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Could REDD help save an embattled forest in Cambodia?

  • REDD in Cambodia has faced many obstacles, but now one long-awaited project has just gotten the green light to proceed.
  • Wildlife Alliance is pushing forward with a REDD project that aims to finance the newly established Southern Cardamom National Park’s ongoing protection.
  • In an October 2016 interview with, Gauntlett spoke about the Southern Cardamoms and her hopes for the project.

Over the past three decades, few countries lost forest cover faster than Cambodia: over a quarter of the country’s forests were cleared since 1990. Much of that destruction was driven by logging and conversion for agriculture and plantations.

In the late 2000s, Cambodia’s rapid rate of forest loss seemed to make it an ideal candidate for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), a performance-based approach to conservation that gained traction after 2007 climate talks in Bali, Indonesia. Under REDD, Cambodia would get paid for its success in curbing deforestation of its carbon-dense tropical forests.

But REDD has evolved substantially since those days, morphing from what some early backers saw primarily as a market-based carbon trading mechanism into something considerably more complex that currently involves aid-like government to government transfers, philanthropic investments, and voluntary carbon offset markets. Conversations around REDD have also become more nuanced, with recognition of local communities’ rights, land tenure reform, protections for biodiversity, and other safeguards becoming central criteria for project design and implementation.

REDD in Cambodia has followed a similar arc. Early euphoria about grandiose projects — some of which may have had dubious climate benefits — has waned and been replaced by real concerns about corruption, conflict, government policy, financing, and efficacy. Accordingly, the number of active and proposed projects has dwindled.

But one long-awaited project has just gotten the green light to proceed. Buoyed by the recent decision to declare the Southern Cardamom National Park and the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, Wildlife Alliance is pushing forward with a REDD project that aims to finance the new park’s ongoing protection.

Suwanna Gauntlett, the founder and CEO of Wildlife Alliance, says the project — which has been in the works for eight years — could help finance ranger patrols to stabilize the park, protecting both trees and wildlife.

In an October 2016 interview with, Gauntlett spoke about the Southern Cardamoms and her hopes for the project.

Rainforest in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Rainforest in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

AN INTERVIEW WITH SUWANNA GAUNTLETT Cambodia recently announced the establishment of Southern Cardamom National Park, which was a major accomplishment for Wildlife Alliance. Can you tell us a little about this area? Why it is important?

Suwanna Gauntlett: The Cardamom Mountain Range is one of the last great rainforests remaining in Southeast Asia. The mountain range’s rainforest cover plays an extremely important role from a watershed point of view: the vast 18,000 square kilometer forest canopy regulates the highest rainfall of the region (a staggering 3,500-4,500 mm of rain per year) and supplies 22 major waterways supplying the Tonle Sap Lake on the north and the Gulf of Thailand on the south. The Cardamoms are able to continue their vital function of water regulator for the region only because they have been preserved as a continuous tropical rainforest, while most forests in Southeast Asia have been either cleared or fragmented. Avoiding fragmentation can be mainly attributed to Wildlife Alliance who has continuously monitored and intervened to avoid deforestation from 37 industrial development companies over the last 14 years.

We work hard to preserve the Cardamom’s water regulation ecosystem function because we want to avoid the acute droughts that other provinces are suffering from each year. Rampant deforestation throughout the country has now resulted in 12 provinces completely losing fresh water reserves during the dry season (up from only 3 in 2010).

Suwanna Gauntlett
Suwanna Gauntlett

We fought to preserve the Cardamoms by focusing on the areas of the rainforest that were the most at threat from human development, i.e. in the Southern portion. The fight was tough because that section was not yet under legal protection. We were heavily criticized by other conservation organizations who did not understand why we were protecting an area that was not a National Park nor a Protected Forest. Also, we were not buying into the usual conservation approach of identifying ‘priority biodiversity zones’ and allowing the rest of the forest to be developed. Instead, we steered away from traditional conservation and took vigorous action to preserve continuous forest canopy cover over large tracts of land. We knew, that, if we allowed fragmentation, the forest would end up being reduced to islands surrounded by human development. This was not an acceptable outcome for Wildlife Alliance nor its donor community who shares our concern for global climate and for the survival of large mammals.

The Cardamoms are a remnant of what used to be known as the “Tropical Forest Belt” that was protecting the Earth at its mid-section along the latitude where the planet is closest to the sun and temperatures are the hottest. This thick, moist vegetation layer was cooling the surface of the ground through its continuous water cycle and, therefore, fulfilling a global rainfall regulation function.

Today, only a fraction of this “Tropical Forest Belt” remains. Industrial development has taken over and removed the Earth’s natural temperature regulation system. Ground temperature in the denuded areas has risen significantly, changing the local air currents, and reducing rainfall. NASA Earth Observatory and Duke University (April 2005 issue of the Journal of Hydrometeorology) have studied the interrelationship between tropical deforestation and drought and shown that deforestation in the Tropical Belt has a massive impacts on rainfall and weather trends in the northern hemisphere.

