Claims the military is involved in systematically clearing forest in Oddar Meanchey province in an area meant to be protected by a carbon credit scheme involving Virgin Atlantic have prompted the UK-based airline to launch an investigation into the program.
Virgin Atlantic uses carbon credits from the United Nations-backed REDD+ program in Oddar Meanchey to help offset emissions from its flights.
According to conservation expert Suwanna Gauntlett, the crediting scheme in Oddar Meanchey – Cambodia’s first REDD+ project – has been highly problematic since it first began in 2008, but the latest claims of widespread issues were made public in a report last month by a UK-based environmental organisation, Fern, which used the project as a case study.
The study found that deforestation had actually sped up in the area since the project began, while villagers had failed to receive promised compensation for patrolling the forest.
Anna M Catchpole, a spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic, said on Sunday that the carrier was committed to reducing its carbon emissions by investing in new technology and aircraft, and also with carbon credits like those from Oddar Meanchey, which are provided through the carbon offsetting firm Natural Capital Partners. Customers on Virgin flights have the option to buy the credits, with the money going towards conservation in the area.
“This scheme is designed to help finance renewable energy and resource conservation projects, and we have contacted Natural Capital Partners to investigate the claims made by Fern,” Catchpole said in the statement.
Catchpole didn’t respond to specific questions related to Virgin Atlantic’s involvement with the REDD+ project in Oddar Meanchey or to the investigation. Natural Capital Partners did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its inquiry.
With a total of 13 sites spread over nearly 65,000 hectares, the Oddar Meanchey program “simply does not work”, the study found. In all, 58 villages are supposed to be involved in protecting it.
Keo Omalis, deputy director of the Forestry Administration, acknowledged “issues regarding financial flow to the communities”, though he wasn’t able to provide further comment on deforestation in the area, as Provincial Governor Sar Thavy and the provincial Forestry Administration handle the issue directly. Thavy did not respond to a request for comment.
The study found that in many of the supposedly protected sites, “more than half of the forest . . . has disappeared”.
“The REDD programme has been powerless to stop these processes,” it reads. For example, eyewitness and photographic evidence shows members of the military clearing forest inside the project area, according to the study.
One of these witnesses, a villager tasked with forest protection, told researchers that the area they were charged with patrolling was near a site being cleared by the military. “Officials came in with Government approval to stop the whole [REDD+ protection] project as it would expose the whole situation,” the witness said, according to the report.
The negative impacts from the project are reported at almost every site, except for one run by monks, which received high levels of financial support. “The monks’ community forest is ‘run by a charismatic monk with close connections to the provincial governor and the Forestry Authority’,” the report reads.
Despite claims that villagers get paid for patrolling the project areas, researchers couldn’t find anyone at the village level that was employed by the REDD+ program.
“[There were] many complaint[s] about receiving one-off $50 payments to entire villages to conduct years of forest patrolling activities,” an investigator said in the report. “When I told villagers they were supposed to be paid for their efforts, many were shocked and angry to the point of tears.”
According to the report, at a separate project site villagers are “forced to pay bribes to community forest committees or soldiers, just to be allowed into the forest to collect non-timber forest products or small amounts of timber”.
“In some cases, soldiers are said to have taken over the forests and demanded rents from people entering,” the study reads.
Gauntlett, executive director of Wildlife Alliance, said the project in Oddar Meanchey was Cambodia’s first REDD+ program, and “probably the most difficult project” due to poor planning, lack of support from partners and the concentration of military in the area.
It was approved by the Council of Ministers in May 2008, according to a document on the REDD+ database – at a time when many of the settlers in the area were soldiers, Gauntlett said.
“It became very difficult to protect the forest,” she added. “They have had substantial deforestation.”
As a result, she wasn’t surprised to hear about the claims made in the report.
“But it is contrary to the [goals of] REDD+ activities,” she said, which are supposed to improve the villagers’ livelihoods and help to protect forests.
She added that the project had appeared flawed from the beginning, with government partners bailing without delivering results.
According to documents from the project, those partners included local villagers, the Forestry Administration, Pact, Terra Global Capital and Community Forest International.
However, Daimen Hardie, with Community Forest International, this week maintained the Canadian organisation had never been involved in a REDD+ program in Cambodia. According to Omalis, San Francisco-based Terra Global Capital is still a partner.
Suwanna said there’s a need for a third party, such as an NGO, to be helping with the project for it to deliver good results. “A good REDD program needs to have protection on the ground,” she said.
Independent conservationist Marcus Hardtke said that when the project first launched, it “ticked all the boxes and appeared to be a win-win scenario”.
“In reality, this project is a walking dead,” he wrote in an email. “It existed only in glossy papers and funding proposals written [sic] up by consultants to sell the idea of carbon credit trading. Impact on the ground has been close to none.”
As of February 2016, the project had issued 48,000 carbon credits, according to documents from the project.
Hardtke accused it of being a “money-making scheme” for the international companies selling credits and for “public relations officers”.
“This example shows us that reality is irrelevant when it comes to international carbon credit trading,” he said.