in Cambodia

Response from Tom Evans, Wildlife Conservation Society: REDD has made “Seima a stronger project with a better long-term future”

Two weeks ago, REDD-Monitor wrote about the Seima REDD project in Cambodia. The post included a series of questions for Tom Evans who leads the REDD+ and Forest Conservation Programme at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Evans replied to the questions today. Evans referred me to the Project Document (PD), which is available here. And he made the following clarification about the project:

Please note that while you addressed these questions to WCS, and framed them in terms of WCS making decisions, etc. in fact the Ministry of Environment of the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) is the project proponent with WCS serving as technical and implementation advisor. The response below has been discussed with government representatives but the views are those of WCS. We should also note that the due to reorganization of Cambodia’s conservation and forest estates under the Ministry of Environment, the project site has recently been renamed the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.

Evans’ answers are posted here in full and unedited:

REDD-Monitor: 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.)

2016-10-04-161457_1680x1026_scrotTom Evans: Threats have intensified during that period. It’s a common occurrence in frontier zones. The PD sets out a fuller discussion and discusses the nationwide changes of accelerating development in Cambodia, but two specific factors at the site illustrate the change in the threats. First, the main road through Seima, once a barely-passable logging track, was given an all-weather surface, increasing the attractiveness of the area for agricultural expansion. Secondly, agriculture, the main direct driver of change, has progressively expanded across the broader landscape. At the time of the presentation you cite, the deforestation threat was mainly from one outlying frontier settlement growing up around an abandoned logging camp. Since then the main agricultural frontier, expanding from areas nearer to the capital, has arrived at the borders of Seima on a broad front, bringing with it a much greater challenge. The graphic you created shows this progression quite vividly.

REDD-Monitor: 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?

Tom Evans: We have previously highlighted where we were having visible impacts on threats, as these were things we wished to build on, but have never pretended that threats were fully and permanently under control – especially since we were well aware that, over time, they were intensifying (see above) and we needed to enlist additional resources and support to address them. Hundreds of visitors over the past 15 years can vouch for the fact that they were shown significant, visible threats as well as efforts to curb them.

Again, the graphic you created makes the point – it is an example of the efforts we were making, well before Global Forest Watch became available, to measure threats (here, deforestation), and to be transparent with other stakeholders. RGC and WCS have made similar efforts with monitoring of biodiversity, and there too have recorded, and publicized, a mixture of successes (among them e.g. threatened primates) and losses (including, regrettably, the loss of the last tigers some time before the REDD project began).

To document the case for REDD credits a project must prove that deforestation is expected to keep occurring. Far from ‘emphasizing’ anything the methodologies require that calculations of emissions reductions be based on a series of conservative assumptions, and that these calculations be subject to detailed external scrutiny (including being fully published in the PD, with updates in periodic verification reports).

REDD-Monitor: Illegal logging is still taking place. In 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?

Tom Evans: Addressing illegal logging is a part of the REDD project, and again, this is discussed at length in the PD. Logging of luxury timber is occurring widely in Cambodia and often reported in the press. Luxury species are very valuable (in $ per m3 terms) but a minor component of the forest canopy, so the carbon impacts of this logging are secondary to other aspects such as the threats to biodiversity, the governance issues, and the loss of a valuable economic asset. While logging continues to be a key challenge for law enforcement in Seima, the project is generally perceived to have achieved a degree of success against it, having moderated the losses that would otherwise have occurred and being one of the last places in eastern Cambodia to have retained significant stocks of rosewood. Acknowledging the difficulty of halting this threat altogether, the carbon calculations during the first phase of the project take account of the ongoing pressure from rosewood logging, and it is an explicit part of the monitoring program before credit issuance.

REDD-Monitor: 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?

Tom Evans: There are two issues mixed up here. The first is that it is possible for a REDD project (indeed a project in almost any field) to achieve measurable performance without immediately halting all threats. Establishing effective management over such a large area takes time, even if funding is not limited. During this time, if deforestation is significantly reduced compared to the expected losses for a given period then there is clearly performance worth rewarding.

The second is the issue of permanence – there is no lasting success if deforestation continues indefinitely at a lower level and eventually destroys the same area. There are mechanisms built into the way the credits are generated through the Verified Carbon Standard system (as used in Seima) to ensure there are net climate benefits overall even if some individual projects do not, in the end, achieve permanence. This works by setting aside a portion of the credits from every project in a pooled buffer, unsold. Then if any project in the system experiences a reversal or failure the credits it has issued are replaced with credits from the buffer pool put there by other projects. The project has a relatively good non-permanence risk rating (see PD Annex 2.2) based on a range of standard factors and so sets aside 10% of its credits in the risk buffer. Recent developments in the conservation sector in Cambodia continue to support this rating.

REDD-Monitor: Given that WCS was already working in the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area, why did WCS decide to convert the project to a REDD project?

Tom Evans: To meet the requirements for ‘additionality’, REDD aims to finance achievements beyond what was already occurring – so rather than ‘converting to a REDD project’ the existing project was expanded to include REDD. This expansion was needed because, as set out in the PD, grant-funded project activities prior to the REDD project start were judged insufficient in scale, scope and financial sustainability to address all threats, indefinitely, at the necessary scale. The REDD framework was seen as a potential solution to that because it might bring a new, larger, more flexible source of finance for operations, and by creating a source of revenue, also strengthen public and political support across Cambodian society for the protection of conservation areas. In parallel the RGC and WCS looked into other potential sources of increased finance, and remain open to them in future, but to date none of them has shown comparable potential to REDD.

