For the past three years, Timothy Frewer of the University of Sydney has been carrying out his PhD research in Cambodia, looking at the Oddar Meanchey REDD project. REDD-Monitor has written a series of posts about Oddar Meanchey, questioning how the project can sell carbon credits while deforestation continues.
Frewer has carried out almost 300 interviews, including interviews with the heads of all 13 community forests involved in the Oddar Meanchey REDD project. Frewer is very critical of the project. “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,” Frewer writes in the newsletter of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.
The Oddar Meanchey project is featured on the USAID supported Stand for Trees website, where it’s called the “Buddhist monk forest conservation project”.
Stand for Trees explains that,
The forests in Oddar Meanchey are critical to the traditional identity of the Buddhist Monks and other local communities that have been living in the areas for generations.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But Frewer’s research findings are in stark contrast to the claims on the Stand For Trees website.
“In many of the sites more than half of the forest (at the time of verification) has disappeared. The REDD programme has been powerless to stop these processes,” Frewer told REDD-Monitor by email.
If success is measured in terms of substantially decreasing the rate of deforestation, then only one site has succeeded. That is the Monks community forest (Song Rukavorn). That site however has seen substantial financial support in excess of the other sites. But if we measure REDD in terms of providing people with a humble income stream that can act as a disincentive to clearing forest, then the project has failed miserably in all sites.
Frewer is also critical of the Monks community forest:
The only successful community forest 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.
Frewer disputes the claim on the Stand for Trees website that the project “Empowers 10,000 households with clear, legally recognized land rights”. Where land certificates have been provided they have nothing to do with the REDD project he says.
Villagers have received little or no money for their work patrolling and trying to protect their community forests. Frewer writes:
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.
The Oddar Meanchey REDD project “has encountered some serious conflicts, mostly due to competition over land”, Frewer writes. He reports that the REDD project has led to violent encounters. In 2014, more than 100 villagers wielding knives and axes, attempted to protect rice and cassava fields that they claimed the REDD project had encroached on. In another village, “the community forest committee unexpectedly expanded forest boundaries into local farmland, even burning houses, farming huts and cashew nut farms that stood in their way”.
Villagers are forced to pay bribes to community forest committees or soldiers, just to go into the forests to collect non-timber forest products (NTFPs) or small amounts of timber. In some cases, soldiers had taken over the forests and were demanding rents from people entering the forest.
Project documentation claims that villages in Oddar Meanchey are forest dependent. But villagers’ livelihoods are largely based on agriculture, rather than gathering forest products. Frewer writes that, “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.”
Frewer told REDD-Monitor that,
People at the village level have invested serious amounts of labour and energy into the protection of forests even when it offers them very limited financial or other gain. People in Oddar Meanchey are not forest dependent – the vast majority are low income agriculturalists struggling to earn a living on less than two hectares of rice and cassava land. By foregoing the opportunity to expand into forest land many have made a major sacrifice – and one that is unlikely to ever be compensated. They have to contend with both the military encroaching on their lands and forests, as well as large economic land concessions – of which most are connected to the elite. The big issue of REDD+ is that it has shown itself incapable of tackling these problems.
One of the problems with the Oddar Meanchey REDD project (and other REDD projects), Frewer added, is that it has “little or nothing to offer low-income and land poor agriculturalists who live adjacent to forests”.
For Frewer, the most disturbing aspect of the Oddar Meanchey project is that, “no one seems to be learning any lessons from it.”
Nearly all implementing partners, as well as the large group of experts assembled in Phnom Penh to construct the national level programme have distanced themselves from the failures of Oddar Meanchey. In place of honest and transparent conversations about what went wrong (and how to avoid such obvious failures in the future) there has been a series of tokenistic workshops and consultations that employ all the latest buzzwords, but are worlds away from the day to day realities of poor rural farmers living in forested areas and their day to day struggles.