in Cambodia

REDD in Cambodia: “The house is burning but they are discussing the colour of the curtains”

2015-07-30-164049_1497x1017_scrot“The Forestry Administration has warned that the government will not meet its goal of achieving 60 percent forest cover nationwide if it continues parcelling out the Kingdom’s territory in economic land concessions.”

That’s the opening sentence of an article in the Phnom Penh Post dated January 2011. The Forestry Administration had just published its 2010 annual report. Economic Land Concessions covered a total of 1.3 million hectares, according to the Forestry Administration.

By the end of 2013, the area of Economic Land Concessions in Cambodia had doubled. This gives us some indication of how seriously Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime takes warnings about deforestation, even when they come from the Forestry Administration.

(The figure has now fallen to 2.1 million hectares, mainly due to the cancellation of a large concession in Stung Treng province.)

Sustainable Forest Management?

Illegal logging, corruption, and rampant deforestation have been serious problems in Cambodia for many years.

One of the biggest obstacles to addressing the destruction of Cambodia’s forests is the myth of sustainable forest management. Superficially, it makes sense. What is currently happening is clearly not sustainable. If only it could be made sustainable, surely the problem would go away. If only Cambodia could somehow be persuaded to develop criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management, along with a set of laws on implementing them.

Of course, for the highly paid international consultants proposing such solutions, the myth of sustainable forest management has the added benefit that drawing up the principles and criteria, writing reports on good governance, and holding consultation workshops, would keep them in work for several years.

Global Witness has been documenting the destruction and campaigning to stop it since the 1990s. Patrick Alley, co-founder of Global Witness describes sustainable forest management as a “nasty little euphemism”. Last year, in a TEDX talk, he said,

“You can divide the industrial logging industry in the tropics into two categories: The criminal and the legitimate. The criminal is criminal. And the legitimate is much the same, but with better PR.”

More PR for the timber industry comes in the form of a recent report from Forest Trends, with funding from the UK’s Department for International Development and Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative.

The report notes that Cambodia loses about 2,000 square kilometres of forest a year. There is a “virtual absence of legal timber sources”.

Total system failure (again)

In 2000, the Asian Development Bank carried out a review of Cambodia’s concessions system, after the government had handed out vast areas of land as logging concessions. The review described the concession system as a “total system failure”.

Of course, that didn’t stop the World Bank from launching a US$5 million Forest Concession Management and Control Pilot Project in the same year. The Bank’s aim was to demonstrate that the concession system could work. Of course the Bank’s project failed. In 2006, the World Bank’s Inspection Panel found that the project broke internal safeguards, ignored local communities, and failed to reduce poverty.

Fast-forward to 2015, and Forest Trends reports that the Economic Land Concession system represents a “second total system failure”. The concession holders are well connected to the government, frequently use military personnel, and more than 80% of the land concessions are inside production forest or protected areas. About 1.1 million hectares of concessions have been allocated for rubber plantations. Often though, the forest is cleared, the timber is exported, and the concession is abandoned.

Despite the past two decades history of destruction, Forest Trends’ solution is sustainable forest management.

Here’s the opening paragraph from the report:

In many countries, the accelerated clearing of forests for agricultural purposes has resulted in the rapid growth of so-called “conversion timber” in recent years. This has fundamental implications for sustainable forest management (SFM) and the legality of domestic and international timber trade, as it is happening at a time when internationally sponsored programs, notably Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) and Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), are promoted as strategies for ensuring that SFM is a reality.

REDD pixie dust

Forest Trends also does not question whether REDD is a solution to Cambodia’s deforestation. According to Forest Trends,

The primary value of REDD+ therefore lies in its potential to influence government land-use planning and allocations. REDD+ provides an opportunity to raise the profile of forest landscapes as a tool for sustainable development, emphasize long-term perspectives, and caution against the dangers of excessive exploitation.

Cambodia’s undemocratic, corrupt, kleptocratic, and violent regime would apparently role over to have its tummy tickled at the mere mention of those magic four letters: R. E. D. D.

Forest Trends acknowledges the problems that REDD projects have faced in Cambodia:

The Oddar Meanchey project has been plagued by land allocations issues
while the sale of carbon credits has failed to materialize despite having fulfilled the required criteria. In the case of the Seima Protected Forest, approximately half of its high biomass evergreen forests (30,000 ha) were excised and allocated to ELCs in 2012, just as the REDD+ project activities were getting underway.

The solution to this is a “national approach rather than a sub-national one based on projects”.

To show that Cambodia’s indigenous peoples support REDD, Forest Trends quotes Joan Carling of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, speaking at a 2013 press conference at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York:

“Now let me cite an example of how this is being regarded on the ground. In the case of Cambodia, where the forest is being given away to economic land concessions left and right, and so the indigenous leaders had asked, ‘If REDD is going to stop the concessions, the government from giving away our land to concessionaires, or to rubber plantations, then we’d rather go for REDD, than anything else, because with REDD, if REDD will assure that our forests will remain standing and that we will be able to do our livelihoods, then that is the way for us to go.’”

Faced with the choice of seeing their forests bulldozed and their livelihoods destroyed or something called REDD that will make all bad things go away, I’m sure that most people would go for the REDD pixie dust option.

But realistically, there is little chance of REDD addressing the rampant corruption and failure of the government to uphold the law in Cambodia.

Marcus Hardtke, an expert on forest issues in Cambodia, spoke to BBC News about the agencies working on REDD in Cambodia:

“They have websites and newsletters but it is all irrelevant.

“The house is burning but they are discussing the colour of the curtains.”


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