(Photo: Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

By Danielle Keeton-Olsen and Mech Dara

O’REANG district, Mondulkiri — When two young men on a stripped-down motorbike cross paths with a half dozen men walking under the thick canopy of Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, they make eye contact before the motorbike sputters deeper into the forest.

The pair are known to the patrollers, remarks one of the men walking on a voluntary community forest patrol for Mondulkiri’s Andoung Kraloeng village. The riders occasionally cut logs for quick cash, he says. Some residents of Mondulkiri’s O’Reang district do it to support drug habits, others have made careers of it. But at this moment, the two drivers are not committing any forest crime, so they can proceed.

The riders put the patrollers behind them, revealing the chainsaw strapped to the back of their bike as they pass.

When companies purchase carbon credits for Mondulkiri province’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, the residents of communities like Andoung Kraloeng receive expenses to cover the costs of their patrol as well as funding for projects of their choice — the Andoung Kraloeng community chose to get a water purification system among their rewards for their largely voluntary efforts.

But the community patrol members warn that their reports of land clearance and selective logging are going ignored by the law enforcement officials who should be acting against the destruction in order to reduce Cambodia’s emissions from deforestation. Authorities this week also suggested that they lack the means to thwart illegal loggers.

Reporters joined the Andoung Kraloeng community on a shortened patrol in February, in which the leaders pointed out sites of recent land clearing, tree stumps and large trees marked in spray paint from a logger who claimed them.

This month, Cambodia is contributing to a global discussion on reducing future greenhouse gas emissions at COP26, and the country’s own plan to reduce emissions through 2030 is highly reliant on Redd+. In the scheme, countries or organizations protect dense forests so that companies or countries that emit excess greenhouse gases can offset their emissions by buying credits that fund forest protection.

The Andoung Kraloeng community forest patrols are funded in part through the Keo Seima Redd+ project, considered a successful program and a recipient of millions of dollars from Disney Corporation and other private sector investors. But members of the Andoung Kraloeng community say the support they have received so far is not going to stop the new land clearance and logging of valuable timber that they see on each patrol.

“We’re just the community. We don’t have anything to confront with them,” said Sokha Thoth, one of the leaders of the Andoung Kraloeng patroller community.

Planks found near recently cleared land by Andoung Kraloeng community patrollers in Mondulkiri's Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary on February 11, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
Planks found near recently cleared land by Andoung Kraloeng community patrollers in Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary on February 11, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
A tree marked with an illegible Khmer word, likely from a logger who plans to cut it, in Mondulkiri's Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary on February 11, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
A tree marked with an illegible Khmer word, likely from a logger who plans to cut it, in Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary on February 11, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

Value Under the Trees

The land surrounding the Andoung Kraloeng community protected area has surged in price in recent years, and with it, residents in the largely-indigenous communities have been convinced or allegedly coerced to sell their land.

That reflects the trend across the province, as brokers try to snare land amid a proposal to build an airport in O’Reang district and a government development plan to promote increased ecotourism.

Thoth, the Andoung Kraloeng community patroller, told VOD they have observed an increase in land being cleared, rather than selective logging, suggesting the land is being prepared for plantations or resorts.

During the patrol, Thoth and the other members sometimes duck away from the forest path and bring reporters to clearing sites. One area was thick with downed trees and planks cut and left in the wreckage. Another area, where it appeared the first saplings of a plantation were placed, was cut by a two-star general more than a year ago, the patrollers claimed.

“They know about this but they do not take action,” he said.

When asked how many times he reported land clearance to authorities, he chuckled: “I forget.” Thoth said he also tries to raise this issue to the staff of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a partner in the government’s Redd+ project at Keo Seima, but they don’t seem to get a response either.

“We’re asking them to talk to sanctuary officials,” he said. “The local authorities just say OK and then nothing.”

The patrollers also limit themselves to daytime patrols because they fear facing armed loggers at night, recalling the fatal shooting of three Keo Seima patrollers in 2018. Thoth said they would be willing to go if they were supported by armed officials, but it’s rare that government rangers join them, he said.

However, Thoth takes pride in what the community achieves, saying that other villages in the district have sold land within their state-granted protected areas or indigenous titles to real estate brokers.

“They still have the name ‘community,’ but their land is already gone [to powerful people]. The forest is already gone too,” he said, blaming the growth in forest loss to weak community patrol leaders.

Though he didn’t know where the money came from — saying the community received around $15,000 as of February but he heard there was more coming — Thoth said he knew of the Redd+ program and the community had received a water filtration system through the proceeds, plus occasional gifts to elderly residents who need help.

“We see that this community is strong in protecting the forest,” he said. “Before we thought it would not help, but now we can see it can protect [the forest] because we still have some forest remaining, while in [other parts of] O’Reang, there is no community and we see they have much fewer trees.”

Simon Mahood, senior technical adviser for Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia, told VOD in February that he hopes to bring in more carbon credit sales to support these communities, but the market for greenhouse gas emission offsets is still small and voluntary so the funds raised so far should be considered an achievement.

“I guess my overall feeling is not one of huge disappointment. It’s still millions of dollars going into conservation in direct funding,” he said. Mahood and other WCS staff added that Redd+ income is distributed between small administrative fees for the sale, a fund for the Environment Ministry, forest protection and community programming expenses, and then the remainder is divided into cash payments for around 20 communities, according to Mahood and other WCS staff.

