in Cambodia

Contradictions in Wildlife Conservation Society’s Seima REDD project in Cambodia

In July 2016, the Walt Disney Company agreed to hand over US$2.6 million for carbon credits from a REDD project in Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province.

The REDD project, covering an area of 180,513 hectares in the core area of the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Disney bought 360,000 carbon credits from the project at US$7.20 each.

The Phnom Penh Post spoke to Ross Sinclair, country program manager for WCS:

“This is a huge deal for Cambodia. It puts this country front and centre in global efforts for REDD+,” he said adding that it shows that the Kingdom is finally ready for “performance-based” payments that will allow the country to access funding earmarked under the UN Climate Agreement, known as COP21, reached late last year.

Sinclair describes this as a performance-based payment. In other words the payment is supposed to be for reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation that have already taken place.

Deforestation in and around the Seima REDD project

WCS has been working in the area for many years. In 2002, the area was declared the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area.

In November 2007, Tom Evans of WCS took part in a workshop in Phnom Penh. Evans portrayed the WCS Seima project as a success. His presentation included a slide that states that “Deforestation is almost all outside the boundaries” of the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area:


WCS started its Seima REDD project in 2009. Once it was a REDD project, WCS could no longer describe its work so far as having successfully prevented deforestation, because without the ongoing threat of deforestation, WCS would not be able to claim that it had reduced deforestation compared to the counterfactual story of what would have happened in the absence of the project.

In 2013, Evans wrote in the Project Description for the REDD project that, “Conservation interventions prior to the REDD project have been on a fairly limited scale.”

He emphasised the threats to the forest:

The SPF [Seima Protection Forest] is currently under threat from accelerating forest clearance for agriculture together with unsustainable resource extraction (including hunting, logging and fishing). These activities harm both biodiversity and local forest-dependent livelihoods. Current drivers of these direct threats include improved road access, population growth, weak law enforcement and governance frameworks, limited recognition of the value of biodiversity and environmental services and rising market demand for both wild products and agricultural produce. The development of mines and agro-industrial plantations could also become potential future deforestation drivers if the area lacked full protection by the government.

And after Disney paid US$2.6 million in performance-based payments, WCS put out a press release that undermines any claim that the payment was performance-based:

The Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary faces threats similar to all protected areas in Cambodia and the region, including illegal logging and forest clearance for agriculture, both by smallholders and for large-scale plantation crops such as rubber. The project aims to address these pressures by strengthening the management of the reserve while securing land titles for communities and ensuring sustainable access to crucial forest resources.

Global Forest Watch reveals that deforestation to the west of the Seima REDD project has been dramatic, particularly since about 2010.

The image below was created by overlaying a WCS map of the REDD project area (from the Project Description) on Global Forest Watch’s deforestation map (the REDD project area is green, the Seima Protection Forest is a paler green, and tree cover loss is pink). The overlay isn’t perfect, but it shows that while there is little deforestation inside the REDD project, an area of the north-west part of the Seima Protection Forest has been deforested:


Illegal logging

Just two weeks after the announcement of the Disney REDD deal, 100 pieces of luxury wood were seized in a military officer’s house near the Vietnamese border. The Phnom Penh Post reported that the wood is believed to have come from the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.

Chhay Savath, the military officer, lived next door to the District Governor, Sin Vannvuth, who said Savath had been trading in illegal timber for years. The Governor doesn’t seem to have done much to stop the illegal timber operation. Vannvuth told the Phnom Penh Post that,

“They mostly worked at night. I let expert officials take legal action.”

In August 2016, 453 logs of illegal timber were seized in three locations in Keo Seima district, during a two-day operation involving the Forestry Administration, the prosecutor’s office, the army, military police and the National Police.

Choy Sokheang, the Forestry Administration district chief told the Phnom Penh Post that,

“The wood had been carried by people on their motorbikes. Vietnamese people were supposed to come and collect it, but they were stopped at the border so our officials investigated.”

And in September 2016, more illegal timber was confiscated in O’Raing district on the boundary of the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.

In the 2013 Project Description, Evans writes that,

The illegal selective harvesting of rare Luxury grade tree species is a serious law enforcement issue at the site, as elsewhere in Cambodia, but has negligible long-term effect on carbon stocks.

Why did WCS decide to change from a wildlife conservation project to a REDD project?

Here’s a short video about the WCS REDD project, featuring Tom Evans. The video was produced by in 2010, shortly after the Seima REDD project started:

Six years after this video was made, the Seima REDD project received its first funding from sales of carbon credits.

I’ve sent the following questions to Tom Evans at WCS, and will post his responses in full and unedited.

  1. In 2007, you gave a presentation at a workshop in Phnom Penh in which you portrayed WCS’s work in the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area as a success. In your presentation you stated that, “Deforestation is almost all outside the boundaries” of the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area. Six years later, in the project description for the REDD project, you wrote that, “The SPF [Seima Protection Forest] is currently under threat from accelerating forest clearance for agriculture together with unsustainable resource extraction (including hunting, logging and fishing).” What had happened to cause the increase in pressure on the forest between 2007 and 2013? (Global Forest Watch reveals that deforestation between 2002 and 2014 was almost all outside the boundaries of the REDD project, although an area of the north-west part of the Seima Protection Forest has been deforested.)
  2. How do you respond to the argument that in 2007 you had to describe the project as a success in order to attract new (and keep existing) funding, but in 2013, Seima was now a REDD project and it became important to emphasise the threats to the forest, in order to be able to claim that the project was avoiding deforestation?
  3. Illegal logging is still taking place in and around the Seima forest area. In the weeks following the announcement that Disney had bought US$2.6 million worth of carbon credits from the Seima REDD project, there were several reports in the Phnom Penh Post of confiscations of luxury wood. Isn’t addressing illegal logging part of the REDD project?
  4. Disney’s purchase of carbon credits is supposed to be a performance-based payment. Yet WCS argues that the threats to the Seima Protection Forest remain. Will WCS return the money from Disney if deforestation increases in the future?
  5. Given that WCS was already working in the Seima Biodiversity Consevation Area, why did WCS decide to convert the project to a REDD project?
  6. How much did developing the REDD project cost? How does this compare to the Biodiversity Conservation Area project?
  7. If the Seima project were not a REDD project, couldn’t WCS have focussed more on conservation rather than producing long reports, measuring the carbon, and trying to sell the carbon credits? Couldn’t you have approached Disney anyway for funding? Then all of the US$2.6 million would be available for conservation – without the necessity to measure carbon emissions from the forest and compare them to an unverifiable baseline.
  8. In the press release about Disney’s purchase of carbon credits, WCS lists the various agencies that have funded the project:
    • U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Supporting Forests and Biodiversity (SFB) Project, a program implemented by Winrock International;
    • the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD);
    • Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and Fonds Français pour l’Environnement Mondial (FFEM);
    • Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA);
    • Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI); and
    • the European Union (EU).

    That strikes me as an awful lot of state-backed funding for a project that is supposed to be funded through a market mechanism. How much did each of these agencies give to the project, and where did the money end up? How much of the money went to communities living in and around the Seima REDD project? And how much was spent on consultants, intermediaries, overheads, and so on?

  9. I think we both agree that the Siema Forest should be protected, as should the rights of the indigenous people and local communities living in and around the forest area. Where we disagree is whether carbon trading is a good way of raising the funding to protect the forest. In order to address climate change we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The buyers of REDD credits use the credits to continue fossil fuel emissions. How do you respond to the argument that REDD does not reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels, but allows industry to buy offsets and continue polluting?


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