific identification of the organization concerned.” But it’s hardly a secret. Sarah Milne’s website at the ANU shows that from 2002 to 2005 Milne worked as a Community Program Manager, Conservation International, Cambodia. The paper states that “The first author had prior involvement in the project from 2002–05.”

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  1. I wonder if Harrison Ford has heard of this situation?

  2. Gee where’s the international “concern” of the west now I wonder

  3. @Marie (#3) – Thanks for this. I did a post about this last week: “Environmental activist Chut Wutty shot dead in Cambodia“. In 2001, Chut Wutty was part of a Conservation International team patrolling illegal logging in the Cardamom Mountains. According to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Wutty was threatened back then by a military commander then for investigating illegal logging.

    So Conservation International must have known that illegal logging was a serious issue in the Cardamom Mountains when they were designing the PES scheme in the Cardamoms. They also knew that the illegal logging had the backing of the military. Yet instead of attempting to address the problem CI effectively left it up to villagers.

  4. Sarah Milne has written an excellent article on New Mandala about Chut Wutty’s murder. She comments on Conservation International’s role in the Cardamom Mountains:

    Apart from mobilising community action, Wutty was also instrumental in exposing forest crime in remote areas such as the Cardamom Mountains, where he was shot and killed on Thursday. The scourge of illegal logging for luxury timber, predominantly rosewood (genus Dalbergia), has left no corner of Cambodia unturned. However what is remarkable about the ‘rosewood phenomenon’ in Cambodia is the use of state authority and resources to facilitate its extraction and trade. Apart from dubious government licences and military protection for loggers, even hospital ambulances have been diverted from public duty to transport rosewood.

    Probing deeper into the context of the Cardamom Mountains, however, the rosewood story becomes more complicated. On the day that Chut Wutty died, he was travelling from Pursat to Koh Kong on a new road constructed by the China-Yunnan Corporation, as part of its development of the Atai Dam, located in the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest. This forest area is part of a multi-million dollar ‘conservation landscape’ that is funded by international donors and managed mainly by Conservation International and the Cambodian Forestry Administration.

    Since 2009, when construction of the Atai Dam began, the trafficking of rosewood in the northern Cardamom Mountains has been rampant. It appears that tens of millions of dollars of timber have been extracted from the area so far, under the auspices of the MDS Import Export Company. This well-connected Cambodian company was originally contracted only to clear forest from the Atai dam reservoir area, but its logging activities have been widespread and systematic. Remarkably, Conservation International has remained silent on this issue, refusing even to acknowledge the existence of illegal logging in the area, in spite of cries for help from villagers, and evidence of their own park rangers’ complicity in the timber extraction.

    It is this failure of mainstream and ‘official’ conservation efforts that pushed the battle for Cambodia’s forests to the fringe. This is what drove Chut Wutty and his colleagues at NRPG to risk their lives gathering data on illegal logging operations in the Cardamom Mountains and elsewhere. The work of NRPG revealed not only the culpability of government officials who abuse their powers to profit from logging, but also the hypocrisy of NGOs like Conservation International that have denied the existence of logging altogether, in order to maintain the façade of effectiveness, along with their government and donor relationships.

  5. I would like to say that: now the old situation is happen at Rattanakiri province’Try Pheap company come to buy hard wood. what to do?

  6. Now they give mistake to villagers. they collect fingers print from villagers at Sieampang , steung treng province io allow the company to cut hard wood to exchange with the compahy fix the dam. In the last all deforestration is become villagers cut and sell to trader. the company will ascape from forest crime.

  7. I was recently in Ratanakiri, at the Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area, for a Gibbon spotting trek. We saw and heard chain saws both night and day, even very close to the ranger station supported by CI. From on-site discussions it became very clear that the situation is enormously complex with government (national and provincial), police and industry corruption, local villagers and conservationists having competing interests.

    Would be interested to hear more from Thap Savy on the background to the problems in this particular area.

  8. Yes thank you to Haskan Toresson that you know clearly about deforestration in Cambodia. i want to know that, if Cambodia in the future not corruption?
    who will go to jail? i waiting to see! u think many NGO can help deforestation in Cambodia? for me not at all. i recommande that , yes NGO can work for rotie dayly but not cooperate with the trader like CI(conservation international)in 2009… now i leave
    ci already and try to help another NGO . Yes good if the new NGO hard to work, butindependant.

  9. YES,Now i see, all NGO that protect forest can not do anything, they only work to protect their project to get money from donor and their salary, why donor stil pay money for protecting forest?
    I think , no meaning with NGO , they are lie donor for their salary. It is the better ways: donor stop help all NGO that protect forest, nothing, !!!!!

  10. Yes, now the people can not protect their land, why they can sell Carbon? to whom? Cambodia still has climate change also,