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Habitat cleared in carbon sink forest

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New houses constructed by illegal settlers on cleared land in Romdoul Veasna forest last week in Oddar Meanchey province. Forestry officials and local villagers fear that encroachment may threaten a proposed REDD carbon sink.

A forest in Oddar Meanchey province is facing environmental “disaster” after thousands of people destroyed up to 1,000 hectares of natural habitat, putting revenues from a carbon credit scheme worth tens of millions of dollars at risk.

Proceeds from a United Nations-backed Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation scheme are said to be in danger after waves of settlers destroyed parts of the forest in Samroang district, chief of the Romdoul Veasna community forest programme, Malis Hoeuth, said yesterday.

The REDD scheme allows heavily-polluting countries or companies to purchase carbon credits by paying governments and communities to protect forests that process carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Malis Hoeuth said yesterday that 742 families, some accompanied by soldiers posted to the area, had arrived in the community-managed forest since border tensions between Cambodia and Thailand heated up in 2008. The new entrants had felled large-swathes of habitat to plant rice, make charcoal and build houses, he said.  

The forest, earmarked for a soon-to-be launched REDD scheme, had previously been conserved by management committees run by communities in the area who now feel powerless to intervene. “Our community members have advised them not to destroy trees anymore but they do not listen to us and they always take soldiers with them to frighten us”, Malis Hoeuth said.

“We are very sorry because we have conserved this forest for eight years but it is facing disaster.”

A report released by governance organisation Pact in 2009, who are helping implement the REDD scheme in Oddar Meanchey, said the Forestry Administration had agreed to terms that indicated at least 50 percent of project revenues would be directed to local communities.

Long Ratanakoma, deputy director of department of forests and community forestry at the Forestry Administration, warned yesterday that revenues from a proposed 64,000 hectare REDD carbon sink area could be reduced if such deforestation continued – due to fewer carbon-absorbing trees and questions over conservation measures.

He added the REDD project in Oddar Meanchey, comprising of 13 separate forests including the 6,016 hectare Romdoul Veasna forest, was perhaps four months away from being validated.

When this was gained, the sale of carbon credits could commence, subject to a review once every two years, he said.

Revenues are estimated to be worth a total of US$30 to $35 million over 30 years, he added. Long Ratanakoma said the military had tried to stop soldiers being involved in the deforestation.

But some individuals, he added, had ignored warnings despite the arrest and conviction of perpetrators for land encroachment. “We’ve actually sent people to court and they are in prison,” he said.

He  also expressed concern that, as border tension continued, authorities would be unable to stop soldiers at a base seven kilometres from the forest plundering its resources.

“The border conflict still exists there, and more and more military camps and roads [are being built] and it always affects our project,” he said.

Phon Nol, governor of Samroang town, said on Tuesday that authorities were struggling to find a way to stop the migrants from destroying the forest.  

“We can’t allow them to live on community’s forest land. We are looking for a new location for them”, he said.  

Chea Morn, commander of military region 4, said he was too busy to comment yesterday.

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