May 9, 2011
By Brendan Brady / Sorng Rukavorn
For years, the guardians of Sorng Rukavorn forest have drifted through the muted greens and grays of the underbrush in their saffron robes. In the far north of Cambodia, the monks live in what should be peaceful isolation, but all too often they have had to fend off incursions on this land. Using their authority as holy figures, they've turned away illegal loggers — among them, they say, armed police and soldiers — as well as local officials who have tried to wrestle control of the public land to parcel it out for their own profit.
Now the monks are looking for backup. They plan to institutionalize their communal ownership of the forest and shared profit from its 44,479-acre (18,000 hectare) bounty by demarcating it an international ecological asset. Sorng Rukavorn is one of 13 community forests spreading over 168,032 acres (68,000 hectares) in Oddar Meanchey province that is being registered as a bank of carbon credits. Under this nascent international tool of climate-change mitigation referred to as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), governments and companies in industrialized nations can pay developing countries to cut carbon emissions on their behalf by not cutting trees. Deforestation accounts for roughly a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions from human activity, according to the U.N. Trees and plants absorb the gas — produced by a number of natural and man-made processes, from the combustion of fossil fuels by factories, cars and volcanic eruptions to the flatulence of livestock — and are therefore essential to balancing its levels in the atmosphere. (See more about REDD.)
Though the science of climate change is mostly new to the monks of Sorng Rukavorn, the importance of preserving nature is fundamental. Forests have always figured prominently in the imagination of Buddhists. "It was under a tree that Buddha was born, meditated, achieved enlightenment and passed away," says Tha Soun, a 42-year-old monk who has modeled his lifestyle after his deity, spending much of his time in ritualized performances under Rukavorn's canopy. Tha recalls times several years ago when Sorng Rukavorn would receive regular visits from police and soldiers who were engaged in illegal-logging rackets. "We have had success in protecting this land because we are monks," says Tha, adding that lay Cambodians are much more vulnerable to harsh retaliation for confronting authorities. "If they wouldn't stop, I would jut take their chain saws and weapons."
Most of Cambodia's forests have not been quite so blessed. Cambodia's forest cover has declined 22% over the past two decades, according to the U.N. The destruction would have been much worse if the government hadn't canceled most logging concessions at the turn of the century. At one point during the 1990s, nearly 40% of Cambodia's total land mass was signed over to loggers, according to the London-based NGO Global Witness, which the government banned from working in Cambodia after it published a detailed report in 2007 linking high-ranking politicians as well as members of the military and business community with illegal logging. The government has vehemently denied that report's findings, but its commitment to maintain protected areas continues to be called into question. The English-language newspaper the Cambodia Daily recently reported that from Feb. 1 to April 1, Prime Minister Hun Sen approved 17 concessions granting agribusinesses rights to exploit some 424 sq. mi. (1,100 sq km) in 10 protected areas across the country.
For the residents of Somraong district in Oddar Meanchey, the illicit auction of public resources has left them ever shrinking space to take their livestock to graze and harvest forest products, including fruit, honey and traditional medicine. As that has happened around the country, the value of a forest like Sorng Rukavorn, which is accessible to all, has become clearer, says Choun Chun, a resident who volunteers for a village committee that, in cooperation with the monks, oversees the forest. "If we cut down the trees, there will be nothing for the next generation, and we will have ruined ourselves."
Much devastation has been visited upon the area already. Oddar Meanchey became a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge after a Vietnamese invasion ousted the fanatical revolutionaries in 1979. Khmer Rouge leaders and their depleted militia held out here against the new regime until the late '90s, funding their campaign by selling timber to dealers in neighboring Thailand. The area has since opened up to the outside world but remains depressed, with poor infrastructure and few economic opportunities. Pact, the NGO that has facilitated the carbon credit application process for the province's community forests, says the revenues will fund development initiatives, including the building of roads, schools and hospitals, and support local employment. (See pictures of the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge.)
Leslie Durschinger, managing director of Terra Global Capital, the San Francisco–based company that is marketing Oddar Meanchey's carbon assets, anticipates that the forests could garner as much as $50 million over the course of 30 years (the typical duration of a REDD contract). First, however, Oddar Meanchey's carbon assets must be jointly validated by the Verified Carbon Standard and the Climate Community and Biodiversity Standard, both third-party carbon auditors, as well as attract a buyer. For now, the revenue remains tentative: clean technologies, renewable energy and technology transfers earn credit as offsets in legislated carbon markets, but REDD has yet to gain official currency.
The European Union Emission Trading System — which, with tens of billions of dollars in annual trade, is the largest mandatory carbon market — has placed a moratorium on considering REDD credits until 2020. The fledgling California Compliance Market, one of a handful of American state bodies to regulate carbon emissions in the absence of federal laws on the matter, is the only public compliance body in the world that has committed to accepting REDD credits. The U.N.'s proposed international REDD system was outlined in Cancún last December during an annual climate-change summit, but disagreements about how it should be funded prevented the mechanism from being implemented. Member states will meet again in December, in Durban, South Africa, to try to push through a binding REDD program.
Critics of REDD argue that forest fires and illegal loggers make avoided deforestation credits an easy bank to rob. "We've had so many credibility questions with the carbon market [in general] ... so something like REDD needs time to get off the ground before it should be included" in carbon compliance markets, says Sanjeev Kumar, a climate and energy policy specialist based in Brussels for E3G, a sustainable development nonprofit group. There are also significant and legitimate concerns about the allocation of REDD revenue in a country like Cambodia, which Transparency International routinely ranks among the most corrupt governments in the world. Cambodia, like many countries, requires that revenue earned from state land be funneled through the government.
For now, Oddar Meanchey's carbon credits will be offered on a voluntary market driven by governments and companies that buy offsets to establish themselves as ecologically conscious or anticipating future compliance requirements. Vann Sophanna, a high-ranking official in the government's Forestry Administration, says state-sanctioned REDD contracts for the forests will empower residents to confront loggers by putting the full weight of the state's authority on their side. "Villagers can have those who try to destroy the forest — even if they are police, soldiers or forestry administration officials — arrested," he says. "We will enforce the law." But it's precisely the role of the government that leaves residents in doubt. "The money might go to the people, or it might go to corrupt officials," said 58-year-old Kuy Thourn, a village leader. "We will find out."