- The recent approval of two hydropower dams in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains could undermine a REDD+ carbon project in the area.
- The Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project relies on keeping the forests in this region standing — a goal researchers say is “completely incompatible” with the forest clearing and flooding necessitated by the new dams.
- The lack of transparency inherent in both the carbon market and the Cambodian government means that the fate of the Cardamoms remains unclear for now.
PHNOM PENH — Two new hydropower dams approved by Cambodian authorities on Nov. 21 look set to bring further fragmentation to the dense rainforests of the Cardamom Mountains.
If built as planned along the Kong Hen and the Russei Chrum rivers in southern Cambodia, both dams will be constructed inside Cardamom National Park, and are likely to have an impact on the Cardamoms REDD+ project, arguably Cambodia’s most prominent foray into the carbon market.
The anticipated location for the 100-megawatt Veal Thmor Kambot hydropower dam sits some 15 kilometers (9 miles) inside the borders of the REDD+ project, while the 70 MW Russei Chrum Kandal dam looks set to be built less than 2 km, or about a mile, outside the boundaries of the REDD+ project
The Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project initially saw primary forest loss drop significantly since it was established in 2016. The project is managed jointly by the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Alliance, a U.S.-registered nonprofit operating almost exclusively in the Cardamoms.
However, the project has recently run afoul of controversies amid allegations that the rights of Indigenous communities have been abused by Wildlife Alliance and their partners. An unpublished investigation by Human Rights Watch, coupled with numerous media reports, led to Verra, the project’s carbon credit certifier, opening an investigation into the alleged abuses on June 19 and suspending the issuance of credits from the project.
Wildlife Alliance has consistently denied any wrongdoing, instead launching a charm offensive of sponsored content in government-aligned media and attempting to discredit the reporting of critical journalists.
Now its REDD+ project faces further challenges in the form of the new hydropower dams, although little is known as to what impact the dams are expected to have.
Suwanna Gauntlett, chief executive officer of Wildlife Alliance, said that while access roads are being built for both projects, construction of the dams themselves has not yet begun in earnest.
“The impacts of the [Veal Thmor Kambot dam] will be calculated with the third-party auditor during the next monitoring period to determine with precision how much forest cover will be removed,” Gauntlett said in response to questions emailed by Mongabay, noting that the Russei Chrum Kandal dam falls outside the REDD+ project boundaries. “This is the procedure that we apply in every monitoring period: we work with the third-party auditors to evaluate the exact deforestation of new planned developments inside the Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project.”
Yet more opaque infrastructure development in Cambodia
While the evaluation will be conducted using a combination of satellite imagery and ground-truthing, Gauntlett didn’t detail when the evaluation would be conducted or who the third-party auditors would be.
“Our approach is to work closely with the hydropower companies and the Ministry of Mines and Energy to minimize damage to the forest,” she said. “We were doing this even way before we started implementing any REDD project.”
No maps, findings or estimates from environmental impact assessments or feasibility studies have been made public so far, although the dams, which are regarded as a single hydropower project, have been under study since at least 2019 and access roads have been developed over the course of 2022 and 2023, suggesting a plan has been approved by the government.
Mongabay reached out by phone and text message to Keo Rattanak, the energy minister, and Eang Sophalleth, the environment minister, as well as their respective spokespersons, Eang Ung and Phay Buncheon, but none of them responded.
When the dams were proposed some four years ago, the projects were planned out by China Huadian Corporation, a prominent Chinese state-owned enterprise specializing in power generation projects. China Huadian had also built the 338 MW Russei Chrum Krom hydropower dam located roughly 8 km (5 mi) from the proposed Russei Chrum Kandal dam site. Prior to this, the Russei Chrum Kandal dam had been proposed by South Korean investors, but never got off the ground.
But no developer was listed in April 2023 when then-prime minister Hun Sen’s cabinet approved the two dams in principle. By November 2023, the project was approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia, which manages private sector investments worth more than $50 million and whose approval is among the final steps in the process of building a dam. But by the time the Russei Chrum Kandal and the Veal Thmor Kambot had received this approval, the developer was listed as Khmer Electrical Power, the first independently owned power producer in Cambodia, which has been run by ruling party senator Kok An since its incorporation in 2004.