Global Forest Watch map showing forest cover loss since 2010 in the Southern Cardamom mountains.
Global Forest Watch map showing forest cover loss since 2010 in the Southern Cardamom mountains. What was the process of getting this area gazetted as a protected area?

Suwanna Gauntlett: Actually, the process of getting the Southern Cardamoms gazetted has been overly difficult and has required a 14 year-long advocacy and on-the-ground monitoring effort. When Wildlife Alliance arrived in the area in 2002, there were 300 to 600 hectares of rainforest going up in flames every single month. 37 elephants and 12 tigers had been killed in just the few months preceding our initial intervention. There were no rangers, no park headquarters, no ranger stations, no law enforcement at all in the area. It was literally the wild, wild west.

Protecting an area with legal protection on paper is one thing, but protecting it on the ground is the most difficult challenge. We started in 2002 with a seemingly insurmountable challenge: we had to provide crisis management, stop the poaching, stop the burning, re-establish central government rule of law over this remote and completely lawless province where everyone was pillaging natural resources for private interests.

It is only in 2004 that we started thinking about the long-term process of establishing legal protection for the Southern Cardamoms. Government at national level was very committed at the time and declared a first 140,000 hectare area gazetted as “Protected Forest” along Freeway 48. This was a major achievement, but it still left another 470,000 hectares of vital rainforest without legal protection. The same year, threats to this unprotected section went up by 100 percent: a new law was passed that allowed private companies to purchase rainforest land for industrial-scale agriculture plantations or mining. As soon as this Economic Land Concession law was passed in 2004, the Southern Cardamoms were suddenly up for grabs and we had to fend off one company after another. Pressure from private companies became constant. It was very stressful for Wildlife Alliance. We had to keep our eyes and ears open everywhere and at all times. We knew that permits could be given rapidly and that there would be no transparency letting us know in advance. We had to deploy every single strategy that we could think of and stand steady no matter what. Through persistence and unfailing on-the-ground presence, we fended off 37 Economic Land Concessions over 12 years. This represents saving a surface of rainforest equivalent to two thirds the surface of Yellowstone National Park. These were hard-won victories based on advocacy campaigns ranging from 6 months to 2 years that rallied stakeholders from all social sectors. We succeeded in cancelling exploitation permits of titanium mines, large-scale banana export companies, large-scale livestock production facilities, and industrial sugar cane plantations.

We succeeded because of constant hard work. We established continuous presence on the ground to detect any corporate attempts to clear the forest. We cracked down on every bulldozer starting to clear the forest, we followed every individual attempting to take soil samples, we stopped every construction inside the forest. We helped select, train, and equip government rangers across the landscape and prepared them to stop forest clearings, illegal logging, and wildlife poaching.

Rainforest in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Rainforest in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Photo by Rhett A. Butler What are the major threats to forest and wildlife in the area?

Suwanna Gauntlett: The initial threats to the Southern Cardamoms when we arrived in the area were rampant wildlife poaching (37 elephants and 12 tigers were poached in just the few months preceding our initial intervention) along with forest land grabbing for buying and selling (real estate speculation along newly constructed Freeway 48). Criminal forest fires were consuming 300 to 600 hectares of forest each month, caused by local officials clearing plots and selling state land under the table.

Today, we have achieved ZERO ELEPHANT POACHING in the area but wildlife trafficking and poaching by snares remain a huge issue.

The biggest threat to the area is still land grabbing by local businessmen, most often aided by local authorities. We have been working on this assiduously with provincial, district and commune level government to finalize private land title allocation and provide legal delineation of village boundaries.

Recently, massive illegal logging has become a huge threat to the area, conducted by an Economic Land Concession located along the border of the new Southern Cardamom National Park. The company has already illegally logged 6,000 hectares of the Southern Cardamom rainforest. Their tactic is to hire farmers from outside the national park, equip them with chainsaws and mechanical buffalos, and purchase the forest timber that they bring back to the company sawmill. From April 2015 to October 2016, ranger operations to counter the company’s illegal logging have resulted in dismantling of 665 illegal logging camps, seizure of 755 chainsaws and 113 mechanical buffalos, confiscation of 148 cubic meters of sawn timber, and taking 7 offenders to prison. Rangers have camped on-site for one year and a half, moving around in mobile ranger camps along the perimeter of the concession. However, trying to control this case of illegal logging has proven to be very difficult because the area is so vast and the company keeps on distributing chainsaws and mechanical buffalos after the rangers arrest farmers and seize their equipment. To make things worse, the company has now obtained a new logging permit from the government. Wildlife Alliance has intervened at every step and lobbied both central government ministries and provincial district departments. We have approached the logging company directly many times. We’ve helped with seven court cases and we took the last case directly to the Court of Appeal in the capital Phnom Penh because the prosecutor of the provincial court refused to process the case.