REDD-Monitor: How much did developing the REDD project cost? How does this compare to the Biodiversity Conservation Area project?

Tom Evans: Generating a total cost for the REDD project and comparing that to the conservation work is difficult since so many of the tasks and staff time were integrated into ongoing conservation efforts (See Annex 4.4, Appendix 1 ‘Historical breakdown of funding in SPF by activity…’ as an illustration of this point). The relative costs of the REDD development, core project budget and other activities are shown graphically in Annex 4.4, Figure 1 (‘SPF funding history..’) of the PD.

While there have been additional development costs since the publication of the PD, it would be difficult to differentiate between development finances and implementation finances as RGC and WCS serve in both development and implementation roles. If this was defined as time spent finalizing the PD and completing the validation, this cost is well below $75,000 and included project strengthening activities such as community consultations, developing monitoring plans, and enhanced compliance with social and biodiversity safeguard requirements under CCBA.

For more detail also see the answers to the next two questions.

REDD-Monitor: If the Seima project were not a REDD project, couldn’t WCS have focused 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.

Tom Evans: The RGC and WCS did not choose between a REDD project and conservation, but rather we have done both, as set out in some detail in the PD. There is grant-based funding available for forest conservation projects in Asia, but it is limited in scale, intermittent in supply, restricted in what can be supported, typically constrained by short funding cycles (1-5 years) and has other limitations on its usefulness as a basis for long-term conservation programmes. An analysis presented in the PD (Annex 4.4, Table 2 ‘Prospects of further funding by each of the significant past donors in SPF’) suggested that the project would face diminishing returns if RGC and WCS invested more in pursuing funds of that kind. In addition, it was a stated priority of the RGC to develop sustainable financing of protected areas. In this context, additional and complementary approaches to funding are clearly needed in order to significantly strengthen the effectiveness and sustainability of management of the conservation area. Pursuing REDD finance does have significant start up costs and overheads, but RGC and WCS still judged this a potentially worthwhile long-term strategy to pursue.

WCS’s experience of REDD in the voluntary market space has also made us appreciate its potential to drive up the quality of the practice of conservation. Examples include the focus on rewarding measurable results, the requirements for FPIC and other forms of consultation, the emphasis on benefit-sharing, the frameworks for external scrutiny (both by validator/verifiers and by civil society) and the necessity to think through additionality, leakage and permanence. All these things have made Seima a stronger project with a better long-term future, and we suspect the global conservation community would benefit by adopting many of these more widely, if done in cost-effective ways.

REDD-Monitor: 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?

Tom Evans: It is common for market-orientated projects to receive state funding, particularly in the developing world where the risk environment is unfavorable to commercial financing. The donors listed have supported: (i) ongoing grant-funded conservation at the site; (ii) some of the additional actions that need to be taken to generate achievements above the baseline; and (iii) the process of quantifying and documenting the actual generation of REDD credits. The amounts each donor provided are publicly available and Annex 4.4 (‘Funding history and projections for the Seima Protection Forest’) of the PD provides a detailed analysis of the financial flows in various categories (including REDD-specific costs), so we would encourage you to refer to these sources. Updated grant revenue amounts for project implementation are included in Monitoring and Implementation Reports which will be made publicly available. The independently audited Monitoring and Implementation Report for the period 2010 – 2015 will be available before the end of this year.

The project has a large community element, which concentrates on helping the mainly indigenous communities obtain communal land titles, and on a range of community development activities through local NGOs. For example, community work averaged 35% of core project costs 2006-2012 (derived from Annex 4.4, Table 2 ‘Summary of funding history’). The REDD finance will enable RGC and WCS to significantly scale up support for community work, with 50% of net revenue being committed for community development. The broader forest protection activities also help to maintain access to a healthy resource base for the many community members who depend heavily on forest products.

We estimate that consultants have cost less than 10% of the overall development costs. Most of the project development activities were done in-house to help minimize costs. That said, we echo the findings of many others that the startup phase of REDD is expensive and requires specialized expertise that is not contained in many organizations currently pursuing forest conservation– for example the carbon measurements and calculations, remote sensing and deforestation modeling, fees for project validators and verifiers, and staff time to deal with their findings.

REDD-Monitor: I think we both agree that the Seima 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?

Tom Evans: This question asks whether the model works as a solution to the global problem, as well as the specific issues in Seima. It does on both counts. The voluntary carbon market system that RGC and Seima participate in mainly works around offsets. WCS believes that offsets are an important component in a suite of approaches that take us in the right direction for mitigating future climate change. This system achieves net gains for the atmosphere and brings into the mainstream the principle that it is both important, and achievable, for companies (and other emitters, large and small) to take responsibility for their own emissions. That is a crucial step down the road towards acceptance of the bigger, complex and significantly more expensive changes that will be needed to bring emissions within humanity’s carbon budget. Outside of the obvious biodiversity and social benefits, forest emission reductions are among the cheaper high-quality first steps that can be taken (e.g. compared to many forms of change in energy use), and so foster enthusiasm for early action. In the longer term, when both fossil fuel and forestry emissions do eventually decline towards zero as intended under the Paris Agreement, then the concept of offsets will become progressively less relevant, but that point is well in the future. Until then, offsets help ensure that the most emissions reductions possible are achieved as soon as possible for a given willingness to pay.

The concern that offsets schemes might lead to increased emissions seems not to be borne out in the case of the voluntary market. A recent survey shows that companies that offset are also more active in reducing their emissions too.

PHOTO Credit: Seima Forest, WCS.

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  1. A great and informative response. I like that they answered as honestly as they could and the questions posed were well thought out.