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Geographies of Evasion: The case of the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in Cambodia

Buddhist monksCambodia’s forests face huge threats from illegal logging, mining and land concessions for plantation crops for export like rubber and sugar. Oddar Meanchey province in the country’s northwest has the highest rate of deforestation of any province in the country. Which should make Oddar Meanchey the perfect place for a REDD project.

Of the few REDD projects in Cambodia, the Oddar Meanchey project is the most advanced. It aims to link 13 existing community forests covering a total of 67,783 hectares with the voluntary carbon market. The project was set up in 2008 by Community Forestry International and since 2009 has been run by the Cambodian branch of a Washington DC-based NGO called PACT and Cambodia’s Forestry Administration. Terra Global Capital is marketing carbon credits generated by the project.

Amanda Bradley of PACT lists the drivers of deforestation in Oddar Meanchey as population increase, resettlement, logging and economic land concessions. She argues that,

The Oddar Meanchey REDD project addresses these multiple drivers of deforestation and forest degradation through a range of activities including reinforcing land tenure, land-use planning, forest protection, awareness raising, agricultural intensification and assisted natural regeneration of degraded land.

Robin Biddulph is a researcher at the Department of Human Geography at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. He questions whether the project is actually addressing the drivers of deforestation in Oddar Meanchey province and suggests that the project may be an example of what he calls “Geographies of Evasion”. Biddulph explains the concept as follows:

[W]here the agendas of external development agencies and host nation governments differ … these differences will be resolved by the expedient of implementing interventions in places where they do not make a difference.

Cambodia seems to have perfected this response. Community forestry projects are implemented where the forest has already been logged. Land titling takes place where land tenure is already secure. And REDD takes place where the forest is not immediately threatened.

In 2011, Biddulph presented a paper at a conference at the University of Gothenburg in which he looks at REDD through a Geographies of Evasion lens (pdf file, 227.5 kB). He looks at the example of the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in north west Cambodia and suggests that the project “provides early evidence of how deforestation is being prevented in places where the major drivers are least present”.

Biddulph emphasises that his argument is structural and not that the promoters of the REDD project in Oddar Meanchey are cynically avoiding difficulty. He points out that “the practitioners involved have a huge personal commitment to tackling deforestation”.

With his Geographies of Evasion Biddulph asks two simple questions:

  • Where is the problem that is claimed to be addressed by the intervention?
  • Where is the intervention being implemented?

If the problem and the intervention are in different locations, this leads to a discussion of the reasons, “which means opening the discourse to include factors that are often systematically downplayed prior to implementation in order to get projects financed and underway”.

According to PACT’s Amanda Bradley the province was chosen for a REDD project because of the high rate of deforestation. Biddulph, however, points out that although the baseline for the project is based on the 2% deforestation rate over the entire province, the project covers an area of less than 15% of the province’s forests. Biddulph’s field research in 2011 was “strongly supportive” of the argument that the project’s community forests are less prone to deforestation than the rest of the province.

Almost everyone that Biddulph’s research team asked was pessimistic about the future of the forests in the province outside the community forests. One villager said,

There won’t be any trees left outside the community forest because the people cut them down every day. The woodcutters travel through the village with truck-loads of wood every day and nobody dares to do anything about it.

Biddulph explains that compared to the rest of the forests in the province, the community forests are reasonably well defended against deforestation. In fact, forests that are not community forests stand little chance of surviving. “In this context the REDD intervention does seem to be tending away from the places where the problem is most severe and towards the places where the problem is least severe,” Biddulph writes.

Biddulph reports that although the communities involved are often described as forest dependent, villagers in Oddar Meanchey told him that of the 58 villages involved in the 13 community forests, only two were actually located in the forest. Their livelihood is largely based on agriculture, not gathering forest products. One village is several kilometres away from the community forest, “away from the places where the community was active deforesting to secure its livelihoods,” Biddulph notes.