At every step, we reported back to central government to complain. Finally, after 18 months of painstaking efforts, we obtained that the government revoke the company’s new logging permit.

The fifth threat is linked to the previous one: the industrial demand for charcoal and ‘ firewood’ by the capital city’ factories has led to massive and irreversible deforestation in the Cambodian southwest. Over 600 garment factories in Phnom Penh and an unknown number of brick factories are using natural forest wood for their industrial energy supply. By using forest wood, instead of using electricity form the city grid, this saves them 2 cents per kilowatt. The largest garment factory is consuming up to 36 metric tons of forest wood per year! All the forests closest to town have been systematically cleared over the last 20 years to fuel this demand. There is no where to turn now to find forest wood supply — therefore, companies are focusing on the country’s remaining forests inside national parks.

Binturong in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Binturong in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Photo by Rhett A. Butler Is your proposed REDD+ project part of the business model for ensuring the park has sufficient financing to operate effectively? How large an area falls under the project and how much carbon would be protected?

Suwanna Gauntlett: Yes. The REDD+ Project is a part of our business model for sustainable financing. The Southern Cardamom REDD+ project has 465,000 hectares of forest which contains 186,000,000 tCO2e of carbon. It is estimated that the REDD+ Project would stop 46,500,000 tCO2e from being emitted over its 20 year life. One of the persistent criticisms of REDD+ is some projects subsidize primary forest logging, which is a driver of degradation and can contribute to outright deforestation. Does your project involve logging? What are the other project activities?

Suwanna Gauntlett: For REDD+ activities, I am shocked that sustainable logging would even be considered as a viable REDD+ activity. I know that WCS is using that as a livelihood activity in the community zones surrounding Seima in Cambodia, but I do not agree with this practice. Our REDD+ activities are as follows:

(1) Community sustainable agriculture on permanent land outside the REDD accounting area. This includes clear land allocation for livelihoods around the REDD accounting area. This process is partially finished in some communes and still on going in at least two communes. In those areas, we have facilitated and are continuing to facilitate government allocation of individual land titles to each family.

(2) Community-based eco-tourism (CBET), including expanded marketing of the current programs to expand this revenue and the reach of the program.

(3) Community small enterprises and development of business associations to boost revenues. These associations will determine other potential livelihoods.

Rangers on patrol in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Rangers on patrol in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Photo by Rhett A. Butler Is there any issue with additionality since the park has already been declared?

Suwanna Gauntlett: In the case of Southern Cardamoms, the main additionality is financial, without continued financial support protection will not happen. The financial support must be there in order to fund the protection activities of the park. This is the case whether it is a national park or not. We believe that without Wildlife Alliance’s support the area would more than likely have been logged, like Phnom Aural, Kulen Promtep, or other national parks in the country. What are the remaining steps left to turn this plan into a reality?

Suwanna Gauntlett: We have attempted to develop the Southern Cardamom REDD+ project since 2008 but there was no will from the government at that time, largely due to the uncertainty linked with the area’s lack of legal protection. Thankfully, this year the entire Southern Cardamom rainforest have received legal protection. In May 2016, the Prime Minister announced the creation of the Southern Cardamom National Park. The entire Southern Cardamoms presently include two protected areas – the former 2004 protection forest and the new 2016 national park – which will be merged together in the future.

Because the Southern Cardamoms are now completely protected by law, we are able to re-launch our REDD+ project. And it is urgent because in 2017, our main funder supporting the Southern Cardamom ranger program will be going out of business and we need to find sustainable financing to be able to continue protecting the forest.

Rainforest in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Rainforest in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The next step was to obtain the green light from the Minister of Environment. As of this month, we have received permission to go forward with the Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project.

The urgent next steps are to find co-funders to develop a REDD+ Project Design Document (PDD) and to support the rangers on the ground until carbon sales start coming in.

Obviously, the final step is to obtain third party validation so we can produce the Verified Emission Reductions (VERs) (carbon credits) and start selling.

The REDD+ project is being developed by the Royal Government of Cambodia with financial and technical support from Wildlife Alliance (2002-2016) for the REDD+ activities (ranger protection on the ground and community livelihoods), and technical support from Wildlife Works Carbon for developing the VERs (2016-2017). If this project is successful, are there prospects for expanding the approach in other countries?

Suwanna Gauntlett: Based on project success in the Southern Cardamoms, we are anticipating to replicate our conservation model in other countries, focusing on wildlife and habitat crises areas. We are already making forays into Africa and assessing which countries need our assistance in stopping the terrible slaughter of African elephants. We will be soon be communicating our plan to the public.

Germain's Silver Langur. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Germain’s Silver Langur. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
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