By Chris Lang
The Tumring REDD+ Project covers more than 67,000 hectares on the southwestern edge of the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in Northern Cambodia. The project is a joint project between the governments of Cambodia and South Korea. According to the project description document, produced by Widlife Works Carbon in 2018,
The Project will protect the western edge of the Prey Long Landscape so that viable populations of threatened species, such as the clouded leopard, dhole and bear, are maintained. Protection of the Project Area contributes to fulfilling Cambodia’s commitments under the Convention of Biological Biodiversity (CBD).
And in December 2020, Dr. Keo Omaliss, Director General of Cambodia’s Forestry Administration said,
“This project is the most successful and predominant REDD+ project working with community forestry groups to reduce small-scale deforestation and forest degradation while improving local livelihoods of the participating community members. In close collaboration with the KFS and technical support from the Wildlife Works Carbon, the FA will expand the community-based REDD+ project to a larger scale, adding more activities including forest restoration, so that more forest can be protected.”
But a recent report carried out by Cambodian and Korean NGOs reveals that large-scale deforestation has taken place in the REDD project area.
The research on the ground was led by Ouch Leng, who won the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. Leng is head of the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force. The research was supported by the Korean Federation for Environment Movement (KFEM) and the Biodiversity Foundation.
Large-scale destruction in Tumring REDD Project
The investigation, that consisted of on-site research, satellite image analysis, and interviews, revealed that in the six years since the project started more than 37% of the forest in the REDD project area was damaged or destroyed.
The rate of deforestation is accelerating. In 2020, 8.76% of the forest in the project area was lost. Forest loss reached 8.3% in just the first half of 2021.
The forest has been cleared to make way for industrial plantations of rubber, cassava, and cashew nuts. Logging companies make illegal arrangements with local officials or forest monitoring personnel, get local villagers to do the logging, then buy the timber.
“It’s not a secret that expensive timber from endangered species in Cambodia is actively traded on the black market. REDD+ project isn’t stopping that at all,” says Ouch Leng.
Land grabbing in Tumring REDD Project
The researchers spoke to Chhem Sopheak, head of the Sochet community forest, which is in the southeast of the Tumring REDD project. He told them that the police had recently caught outsiders who were trying to grab land. He also said that people had attempting to forge documents to gain land titles.
Researchers interviewed community forest patrol teams who are supposed to monitor deforestation and illegal logging. But the allowance under the REDD project of US$50 for a 5-person team was hardly enough to cover fuel and food costs. The teams reported only receiving an average of US$38 per patrol.
A representative of O Dauntry community forest told the researchers that, “It takes 10 people to properly patrol a large forest,” and a proper patrol could cost “five times the current allowance.” The result, is that patrols happen once or twice a month, “utterly insufficient to prevent illegal logging,” the researchers note.
Courtney Work is an anthropologist at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. She has been working in Cambodia for seventeen years. In a 2017 paper published in the journal Forests she reports on discussions she had in 2016 with villagers. One villager said that,
“REDD+ does not change much for us, only that we get training, equipment, and patrol money, not enough money though. It doesn’t replace money we can make doing other things, so it’s hard to get people to patrol. It only pays for our gas.”
Villagers told Work that the REDD project did not solve their problems with forest protection. And the REDD project did not help with getting support from the Forest Administration to arrest logger or to evict encroachers. “We call them,” one villager said about the Forest Administration. “Sometimes they come, but mostly not.”
Illegal logging in Prey Lang Wildlife Concession
One villager told Work in 2016 that, “They give us the community forest to protect while they cut the Prey Lang as they like . . . even the police go too.” Another added that “they take trucks every day along the new road into the forest.”
For many years, the Cambodian government has clamped down on villagers attempting to save the Prey Lang forest. In 2011, police detained more than 100 villagers for handing out leaflets in Phnom Penh about protecting the Prey Lang forest.
In early 2020, the Cambodian government banned patrols by the Prey Lang Community Network. “Widespread illegal logging and the repression of environmental activism are among the grave threats to Cambodia’s Prey Lang rainforest,” Amnesty International said in a press statement in February 2021.
In December 2020, the Cambodian Ministry of Mines and Energy signed a deal to construct a 299-kilometre power transmission line from Phnom Penh to the border with Laos. The power line would cut through Prey Lang, dividing the forest in two.
In February 2021, Ministry of Environment officers arrested and arbitrarily detained five environmental defenders, including Ouch Leng. The environmental defenders were investigating illegal logging in Prey Lang.
In June 2021, the US Agency for International Development pulled its funding to government entities under a Greening Prey Lang project. In a statement about redirecting the funding to civil society and the private sector, USAID said,
Well-documented illegal logging continues in and around the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, and Cambodian authorities have not adequately prosecuted wildlife crimes or put a stop to these illicit activities. In addition, the government continues to silence and target local communities and their civil society partners who are justifiably concerned about the loss of their natural resources.
Selling hot air from Tumring REDD Project
The Tumring REDD+ Project has sold 645,410 carbon credits for the years 2015 to 2019. According to Verra’s database of REDD projects, all the carbon credits were issued on 24 August 2021. The Verra database gives no information about who bought the carbon credits.
“There has been no large-scale illegal logging at the Cambodian project site,” the Korea Forest Service stated in response to the Cambodian and Korean NGO research findings.
Kim Han-min, a Korean activist who participated in the investigation replied, “If the loss of more than 3,500 hectares of forest every year is NOT a large scale for the Korean Forest Service, we are doomed for a completely destroyed forest within 10 years.”
KFEM’s press statement about the research ends with a quotation from anthropologist Courtney Work:
“Many indigenous people around the world are not protecting the forest just because they are paid. Market-driven solutions like REDD+ can maybe bring some outcome in the short run to change the ways that businesses and governments think about valuing the forest. In the long run, however, it changes the traditional community values towards the forest toward monetary compensation rather than protecting livelihoods through forest health. With these new values, we will not be able to expect the next generation to do the same (conservation) actions.”
PHOTO Credits: Ouch Leng, July 2021, © KFEM.