The hidden cost: Are Cambodia’s carbon credits really clean and green?

As global corporations, looking to offset their own emissions, pour money into eco-friendly projects in Cambodia as part of the carbon credits scheme, lurking beneath this seemingly positive initiative is corruption, rights abuses and violence says Dr Sarah Milne

Dr Sarah Milne
January 15, 2021
The hidden cost: Are Cambodia’s carbon credits really clean and green?
Supporters carry portraits of Chut Wutty, Director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, in April 2017 during a ceremony in Phnom Penh to mark the fifth anniversary of his fatal shooting. Photo: EPA/Kith Serey

Government policies in Cambodia suggest that the small Southeast Asian nation has embraced fashionable concepts like “green growth” and “climate solutions”. 

Over 40% of Cambodia’s surface area is now officially protected, and climate change mitigation schemes are proliferating. This has led to the production of “carbon credits” in Cambodia that can be sold around the world, often to global corporations looking to offset their own emissions and go carbon neutral. 

But are Cambodia’s carbon credits really clean and green? I would say no. We should be cautious about carbon credits from Cambodia because there is often a dark side to the green in this forested nation. Here, I am referring to the way that forest management in Cambodia is deeply intertwined with the exercise of government power and control, which leads to perverse effects for people and the environment like illicit resource extraction and human rights issues, especially for indigenous people and environmental defenders.

Take for example the circumstances surrounding the murder of Chut Wutty in 2012. As a high profile environmental activist, Wutty was intent on exposing illegal logging operations conducted by Cambodia’s ruling elite. Yet he was killed while working inside an internationally-funded conservation area in the Cardamom Mountains, near a hydropower dam celebrated for its production of clean energy.

This new dam on the Russey Chrum river was apparently so clean and green that it managed to generate carbon credits, using the UN-backed Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to certify its emissions reductions. But Wutty knew that these credits were merely a green veneer, helping to hide forest destruction. 

What the carbon certifier failed to notice in this case was that dam construction had triggered an extensive illegal logging racket. With four such dams in the vast Cardamom Mountains landscape, logging has been lucrative: around half a billion US dollars of luxury timber was removed illegally from these forests from 2009-2012 by two tycoons with tight connections to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family.

Thus, we need to look inside carbon credits, to understand how they are made – especially in places like Cambodia.

What exactly are carbon credits made of?

In essence, carbon credits are generated when new projects change existing or expected carbon-emitting activities, in order to reduce emissions. This could be a change in technology and energy production – like the new hydropower dam described above – or it could be a change in land use, such as forest conservation over agriculture. This second point corresponds with the UN-backed mechanism known as “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+)”.

Even though the UN’s climate regime has faltered under bureaucratic inertia and non-conciliatory politics, business in the voluntary carbon market is booming. For example, a 2020 state of the market report shows record volumes of carbon credit transactions globally, with REDD+ credits being in hot demand.

A Buddhist monk living in Aoral wildlife sanctuary leads children through the forest in Kampong Speu province in 2012. Villagers said the murder of Chut Wutty only hardened their resolve to take forest protection into their own hands. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Key to all of these processes is the requirement that emissions reductions be measured and certified by a reputable body following international standards. This is what makes the carbon credit a tradable commodity, expressed as a “tonnes of CO2-equivalent”.

While this might sound simple and technical, scholars have long told us that the processes of commodification are actually social and political. Commodities are things that can be readily exchanged through market transactions without information on how they were made – an apple, a pair of jeans, a litre of milk. But important issues like labour conditions and environmental exploitation are often hidden by commodification. The same principle goes for carbon credits: even though they are not material objects, they are still commodities with hidden social lives and effects.

We therefore need to de-commodify carbon credits by looking at how they are made on the ground.

What does the Cambodian experience reveal?

Cambodia, with its remarkable ecosystems and long history of global environmental engagement, provides unique insights into climate change mitigation.

Twenty years ago, Cambodia became a poster child for the international conservation movement. In contrast to its neighbours, back then the country boasted 60% forest cover and high biodiversity. This is because Cambodia’s landscapes had been left relatively untouched during the tragic civil war period. Afterwards NGOs got involved, often partnering with the Cambodian government in conservation efforts.

