When Cambodia's rainy season turns dirt roads into rutted mud, the villages tucked into rugged folds of the western Cardamom Mountains can feel far from just about everything.
In the Areng Valley, a river-carved flatland in the range sparsely populated by villages of Indigenous Chorng people, that includes any semblance of cellular reception.
This means it's usually best to meet in person with Reem Souvsee, the deputy chief of the valley's Chomnoab commune. Otherwise, Souvsee explained, she might get some reception near the roof of her house or up the neighboring mountains where local men go to harvest resin from trees to sell for a bit of income.
Despite that isolation, in recent months this stretch of rural communities among densely jungled peaks has been pulled into the center of global debate about carbon credits — a development scheme organized under a U.N.-backed framework called REDD+.
These credits are intended to limit the emissions that cause climate change by preventing deforestation in places like Areng. They're purchased by major polluters, including some of the world's largest oil and gas firms, to offset their fossil fuel emissions by essentially sponsoring the protection of forests in developing countries such as Cambodia.
Some of these credits are already coming from the mountains near Souvsee's home, which lies within the Southern Cardamom REDD+ project. Managed by the nonprofit Wildlife Alliance in partnership with the Cambodian government, the roughly 4,453-square-kilometer project in Koh Kong province includes portions of two national parks and another officially protected area. It is the largest of four such registered carbon credit zones in Cambodia.
The project has also been seen abroad as one of the flagships for the burgeoning climate finance sector. But that image took a major hit in June when the world's leading carbon credit registry service, a U.S.-based nonprofit called Verra, abruptly suspended issuing new credits for the site in response to an as-yet-unreleased investigation from global advocacy group Human Rights Watch alleging rights abuses by environmental officials and rangers within the project area.
The finer mechanics of the carbon credit model are mostly unknown to locals in Areng, who were unaware of these developments. But Souvsee — a member of Cambodia's beleaguered political opposition Candlelight Party and a former affiliate with the conservation activist group Mother Nature — saw reason to support the program, which has funded local infrastructure and community development.
"We want REDD+ to be here, but we want them to respect our rights as Indigenous people," she said. "They can help protect our forest, our culture — and they can help protect our land from companies too."
For rural forest communities such as those in Areng, the threat posed by outside companies is very real.
Rights organizations annually rank Cambodia among the most corrupt in the world, pointing to well-documented elite networks that have granted themselves near-total control of the Kingdom's natural resources under a sprawling political patronage system. This has seen the country's once-vast forests and other officially protected landscapes traditionally doled out among an overlapping class of tycoons and politicians, usually to be stripped for timber and developed into agricultural plantations.
At the same time, the Cambodian government has pledged to expand carbon credit programs across its many officially protected areas, as well as deepen its partnership with regional finance hub Singapore to bring its sprouting credits to a global market.
Some conservationists argue that the basic financial premise of REDD+ offers an alternative path forward, a means of changing the status quo for forests in Cambodia and other developing countries. They say credit sales provide a funding model that is actually sustainable on the ground, allowing for more concerted efforts to protect nature. Project developers also assert that a system that rewards states for keeping trees standing -- as opposed to clear-cutting for timber, mining, or other development -- is a much-needed step in the future of environmental protection.
But critics say these plans still fail to defuse the key drivers of deforestation by powerful economic interests, especially in countries such as Cambodia where land rights and environmental protections wither in the face of political clout and profit-seeking. Worse, some say, the brunt of the protections brought with REDD+ often fall on some of the world's poorest communities -- often smallholder farmers who depend on forests to eke out subsistence livelihoods.
"I think there's been a growing disappointment with REDD+ projects," said Professor Ida Theilade, a forestry expert with the University of Copenhagen. She has studied Cambodia for more than 20 years and has, in the past, done consulting for carbon credit projects in other countries. "It's very hard to find those success stories, those really big stars in the sky."
The recent Verra suspension has cast a critical spotlight on the Southern Cardamom REDD+ project.
Verra stated that it was investigating the situation in Southern Cardamom further, but did not comment beyond that. Human Rights Watch also did not disclose their report to the Globe.
Though minimal details from the group's study have been made public, its researchers had reportedly documented rights violations carried out against local people by public officials and conservation rangers in the development of the REDD+ project.
Even just a hint of these preliminary findings was immediately familiar to many in Cambodia.
