A buffalo grazes on the drenched land in the Cardamom Mountains, southwest Cambodia.

‘It’s a lose-lose situation’: Carbon ‘offset’ project in Cambodia accused of human rights violations

Companies around the world try to make up for their carbon emission by purchasing “offsets,” financing projects intended to preserve forests or otherwise compensate for their emissions. In Cambodia, Human Rights Watch recently issued a report about violations against Indigenous people in a carbon offset program in the Cardamom mountains. 

The World

On a recent day in the Cardamom Mountains of southwest Cambodia, a local resident steered a boat along a calm waterway, pointing out plants grown by community members: durian, banana, jackfruit, avocado. 

This area has seen increased patrolling by the Cambodian military, environmental officials and staff of the New York-based nonprofit Wildlife Alliance, according to the man, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution. 

“All of this farmland belongs to people. Starting from the border of the forest, that’s where people have enjoyed farming every year for a long time,” he said. “We’ve done farming here for many years already before they came to do conservation.”

Cambodia’s monsoonal wet season drenches Toap Khley village in the Southern Cardamom National Park’s Areng Valley.
Cambodia’s monsoonal wet season drenches Toap Khley village in the Southern Cardamom National Park’s Areng Valley.Anton L. Delgado/Southeast Asia Globe

The small farms dotting the riverbank are part of a protected area that is now being enforced through a forest carbon offset project known as the Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project. A new report from Human Rights Watch found that the project had violated the rights of Indigenous Chong people who live here, documenting forced evictions, arrests and harassment. 

The project brought in more than $18 million by 2021 through carbon credit sales. Companies including Delta Air Lines, Stella McCartney, McKinsey and Boeing bought the credits in an attempt to reduce their overall carbon footprint, in this case, by supporting a project that patrols a conservation area to prevent deforestation. 

The industry has faced a slew of critical coverage in the last few years, with accusations that projects have overstated their climate benefits. The research from Human Rights Watch indicates that these projects can also harm local and Indigenous groups in the name of conservation. 

A sign in Chamnar village, the furthest community in Areng Valley, indicates that a new water tower was supported by the Southern Cardamom REDD+ project within the national park.
A sign in Chamnar village, the furthest community in Areng Valley, indicates that a new water tower was supported by the Southern Cardamom REDD+ project within the national park.Anton L. Delgado/Southeast Asia Globe

Empty boats line one side of the riverbank, as the Chong Indigenous fishers and farmers are restricted from crossing over to cultivate their crops, the resident explained.

The local people support conservation of forested areas, he said, but want to continue cultivating crops in areas that have long been agricultural plots. Instead, members of his community have been arrested for collecting sustainable forest products, had their crops destroyed and huts burned down, according to the report.

“People are farming on land that they have customarily thought belongs to them but the interpretation of the project is that this farming amounts to an environmental crime,” said Luciana Téllez Chávez, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and the lead author of the report. 

“Some people have also been jailed for basically just performing the activities that have formed the core of their livelihoods for generations.”

Luciana Téllez Chávez, senior researcher, Human Rights Watch

“Some people have also been jailed for basically just performing the activities that have formed the core of their livelihoods for generations.”

A bathroom, supported by the Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project within the national park, is visible from the rain-drenched gate of a home in Samraong village.
A bathroom, supported by the Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project within the national park, is visible from the rain-drenched gate of a home in Samraong village.Anton L. Delgado/Southeast Asia Globe

This carbon offset project was able to sell credits at higher prices because it received additional certifications reserved for projects that specifically benefit local and Indigenous communities. But Human Rights Watch found that the process of obtaining “free, prior and informed consent” from residents did not begin until 2 and 1/2 years after the project had already started. 

“I cannot imagine a more egregious problem than reversing free, prior and informed consent. If you say that happened and the opposite happened, why should I trust anything you say anywhere else?” said Danny Cullenward, a climate economist and lawyer. 

For Cullenward, the report findings are made even worse by the fact that some of the issues were documented in the project’s own audits years before the investigation. The auditing firm SCS Global Services, for instance, noted that the free, prior and informed consent meetings with residents began 31 months after the January 2015 project start date, but still determined that the project was “in conformance” with certification requirements. 

“Every single party in this transaction has a financial interest in there being more credits issued,” Cullenward said. “It’s a lose-lose situation here because, either one of the parties has really screwed up at its job or the rules are so weak, you really don’t want to have any confidence in their application elsewhere.”

The credits are certified by the US nonprofit Verra, the world’s leading carbon credit certifier, which is meant to confirm that the projects produce certain environmental and social benefits. 

Verra began its own investigation of the project after Human Rights Watch shared its preliminary findings in June. Joel Finkelstein, Verra’s senior director for media and advocacy, told The World that the allegations are appalling. He believes Verra’s auditing system is something the organization can really stand behind.

“It’s a system designed to get to meaningful, credible, high-integrity climate impact and ethical processes in these projects,” he said. “If that was not the case here, our investigation will find that out and there will be censures for that, too.”

Verra would not provide a timeline for when its investigation will be completed, and said its policy is to not provide commentary while an investigation is ongoing. SCS Global Services said in an email that its policy was to not comment on ongoing reviews. Cambodia’s Environment Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Wildlife Alliance said in a statement that the Human Rights Watch report “fundamentally distorts the reality of the project.”

A local resident walks down the red road to Chamnar Village in the Areng Valley of the Southern Cardamom National Park.
A local resident walks down the red road to Chamnar Village in the Areng Valley of the Southern Cardamom National Park.Anton L. Delgado/Southeast Asia Globe

At his family home, a Chong Indigenous man in his late 50s said the rangers and officials carrying out the carbon offset project have cut down crops grown by his community. 

“They should be protecting only the forest, not [patrolling] the plantations and trees that people have planted for years,” the man said, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the Wildlife Alliance. 

He still farms in the area despite the patrols, but is afraid of being spotted. He doesn’t earn enough for his family’s daily living expenses, and had to take out private loans for $150.

“I only ask the companies that gave to [Wildlife Alliance] and the REDD+ Project to review the map that overlaps with people’s land,” he said. “Do not hurt the people anymore.”

The authorities don’t go after people who have excavators, he said, but they come for people with small farms like him. 

Additional reporting and translation by Phon Sothyroth.

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