Regarded as one of Cambodia’s richest men, Kok An is a longtime ally of former PM Hun Sen, and his business ventures have left their mark on Koh Kong province’s coastal and terrestrial ecosystems. More recently, his name has become synonymous with the human trafficking epidemic that has implicated high-level officials in scam compounds across the country. None of this appears to have prevented Cambodia’s new government from granting him the rights to develop the two new dams in Koh Kong that are set to cost $447.5 million.
A man who would only identify himself as Chantha who answered a number listed for Khmer Electrical Power said that studies were ongoing and that he wasn’t sure how large the reservoirs were expected to be or how much impact the projects would have on the protected forest. He deferred questions to a Sok Pheaktra, who Chantha said was managing the projects for Khmer Electrical Power.
Pheaktra read but did not respond to messages sent on the popular messaging app Telegram and repeatedly rejected calls from Mongabay.
Clearing forest for ‘green’ energy
Stretching from Cambodia’s southwestern coast into Thailand’s southeastern borders, the evergreen jungles of the Cardamom Mountains have long been protected by their remoteness, rugged territory and high volumes of rainfall. But a spate of hydropower developments that began around 2010 has fragmented parts of the lush ecosystem and seen untouched jungle cleared for so-called clean energy.
So far, there are five operational hydropower projects nestled within the Cambodian section of the Cardamoms, all situated within the 926,123-hectare (2.29-million-acre) Cardamom National Park, which became Cambodia’s largest protected area following the merging of the central and southern Cardamom national parks in August 2023.
Historically, dams have seen vast tracts of largely untouched forest reduced to dirt as reservoirs have been constructed. This, in turn, has given cover to illegal loggers who have repeatedly exploited the need for forest clearance within the dam-building process and made millions of dollars through timber laundering.
Cambodia’s most famous environmental defender, Chut Wutty, was killed in 2012 trying to expose the damage that dams wreak upon the jungles of the Cardamoms, highlighting the sensitivity of logging when it’s associated with government-approved energy infrastructure development.
Prime Minister Hun Manet, son of the former PM Hun Sen, was quoted by government mouthpiece Khmer Times as calling hydropower “a source of clean energy.” But increasingly, the sustainable credentials of dams are being called into question. Large dams can create numerous issues by altering the natural hydrology of rivers, with tropical wildlife and ecosystems disproportionately affected by the development of hydropower projects.
“I think it is problematic to think of new dams in forested regions as sources of ‘green energy,’” Sango Mohanty, a professor of resources, environment and development at Australian National University who has worked extensively in Cambodia and the broader Mekong region, told Mongabay.
“This label is usually applied because hydropower is often seen as a lower carbon intensive or polluting form of energy production than, say, coal-fired power stations or nuclear power,” she said. “But this ignores the overall contributions of hydropower to carbon emissions through forest loss and methane or ‘biogenic’ carbon.”
Mahanty said that research, both her own and that of other scholars on the matter, clearly points to the need for stronger governance and transparency to mitigate the social and environmental impacts brought about by hydropower development.
Mahanty said it’s counterproductive to sacrifice forests in the pursuit of meeting clean energy targets, especially while simultaneously undermining the attempts to generate carbon credits from the same forests in the Cardamoms.
“I cannot imagine how a REDD+ project can continue to sell carbon credits after the areas it covers are inundated or cleared for the hydropower projects,” Mahanty said. “The two would seem completely incompatible to me.”
The lack of transparency inherent in both the carbon market and the Cambodian government means that the fate of the Cardamoms remains unclear for now.
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Scherer, L., & Pfister, S. (2016). Hydropower’s biogenic carbon footprint. PLOS ONE, 11(9), e0161947. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161947
Moran, E. F., Lopez, M. C., Moore, N., Müller, N., & Hyndman, D. W. (2018). Sustainable hydropower in the 21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(47), 11891-11898. doi:10.1073/pnas.1809426115
Banner image: The Cardamom Mountains are one of Cambodia’s best preserved rainforest landscapes, but the addition of new hydropower dams risks fragmenting the forest. Image by Andy Ball / Mongabay.