By Chris Lang
“Our project has been successful because we have developed and implemented an approach to defending the forest that meets the threat level with a truly effective response,” Suwanna Gauntlett, chief executive of Wildlife Alliance, recently told Gerald Flynn, a freelance journalist working in Cambodia.
Gauntlett was talking about the Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project, that covers an area of almost 450,000 hectares in Koh Kong province in the southwest of Cambodia. The REDD project started in 2015 in partnership with Wildlife Works and Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment. The project covers parts of the Southern Cardamom National Park and Tatai Wildlife Sanctuary.
Wildlife Alliance has 98 forest rangers and 25 anti-poaching officers. Gauntlett told Flynn about the more than 5,100 patrols carried out in 2020. Patrols can last six to eight days. In 2020, Gauntlett said, Wildlife Alliance’s rangers stopped 140 attempted land grabs, seized 663 timber trafficking vehicles, confiscated 1,720 illegal chainsaws, shut down nine illegal sawmills, resucued 500 live wild animals from traps, and removed something like 28,000 snares from the Cardamom forest.
“Where we are people know they can’t poach. If they do, we’ll catch them,” Wildlife Alliance explains in a publicity video. “It’s a good thing we do. We’re proud of our work. The forest, the wildlife, you come to feel they’re yours.”
Wildlife Alliance and transparency
Gauntlett would not talk about how much money the project had earned from sales of carbon credits, or how much of that money went to the Ministry of Environment. An organisation called Global Conservation supports Wildlife Alliance’s work in the Cardamom Mountains. On its website, Global Conservation states that Wildlife Alliance “has secured over $10 million in long term funding for park and wildlife protection from the sales of REDD+ VCS (Verified Carbon Standard) Carbon Credits”.
That’s likely to be an underestimate. Verra’s website indicates that the project has sold more than 11 million carbon credits since 2018. Buyers include companies such as Delta Air Lines, Air France, Gucci, Stella McCartney, Interface, Macquarie Group, SeaTrees, Deliveroo, and Boeing.
Wildlife Alliance and conflict
Wildlife Alliance’s rangers have frequently run into conflict with local communities living in the areas patrolled by the rangers. In August 2020, a Wildlife Alliance team burned a villager’s tractor. The villager, Kea Teav, said she was collecting deadwood. Wildlife Alliance accused her of illegal logging. Gauntlett told Voice of America Cambodia, “It is perfectly normal that the people conducting illegal logging are not happy to be stopped, villagers always complain, and their timber is rarely just ‘firewood’.”
Wildlife Alliance has also been involved in violently evicting people living in the forest. Gauntlett told the Phnom Penh Post, “We don’t do law enforcement. It’s the government doing it, with our technical support.”
But an ex-adviser to Widlife Alliance told the Phnom Penh Post that,
“We always were very aggressive. Suwanna puts the pressure on advisers. She already [said] to all of us, ‘If you can’t dismantle this house, you cannot continue to work for us.’
He added that,
“I don’t know if we really violate human rights, but for sure, sending complete families on roads, burning their houses with their belongings isn’t really fair. The few things they have, for us is nothing, but for them it’s everything.”
Wildlife Alliance and “abusing local farmers and Indigenous People”
Gerald Flynn spoke to Tim Frewer, an Australian academic based in Cambodia.
Frewer carried out research for his PhD on the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in Cambodia.
Frewer told him that,
“To me whether or not REDD+ protects the environment is not the main question. Southern Cardamom REDD+ project protects the environment, but at the cost of abusing local farmers and Indigenous People and an environment that has already been logged of valuable timber by Try Pheap — not to mention hydropower dams.”
Global Witness notes that Try Pheap controls a “multi-million dollar timber smuggling operation in Cambodia, destroying the country’s forests and the lives of those who depend on them.” In 2019, the US Government announced sanctions against Try Pheap for corruption:
Pheap has used his vast network inside Cambodia to build a large scale illegal logging consortium that relies on the collusion of Cambodian officials, to include purchasing protection from the government, including military protection, for the movement of his illegal products.
There are three hydropower dams in the Cardamom Mountains. All of them sell carbon credits. All of them attracted illegal logging. More than half-a-billion dollars worth of luxury timber was extracted from the Cardamom Mountains while the dams were being built.
Wildlife Alliance and free, prior and informed consent
Frewer highlights a section of a 2018 verification report for the REDD project that found few people in Teuk Laak Commune approved of the project:
While on the site visit, the audit team was informed during a group meeting with the commune chief for Chi Phat (which includes Teuk Laak), that the approval for the project in Teuk Laak is very low (10% of community at the time of the audit team site visit). He further commented that during the Teuk Laak FPIC [free, prior and informed consent] meeting, a number of community members walked out to show disapproval for the project.
The auditors, SCS Global, asked how the project developers had obtained consent before the REDD project started. Here’s the reply:
“We assume that as the communities have no land rights to or within the Project Area, their participation in the REDD+ Project is entirely voluntary, and in no way is their participation obligatory, either for the community(ies) or the project developers. We therefore assume that a formal consent is not required from communities in the Project Zone for the validation of the project, as they have no land rights to or within the Project Area.”
Wildlife Alliance carried out a series of further FPIC campaigns and managed to increase approval to 68%, which apparently was good enough for SCS Global.
Frewer pointed out that there is no mechanism in REDD to ensure that small farmers and local conservationists benefit from the sale of carbon credits:
“In reality there is no mechanism to channel money to village level participants and REDD+ nearly always relies on exclusion of people from forests. The people who mostly benefit from it are investors, carbon brokers, governments, consultants and NGOs.”
Wildlife Alliance and the corrupt Hun Sen dictatorship
Part of the problem is that implementing a REDD project in Cambodia requires partnering with the government. As Australian academic Sarah Milne points out,
[P]roject implementation involves extending government power and control over natural resources into the protected area system. In Cambodia, authoritarian power has been on the rise. This means that the carbon credits that are coming from this context are not made under democratic conditions. And this rise of unchecked government power also brings risks, especially the risk of corrupt land deals.
On 2 March 2021, Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, signed Sub-decree No. 30 into law. The new regulation transfers 127,000 hectares of previously protected land from the Ministry of Environment and conservation NGOs to the Koh Kong provincial administration.
The transfer could (in theory at least) help villagers who lost their homes and lands when the protected areas were established. But the likelihood, especially given the record of the 36-year-long Hun Sen dictatorship, is that the beneficiaries will be corrupt business tycoons with close links to the government.
More than 29,000 hectares of the Southern Cardamon REDD+ Project will be transferred. Despite the obvious threat to Wildlife Alliance’s REDD project, Gauntlett declined to talk about it to Gerald Flynn. But she appeared to welcome the Sub-decree in a written comment to the Globe:
“Wildlife Alliance very much appreciates the Prime Minister’s poverty alleviation initiative through land allocation. This has largely been implemented through the Ministry of Environment and the local authorities. We have had an important consultative role.”
Wildlife Alliance attacks local farmers and Indigenous Peoples, but works with, and defends, the direct cause of deforestation in Cambodia: the utterly corrupt Hun Sen government.