In a 2009 paper, titled, “Cambodia’s forests and climate change: Mitigating drivers of deforestation”, Mark Poffenburger of Community Forestry International wrote that,

[T]he Oddar Meanchey Project has received an extraordinary level of political support from the Office of the Prime Minister…. The Royal Government of Cambodia views the Oddar Meanchey REDD project as a ‘test case’ to see if payments for forest carbon are a viable alternative to other production-oriented forest land management strategies.

But provincial and district officials and villagers told Biddulph’s research team of the “continuation of national decisions to allocate forest land to both military use and for mining and agricultural concessions”. This contradiction between what REDD proponents describe as government support and the reality on the ground fits well with Biddulph’s Geographies of Evasion hypothesis. He comments that,

In this case, the fact that the supporters of the project were able to garner apparent government support at the time when the proposal was being developed in 2008-9, but that business as usual seems to be operating with regards to land use decisions in 2011 tends to suggest that the key drivers had been avoided rather than addressed.


PHOTO Credit: Amanda Bradley, PACT. (Buddhist monks play a leading role in one of the largest community forestry areas in the project.)

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  1. If there was a group of neighbouring villages in exactly the same situation, though who made their living from logging unsustainably and didn’t exercise SFM, the baseline and additionality of a REDD project would be justified. The implication of this analysis is that the Oddar Meanchey villagers shouldn’t be rewarded because there is no additionality, and the projected baseline is low.

    If the hypothetical villages did exist, and was deterred from illegal logging by a REDD project that brought livelihoods in line with the Oddar Meanchey villages, you could arrive at a situation where two different groups exercised exactly the same livelihoods, but one was being rewarded with carbon credits because their past choices posed a hypothetical threat to the forest.

    I guess this is the perverse incentive in a nutshell.

  2. @Twitcher

    Indeed, you have neatly summarised the fundamental structural problem with REDD as it is mostly being practiced.

  3. Hi!

    I’m a student of REDD+ and confused by why this is perceived as a negative example of REDD and how this presents a fundamental structural problem/perverse incentive.

    To me it appears that the payments provide an incentive to help the communities in the project area section of the province conserve their forests even while the forests are being destroyed around them.

    To me the article seems to show there is more work to do and that there are other areas that are being deforested at higher rates and do not seem to be receiving interventions.

    Any input/feedback would be helpful. Thanks!

    All the best,
    Observing REDD

  4. @Observing REDD

    The problem is that projects such as this do not really prevent deforestation, because they are being set up in areas that are not particularly under threat. There are many examples of this worldwide where carbon credits are being generated for supposed ‘avoided deforestation’ in remote strictly protected areas that have not experienced significant deforestation in many decades.

    This means that the carbon credits so generated are essentially ‘hot air’ credits – if traded against a real emission somewhere else they will not cause a ‘cancelling out’ of those emissions, because the REDD project generates no real savings in carbon emissions.

    It’s important to understand that some forest conservationists (especially in hard-pressed international NGOs) are more concerned about generating funds to ensure short-term protection of their pet projects than they are about the longer-term future of the entire planet, which false carbon trades like this help jeopardise. (This is one of the reasons why some of the big international conservation organisations have lobbied so hard for ‘sub-national REDD’ – because this would allow them to get funding for their existing forest conservation projects.)

    And, of course, these projects can be used to pretend that there is some ‘success’ for REDD, even if the reason the forest is protected has nothing whatsoever to do with the REDD project, and can be used to divert attention away from continuing official policies of deforestation elsewhere. As the Harapan project is demonstrating, stopping real frontline deforestation through REDD is a much much harder prospect.

  5. Thanks X Witness for your response!

    In examining these complicated issues I’d really appreciate examples of specific projects.

    From the information provided it seems like the deforestation threat in Oddar Meanchey province is real, albeit perhaps more intense in other sections of the province outside of the project area. I assume this difference is represented in a more conservative deforestation rate that is being applied to calculate carbon loss? In this case isn’t the REDD payment helpful for protecting the forests?

    I agree there is an issue with REDD carbon credits being used as a license to emit industrial greenhouse gases. We need absolute reductions! So you are saying many of the REDD+ projects these pet conservation REDD projects that are protected by BINGOs already have sufficient financial endowments and trusts?