Yet, with the onset of political stability and economic growth, Cambodia has seen growing deforestation rates, and Cambodia clocked the third highest national deforestation rate in the world from 2008 to 2013. A dubious honour, driven largely by the conversion of forested land into Economic Land Concessions for industrial agriculture.

The pressure on Cambodia’s forests has not relented, but the country’s unique combination of high forest cover and high forest threat has made it a prime candidate for REDD+ in recent years. 

For these three reasons – unchecked state power, erosion of indigenous rights, and violence against environmental defenders – we must be cautious about what is bound up within an apparently innocuous carbon credit

The main idea is to achieve emissions reductions by slowing deforestation rates. REDD+ in Cambodia therefore involves demonstrating baseline rates of deforestation, which can then be countered through project interventions. Typically international conservation NGOs partner with the government to do this. Together they aim to prevent land encroachment and forest loss in protected areas, eventually to produce carbon credits that have social and biodiversity co-benefits.

This may sound like a win-win scenario, but managing Cambodia’s protected areas is no simple matter, as the story of Chut Wutty demonstrates. For this reason we must scrutinise the quality and implications of Cambodia’s carbon credits.

Behind the scenes of REDD+

To understand what can go wrong with REDD+, it is vital to explore what happens on the ground over time. I identified three key problems from my fieldwork that point to the way that REDD+ in Cambodia has interacted with endemic conditions of corruption and violence in the forest sector – and here we see that REDD+ is no easy fix.

Back in 2012-2014, some colleagues and I investigated one of Cambodia’s most prominent REDD+ projects in Mondulkiri. This project is ostensibly successful: its proponents navigated the nightmarishly complicated REDD+ processes to sell carbon credits to the Disney Foundation in 2016 for $2.6 million.

But there are three things that make me uncomfortable about the carbon credits being transacted here, which could be said of most REDD+ projects in the region:

First, the REDD+ project reinforces government power over forests. This renders forested land into state property, which is not necessarily a good thing. With the Cambodian government becoming increasingly corrupt and authoritarian in recent years, land under REDD+ can be vulnerable to corrupt deals and land grabbing, as seen elsewhere in the country.

This signals the second problem with REDD+, which is that it does not necessarily respect indigenous people’s rights. Most indigenous communities in Cambodia do not have formal land rights, and this leaves them vulnerable to dispossession – especially from forested land. This image shows a Bunong indigenous leader mapping his territory in 2012, in the hope of gaining land title in the REDD+ project area.

A Bunong indigenous leader mapping his territory in 2012, in the hope of gaining land title in the REDD+ project area. Photo: Sarah Milne

But REDD+ technicalities cannot work with plural or overlapping land tenures. In this case, land subject to indigenous claims was excised from the REDD+ project area, in order for the carbon calculations to proceed. This amounts to a symbolic act of bureaucratic violence, which alienates rightful and traditional forest custodians.

Third, Cambodia’s protected areas are routinely subject to illegal logging. Typically this is orchestrated by high level government officials, which makes it hard for park rangers to enforce the law. Rangers usually end up accepting bribes or turning a blind eye to the problem, to avoid trouble. Tragically, when rangers do try to enforce the law, there is often violent retribution. This came in 2018 in Mondulkiri, when three park rangers were murdered by an illegal logging gang in the REDD+ project area.

For these three reasons – unchecked state power, erosion of indigenous rights, and violence against environmental defenders – we must be cautious about what is bound up within an apparently innocuous carbon credit.

Ultimately, the Cambodian experience teaches us that technocratic and apparently easy “climate solutions” are rarely what they seem. If we are too focused on counting tonnes of CO2-equivalent, then we risk both moral and ecological failure – especially when it comes to interventions in complex forested landscapes.

So, when you next purchase a carbon offset, pause to ask about its origins. Pause also to consider that solving the climate crisis must entail social and environmental justice too.

Dr Sarah Milne is a Senior Lecturer at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Sarah’s research examines the politics of natural resource struggles and environmental intervention. She focuses mainly on Cambodia, where she has been active as a conservationist, ethnographer, and advocate since 2002. This article was adapted from a TEDx talk.

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