Cambodia’s forests face huge threats from illegal logging, mining and land concessions for plantation crops for export like rubber and sugar. Oddar Meanchey province in the country’s northwest has the highest rate of deforestation of any province in the country. Which should make Oddar Meanchey the perfect place for a REDD project.
Of the few REDD projects in Cambodia, the Oddar Meanchey project is the most advanced. It aims to link 13 existing community forests covering a total of 67,783 hectares with the voluntary carbon market. The project was set up in 2008 by Community Forestry International and since 2009 has been run by the Cambodian branch of a Washington DC-based NGO called PACT and Cambodia’s Forestry Administration. Terra Global Capital is marketing carbon credits generated by the project.
Amanda Bradley of PACT lists the drivers of deforestation in Oddar Meanchey as population increase, resettlement, logging and economic land concessions. She argues that,
The Oddar Meanchey REDD project addresses these multiple drivers of deforestation and forest degradation through a range of activities including reinforcing land tenure, land-use planning, forest protection, awareness raising, agricultural intensification and assisted natural regeneration of degraded land.
Robin Biddulph is a researcher at the Department of Human Geography at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. He questions whether the project is actually addressing the drivers of deforestation in Oddar Meanchey province and suggests that the project may be an example of what he calls “Geographies of Evasion”. Biddulph explains the concept as follows:
[W]here the agendas of external development agencies and host nation governments differ … these differences will be resolved by the expedient of implementing interventions in places where they do not make a difference.
Cambodia seems to have perfected this response. Community forestry projects are implemented where the forest has already been logged. Land titling takes place where land tenure is already secure. And REDD takes place where the forest is not immediately threatened.
In 2011, Biddulph presented a paper at a conference at the University of Gothenburg in which he looks at REDD through a Geographies of Evasion lens (pdf file, 227.5 kB). He looks at the example of the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in north west Cambodia and suggests that the project “provides early evidence of how deforestation is being prevented in places where the major drivers are least present”.
Biddulph emphasises that his argument is structural and not that the promoters of the REDD project in Oddar Meanchey are cynically avoiding difficulty. He points out that “the practitioners involved have a huge personal commitment to tackling deforestation”.
With his Geographies of Evasion Biddulph asks two simple questions:
- Where is the problem that is claimed to be addressed by the intervention?
- Where is the intervention being implemented?
If the problem and the intervention are in different locations, this leads to a discussion of the reasons, “which means opening the discourse to include factors that are often systematically downplayed prior to implementation in order to get projects financed and underway”.
According to PACT’s Amanda Bradley the province was chosen for a REDD project because of the high rate of deforestation. Biddulph, however, points out that although the baseline for the project is based on the 2% deforestation rate over the entire province, the project covers an area of less than 15% of the province’s forests. Biddulph’s field research in 2011 was “strongly supportive” of the argument that the project’s community forests are less prone to deforestation than the rest of the province.
Almost everyone that Biddulph’s research team asked was pessimistic about the future of the forests in the province outside the community forests. One villager said,
There won’t be any trees left outside the community forest because the people cut them down every day. The woodcutters travel through the village with truck-loads of wood every day and nobody dares to do anything about it.
Biddulph explains that compared to the rest of the forests in the province, the community forests are reasonably well defended against deforestation. In fact, forests that are not community forests stand little chance of surviving. “In this context the REDD intervention does seem to be tending away from the places where the problem is most severe and towards the places where the problem is least severe,” Biddulph writes.
Biddulph reports that although the communities involved are often described as forest dependent, villagers in Oddar Meanchey told him that of the 58 villages involved in the 13 community forests, only two were actually located in the forest. Their livelihood is largely based on agriculture, not gathering forest products. One village is several kilometres away from the community forest, “away from the places where the community was active deforesting to secure its livelihoods,” Biddulph notes.
In a 2009 paper, titled, “Cambodia’s forests and climate change: Mitigating drivers of deforestation”, Mark Poffenburger of Community Forestry International wrote that,
[T]he Oddar Meanchey Project has received an extraordinary level of political support from the Office of the Prime Minister…. The Royal Government of Cambodia views the Oddar Meanchey REDD project as a ‘test case’ to see if payments for forest carbon are a viable alternative to other production-oriented forest land management strategies.
But provincial and district officials and villagers told Biddulph’s research team of the “continuation of national decisions to allocate forest land to both military use and for mining and agricultural concessions”. This contradiction between what REDD proponents describe as government support and the reality on the ground fits well with Biddulph’s Geographies of Evasion hypothesis. He comments that,
In this case, the fact that the supporters of the project were able to garner apparent government support at the time when the proposal was being developed in 2008-9, but that business as usual seems to be operating with regards to land use decisions in 2011 tends to suggest that the key drivers had been avoided rather than addressed.
PHOTO Credit: Amanda Bradley, PACT. (Buddhist monks play a leading role in one of the largest community forestry areas in the project.)