    Do you have any examples you can provide me of REDD+ projects have been issued ‘hot air’ credits?

    Thanks for the help!
    Observing REDD

  6. Just to add a bit more ‘flavour’ to this issue of carbon credits and deforestation albeit in a different location.

    We are doing some reseach on a national park in Kalimantan that has a history of deforestation (as much as +9000ha in 2002), and whether a carbon prgram might be one possible alternative (among others) to the illegal logging and illegal land clearing for farming occuring there.

    Preliminary data suggest the deforestation rate may have since fallen significantly. However long term timber projections for Indonesia suggest that timber demand in Indonesia may double in the next 30 years, potentially placing huge pressures on natural forests.

    The current low deforestation rate (using VCS methodologies for carbon credit projects) will result in baseline (deforestation) projections that are low going forward thus making a carbon credit program unsupportable. With current low deforestation rates at the park, does it mean it will continue to experience low rates taking into consideration its history of high deforestation rates plus potentially huge demand in future? I doubt it. If demand does surge again in future, a national park with its rich supply of logs may be irresistable again to illegal loggers unless the park has more protection.

    There are more complications with regards to carbon credit projects such as the issue of additionality (as a national park it should be “protected” and thus might not qualify), leakage (where deforestation will simply move to the surrounding unprotected areas), low carbon credit prices, land ownership issues, and many other hurdles. Its not something a local community can easily develop by themselves.

    Right now, I’m not sure if carbon credits will be an effective way to reduce deforestation on a wide scale, especially if on a voluntary basis. And you are right in that ‘hot air’ credits, as well as carbon cowboys ripping off local communities certainly does not help.

  7. @Edmund Hoh

    Interesting stuff!

    So I’ve got an international development/environmental science background and have done some digging into the specifics on carbon accounting, MRV, etc.

    My understanding of the different VCS REDD methodologies is that the baseline REL (reference emissions level) you calculate is applied to the forested areas of the REDD+ project from historical data that would account for the ~9000 ha in 2002 and would then be updated every 10 years of the project’s life. Project life depending on start date of current project management etc.

    Protection being key in an area with significant illegal logging, project activities would have to be comprehensive and probably done in partnership with local community authorities/government?

    National parks/conservation areas from my exposure in Indonesia, Nepal, India, Peru, etc. are typically underfunded and only on paper with a lot of community subsistence depending on regular extraction of resources from the national park and possibly wildlife poaching.

    My understanding is that these historical National Park/conservation areas that are getting hammered by deforestation/degradation CAN be REDD+ projects. Leakage is totally an issue though and that’s why it seems to me that there needs to be serious work on integration into jurisdictional/national programs and leakage deductions depending on the deforestation drivers and project activities that are meant to solve the problem.

    I want to see more money going into conservation and more conservation outcomes on the ground. Period.

  8. Interesting article yesterday about Oddar Meanchey in the Phnom Penh Post:

    Soldiers detain REDD forest patrol members
    09 April 2013 By Phak Seangly

    Community forest patrollers in Oddar Meanchey’s Samrong district say they were forced to return saws and timber they seized from illegal loggers after soldiers detained and threatened them on Sunday.

    The 27-member patrol, funded by development NGO Pact as part of the REDD+ carbon credit program, was detained by two armed soldiers while returning to their office with two chainsaws and 100 planks of luxury timber they had seized on Saturday from four villagers felling trees in protected community forest, said representative Suon Sorn.

    “The armed soldiers blocked us between 3pm and 6pm, threatening to bring us to their garrison. We were hungry and tired and promised to return [the seized items],” he said, adding that the patrol returned the items yesterday.

    The soldiers had said the trees were being felled to construct a new building for their garrison, said community forest network provincial chief Sar Khlai.

    He pointed out that authorities would not have given the garrison permission to log in an area acknowledged as community forest land by the government, which had an agreement with Pact to develop a REDD+ carbon credit program there.

    The soldiers’ unit could not be reached. Samrong governor Thol Nol said authorities had not granted the garrison rights to community forest.