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Community members harvest rice in one of the villages included in the Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project in Koh Kong province, Cambodia, June 25, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch
  • ​​​​A major carbon offsetting project in Cambodia shows that such initiatives can harm Indigenous people when communities’ effective participation and consent are not ensured.
  • Conservation strategies that sideline and punish Indigenous peoples to address the global environmental crisis are unacceptable, and counterproductive.
  • Verra, the standard-setting organization that enabled the project to issue carbon credits, should ensure compensation for those affected. The government should title the Indigenous Chong’s territories and uphold their rights.

(Bangkok) – A major carbon offsetting project in Cambodia shows that such initiatives can harm Indigenous people when communities’ effective participation and consent are not ensured, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 118-page report, “Carbon Offsetting’s Casualties: Violations of Chong Indigenous People’s Rights in Cambodia’s Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project,” concerns a project carried out by the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and the conservation group Wildlife Alliance, that encompasses half a million hectares in the Cardamom mountains, a rainforest area that has been home to the indigenous Chong people for centuries. The project operated for more than two years without consulting the local Chong people on the project, who face forced evictions and criminal charges for farming and foraging in their traditional territories.

“Conservation strategies that sideline and punish Indigenous peoples to address the global environmental crisis are unacceptable, and counterproductive,” said Luciana Téllez Chávez, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project should be revised to ensure the Chong people’s effective participation in key decisions, titling of Indigenous communal land, and benefit-sharing agreements with the Chong that acknowledge they own the carbon stored in their territories.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 90 people in 23 of the 29 villages included in the project as well as 3 government officials over a two-year period. Human Rights Watch also analyzed satellite imagery, topographic maps, media reports, and social media. Since September 2022, Human Rights Watch has met and communicated with the Environment Ministry, Wildlife Alliance, and other key private actors involved in the project.

The REDD+ project conducted activities for 31 months before beginning to consult the Chong communities in August 2017. During that period the Environment Ministry and Wildlife Alliance made crucial decisions on the management of the designated land without the Indigenous Chong people’s free, prior, and informed consent. They incorporated eight Chong villages into a national park, undermining their rights over their customary land and forests.

Chong community members said that they shared the goal of protecting the rainforest, but they wanted the REDD+ project to treat them as partners, and that they would like to lead their own conservation activities independent of Wildlife Alliance.

“They [Wildlife Alliance] have no concern with our Indigenous identity,” said a Chong resident of Chumnoab commune. “They’ve never asked us for permission because from their perspective they already have an agreement with the government.”

Project decisions made without consulting affected communities continue to affect the Chong, Human Rights Watch said. Two Chong men said that in 2018 and 2021, patrols composed of Environment Ministry rangers, gendarmes, and Wildlife Alliance staff arrested and mistreated them while they collected resin – a sustainable activity – in the conservation area.

“When they first rushed into the camp they hit me in the back with their gun,” a man in O’Som commune said. “They destroyed everything I had with me – even the clothes on my back.”

Six Chong families described being forcibly evicted by the rangers, gendarmes, and Wildlife Alliance staff from land they had customarily farmed. The authorities arrested three community members and detained them for months without trial following the eviction, according to official records. “We didn’t ask for help or complain after it happened,” said one man from Pralay commune. “We’re just normal villagers, we don’t dare.”

Verra, an organization that has certified nearly half of all projects in the global voluntary carbon market, accredited the REDD+ project in 2018. Multinational companies buy carbon credits to compensate for their pollution, a practice known as “carbon offsetting.” In June 2023, after receiving a letter from Human Rights Watch sharing its findings, Verra stopped issuing credits for the project and said it would conduct a review. Verra has declined to comment further on the findings while the review is ongoing.

Several of the issues Chong residents raised had repeatedly been communicated to auditing firms that submitted their assessments to Verra between 2018 and 2023. The first audit, submitted in 2018, noted that the project start date was January 1, 2015, but the first consultations with communities only began in August 2017.

Another audit, in 2021, noted that “several communities reported high numbers of persons with no knowledge of the REDD+ project,” and “high numbers of these persons report they do not know about the definition of REDD+, its implementation, how REDD+ benefits and funds will be shared to the community, [and] boundary demarcation between REDD+ and their farmlands.”

The Environment Ministry spokesperson wrote to Human Rights Watch that “the sale of carbon credits has benefited communities that were involved in the protection and conservation of natural resources.” Wildlife Alliance wrote that they extensively consulted residents, that their activities constitute lawful environmental enforcement, and that the project benefits local communities. It said that the project had built wells, toilets, a laterite road, two schools, and a health post; given university scholarships to five youths; provided agricultural training to small landholders; and operated two eco-tourism initiatives that benefited local residents.

The REDD+ project, however, does not have a benefit-sharing agreement with any of the communities included in the project. These agreements are legally enforceable contracts that establish the percentage of project earnings that would be disbursed to communities. Existing agreements regulate revenue distribution between Wildlife Alliance, the Environment Ministry, and the Koh Kong provincial government, according to Wildlife Alliance’s website.

While maintaining that it disagreed with Human Rights Watch findings, Wildlife Alliance in November 2023 committed to: “provide technical and financial support” for “indigenous community land titling;” “establish, train, and support an indigenous Community Patrol team;” “provide formal human rights training to all Cambodian government rangers and Wildlife Alliance staff;” and develop a “formal Human Rights Policy.”

These commitments, if carried out, can have a positive impact, but Wildlife Alliance’s response thus far has fallen short of acknowledging and remedying the human rights harm caused by the project. Wildlife Alliance should create a comprehensive remediation plan in consultation with affected communities to compensate any victims of forced evictions, arbitrary detention, and unjust imprisonment. Wildlife Alliance should also hold accountable any project staff implicated in the abuses.

Verra should make reinstatement of the project conditional on comprehensive remediation for individuals and communities adversely affected by the project, including monetary compensation, and a new consultation process enabling the Chong to revisit the existing design, boundaries, activities, and project implementer of the REDD+ project, as well as benefit sharing arrangements. The Cambodian government should provide title to the Indigenous Chong traditional territories and acknowledge that Indigenous peoples own the carbon stored in their lands.

“Verra’s inaction for years in the face of the multiple red flags seriously calls into question its oversight and accountability mechanisms,” Téllez Chávez said. “These findings raise concerns about whether other carbon offsetting projects across the globe that were approved by Verra are causing harm to the very communities that most depend on forests for their livelihoods.”

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