April 21, 2024


When Suwanna Gauntlett began conservation work in Cambodia in the early 2000s, hundreds of hectares of rainforest was set on fire every month to clear the land for illegal sales, and dozens of tigers and elephants were killed.

Gauntlett founded the Wildlife Alliance in 1994 to fight tiger poaching in the Russian Far East, and a decade later the nonprofit’s work expanded to India, Ecuador, Myanmar and Thailand. In 2000, Cambodia was their next frontier, home to one of the last giant rainforests in Southeast Asia spanning the country’s Southern Cardamom region — which Gauntlett described as a “remote and completely lawless province.”

“There were no rangers, no park headquarters, no ranger stations, no law enforcement in the area,” Gauntlett said in a 2016. interview with Mongabay. “It was literally the wild, wild west.”

Gauntlett spoke to the news outlet to discuss the establishment of a new national park, which pledged to protect more than a million hectares of rainforest. It was a major victory for Gauntlett’s organization, and helped spur an even more extensive project in partnership with the Cambodian government to protect rainforests and sell carbon credits as corporate offsets to fund the work.

The project is part of the United Nations framework called REDD+, which stands for “‘Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.” The idea is that countries can finance environmental protection projects by selling a project’s carbon credits to corporations.

But that project, known as the Southern Cardamom REDD+came under fire from the nonprofit human rights commissionan international human rights watchdog.

In a report released on February 28Human Rights Watch investigators describe how the project by the Wildlife Alliance and Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment has repeatedly violated the rights of the indigenous Chong people who have called the Cardamom Mountains home for centuries.

According to the authors, the Wildlife Alliance and Cambodian government embarked on the project without first consulting with the indigenous peoples who lived there, violating their right under international law to free, prior and informed consent to projects on their land. The report also outlines how indigenous people were prevented from farming their land and were even jailed for collecting resin from trees. “This is my livelihood and tradition, and I’m not doing anything wrong,” a man referred to as Chamson told investigators in the report.

Luciana Téllez, lead author of the Human Rights Watch report, said the findings reflect a broader trend worldwide in which indigenous peoples and other traditional communities manage some of the world’s best-preserved landscapes, but are repeatedly marginalized and discriminated against.

“The pressure to increase the areas under protected status is not matched by an impulse to recognize the rights of these minority groups. And we have to see that the pace of both of these things matches each other,” said Téllez. “We need to see that conservation moves to the same rhythm as the movement to recognize, protect, uphold the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.”

The exclusion of indigenous peoples while establishing conservation areas is a long-standing global problem. Settlers in the US who saw the continent as a remote and lawless place only established many national parks after the removal of indigenous peoples. But the practice continues around the world: In Tanzania, the indigenous Maasai people fled gunfire in 2022 to make way for a game reserve. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, park rangers at the Kahuzi-Biega National Park killed indigenous Batwa people in the name of conservation. Forced evictions are a feature, not a bug, of the practice known as fortress conservation: The United Nations estimates that since 1990, 250,000 people lost their homes to make way for conservation projects.

To comply with international law, conservation projects such as the Southern Cardamom REDD+ project must conduct thorough consultation with indigenous peoples before projects begin. The report noted that Wildlife Alliance and Cambodian government officials spent years making key decisions about the conservation project, including mapping the area, applying for funding and signing contracts in the region, before starting consultations.

Even the establishment of a national park in 2016 surrounded eight Chong communities before their traditional lands were mapped or named, the report found.

Protecting conservation land at the expense of indigenous rights is a problem that is expected to continue as countries face increasing pressure to combat climate change. At least 190 nations have committed to it Conserve 30 percent of the Earth’s lands and waters by 2030many of which are home to indigenous peoples, and the United Nations’ REDD+ framework has added financial incentives to these conservation efforts.

But Téllez said big questions remain about who really benefits from carbon offset projects. Human Rights Watch found that in 2021, Southern Cardamom REDD+ $18 million made from carbon credit sales to multinational corporations. At the same time, indigenous peoples described to investigators that the Wildlife Alliance’s enforcement of the REDD+ program cost them their livelihoods, including forcing some to borrow money when they could not farm on their family land.

“Everyone is forbidden to enter the forest, but many people have farmland there,” a woman surnamed Sothy told investigators. Another named Pov said: “Wildlife Alliance came to cut down the banana trees. There was no warning or discussion before the destruction.”

Téllez said a key problem is the lack of a legally binding benefit sharing agreement to ensure that the affected communities receive a certain share of the project funds. Wildlife Alliance and the Cambodian government have committed to meeting voluntary standards set by Betrayed, a company that sets quality assurance standards on the voluntary carbon market. But Verra does not require agreements to be made with indigenous communities to ensure they benefit financially. After learning of Human Rights Watch’s findings, Verra announced it would begin investigate the Southern Cardamom REDD+ project.

Wildlife Alliance says the report is misleading. “Many of the criticisms leveled at the report on the Southern Cardamom Project fit conveniently into the narrative that HRW has already created as part of their advocacy of international carbon markets,” the Wildlife Alliance said in a statement on their website.

The organization published a video this week from one of its community managers, Sokun Hort, who denies that anyone has been evicted and says that Human Rights Watch has ignored broad community support for the project. The Wildlife Alliance and Cambodia’s environment ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the report.

Téllez of Human Rights Watch said the report reflected what investigators had heard in dozens of interviews. Even a Cambodian government official told Human Rights Watch that the Wildlife Alliance “harassed poor people just for collecting forest products.”

Téllez is concerned about the organization’s continued denial of the allegations.

“There is no recognition that some people have been harmed by the project, and there is no recognition that those people are entitled to redress,” she said. “And that’s why we will continue to demand accountability.”






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