What Happens After a Patrol 

As the group continues its walk, the shrill whine of a chainsaw grows louder. The patrollers slow along their path and one by one drop down the steep slope, ground still slick under the canopy from a past rain, into the thick forest, following the sound. A thick tree lays along the slope, red sawdust spilling out from its midsection as the tree is rendered into planks, like a body on a surgeon’s operating table. At the base of the tree is a young man and woman, performing the operation in flip flops, while their infant swings in a hammock set up nearby.

The couple begs the patrollers to let them keep their chainsaw, explaining that they’re poor and just want the wood to build a house. In distress, the woman cries to the patrollers, “Why don’t you arrest your relatives too,” alleging their families are also involved in logging the sanctuary.

After 10 minutes of debate, one of the patrollers grabs the chainsaw and leaves, blade jutting out behind him as he hauls it up the slope and back onto the forest path.

When told by VOD about the confrontation between loggers and the Andoung Kraloeng community, Mahood said in February that while this couple shouldn’t have been cutting trees, the confiscation of their chainsaw would not prevent the bigger, systemic deforestation issues in Keo Seima.

“There are thousands of people in Seima who can pick up a chainsaw, go into the woods and cut trees, [but] finding all of them anytime they’re caught doing it is not the answer,” he said. “Sure if they’re breaking the law, they should be punished for breaking the law, but the more important thing is going after who’s ordering it.”

Mahood also repeated Thoth’s concern: “What we found is communities are very keen to patrol. As you would expect, the morale issues tend to come from lack of follow-up on what they find.”

Solving the systemic deforestation in Keo Seima would require more than just community patrols, Mahood said. He mentioned challenges in communicating the deforestation that’s reported to Mondulkiri provincial and local officials back to the Environment Ministry in Phnom Penh. Mahood also acknowledged that WCS and community patrollers could do a better job of tracking those who are caught repeating crimes.

Thoth added that he believed there was corruption somewhere, noting that those who clear land for sale or plantations are often warned what days patrols will occur, and that they’ve also been told by officials to avoid patrolling in certain parts of the forest.

Mahood said they inform Redd+ buyers of these issues, but the government’s lack of response to reported forest crimes is not necessarily a concern to them.

“So donors know, I don’t think they expect us” to confront authorities on their lack of response, he said. “The government is sovereign at the end of the day and shouldn’t be pushed around by an NGO. I would hope that a motive for the government to follow up with the communities comes with a responsibility to protect the protected area. So a responsibility to the communities rather than a responsibility to an NGO, that would be the right way.”

Mahood noted at the time that the rate of deforestation in Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary is manageable, but it cannot exceed the forest loss that it’s experiencing at this moment.

“To be honest, if it started getting worse, it wouldn’t just be the Redd+ project [in jeopardy]. That would be it for the protected area as a whole. And at some stage the rate has to come down, otherwise just with the passage of time there will be nothing.”

A colorful tented resort along a newly-plowed road seen from the edge of Mondulkiri's Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary on February 11, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
A colorful tented resort along a newly-plowed road seen from the edge of Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary on February 11, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
The Andoung Kraloeng community patrollers drive a pickup truck to the border of Mondulkiri's Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary on February 11, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
The Andoung Kraloeng community patrollers drive a pickup truck to the border of Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary on February 11, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

Broader Transitions

Deputy provincial governor Cheak Meng Heang this week initially said there was little forest crime in the area, and that authorities act immediately on tips.

“When there is information from local authorities, like the communes, that there is encroachment or claims [to land] or cutting of forest, we go down there immediately, so currently there seem to be no crimes and due to Covid-19, there are not many.”

He said Redd+ money was helping people and communities, including improving livelihoods so residents did not need to cut trees to live. 

When asked about the lack of cooperation between communities and authorities, however, Meng Heang said authorities lacked the means to crack down on deforestation.

“The perpetrators always have phones with them, and sometimes they might have networks and they call each other when we go down. The environment’s area is bigger than the capabilities of both environmental officials and commune security guard forces,” he said. “In Mondulkiri province, as you know, just off the main road, it is very difficult to travel and it is impossible to go … but the perpetrators have tools to go into the forest. … There are huge challenges to get down there.”

In an emailed response on Tuesday, WCS’s forest carbon technical adviser Olly Griffin told VOD that the Keo Seima Redd+ is still on track to prevent more forest loss than would be possible in a “without-project scenario,” or an estimate of the deforestation that would sweep the sanctuary if the project wasn’t in place.

Griffin said the Cambodian government had made “strong and ambitious” commitments to forest conservation in recent years but also noted some larger systemic issues that could further shrink the forest and jeopardize the Redd+ communities.

Communication between ministries and local officials should be strengthened, and indigenous land titles and land conflicts should be resolved more quickly, he said.

“The early stages of these commitments are being demonstrated, with several active cases against people who have abused their positions of power for personal profit,” he said.

He also encouraged the government to stop land grabs as they happen and make sure that well-intentioned land titling programs are “not abused by powerful individuals.”

While some of the larger goals are distant, Griffin noted some of the achievements in Keo Seima: Villagers in one community-protected area have developed ecotourism options and a bamboo business that others can model, and communities and government rangers are developing their capabilities.

He also expected that the communities would receive more support in the future, saying the carbon credit sales have in recent months reached the point where they can sustainably finance communities, and they expect to be able to ramp up the project and earn more direct money that the communities can use as they choose. 

“Only recently has the market for REDD+ credits begun to deliver the scale of financing that can influence this transition and reduce the underlying economic and political drivers of deforestation,” he wrote. “The expectation is that broader transitions will also reduce the threat levels experienced at the site.”

Clarification (November 12): This article has been edited to add more details of funding for communities.

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