Though the forests under its watch remain some of the thickest in the country, Wildlife Alliance has long been accused of heavy-handed enforcement of environmental restrictions with often-impoverished local villagers. The not-yet-public Human Rights Watch report likely taps into this history.
Suwanna Gauntlett, Wildlife Alliance CEO and founder, denies abuses, saying her organization is working to support rural livelihoods while safeguarding protected areas. She places the group's role in Cambodia in a longer arc of conservation in the Kingdom, tracing back to the group's earliest days in 2000 -- operating in a near-lawless environment to fight land-grabbing, human-caused forest fires and widespread poaching.
"We used to be the good guys doing good stuff, and now we're the villains," said Gauntlett, reflecting on the spotlight cast on her group by Human Rights Watch. "I don't know how comfortable I feel in my new role."
At Wildlife Alliance's offices in Phnom Penh, Gauntlett and her organization also stand by their work.
In addition to using the revenues from carbon credit sales to fund protection of the REDD+ area, the group also listed a range of material investments in the rural communities within the Southern Cardamom project.
Besides helping start community-based ecotourism centers, Gauntlett also said her group had shored up land tenure for residents in the REDD+ zone by facilitating the government's processing of just under 5,000 hard land titles -- a level of official recognition of ownership that is often difficult to secure in Cambodia -- covering nearly 12,250 parcels of private land in the REDD+ zone. She expected the Ministry of Land Management to issue an additional 7,249 titles by 2024.
Gauntlett also listed infrastructure developments, such as about 28 kilometers of new or rehabilitated roads in the project zone, 94 solar-powered water wells, 77 toilets, two schools, and a bridge. Wildlife Alliance also funded 16 full university scholarships for students to study in and live in Phnom Penh, she said.
Reporters were able to see much of the hard infrastructure for themselves as they traveled through the project area. In the Areng Valley, one older resident said the newly installed toilet was the first she had ever had.
While the Wildlife Alliance REDD+ program officially started in 2015, Gauntlett said her organization had first tried to establish the program in 2008 - but was rejected by the Cambodian government.
“Finally, when REDD started, it was pretty much already all done. It wasn’t a decision that came out of the blue like this,” she said. When asked why the government had initially been against it, Gauntlett was concise.
“Very simple. More money to be made through economic land concessions.”
However, the incentives offered by climate finance will need to compete with more short-term motivations. Not everyone shares Gauntlett's optimism that carbon credits are up to the task.
The forester Theilade is among those who do not share Gauntlett's optimism. She focuses primarily on the vanishing Prey Lang forest and the community networks that have struggled to maintain it against powerful interests.
Theilade was also involved in the early 2000s in helping the Cambodian government develop its REDD+ Roadmap, a planning process funded by the World Bank that ostensibly evolved into the Kingdom's current strategy.
Today, she occasionally reviews conservation proposals that include carbon trading components, but she does not work specifically with crediting schemes.
Theilade is not involved with Wildlife Alliance or its work in Southern Cardamom but said she had read about the organization's presence there. Although she gave them some credit, she said Cambodia's extensive patronage system leaves no room for good intentions, especially where forestland is concerned.
Such an outcome has already happened to Wildlife Alliance elsewhere in the country. Last year, its partners in the Forestry Administration conspired with local officials and prominent tycoons to clear-cut and parcel out a smaller forest that Wildlife Alliance had preserved just outside the Phnom Penh metropolitan area.
The conservation group had used that area, known as Phnom Tamao, as a sanctuary for rare and endangered animals. Although a rare surge of public discontent halted development of the land, the forest itself was decimated.
Based on global prices for carbon on the offsets market, Theilade thought that carbon credits could not compete with other land uses associated with the patronage system, especially timber logged from protected areas.
Although she gently cautioned that she did not want to sound too negative about the work being done by some conservation groups to develop such schemes, Theilade simply did not see them as a realistic option given the political weight against conservation.
“It has to be a government or a culture that decides that these forests are worth something to us,” she said, describing the various ecological, social and spiritual benefits that forests provide in Cambodia.
“I’m afraid that the idea that the government will conserve forests for some small carbon payments is an illusion.”
Additional reporting by Anton L. Delgado, Meng Kroypunlok, Roun Ry and SourceMaterial. This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network for the "It's a Wash" special report. The original story can be found here.
Banner photo: A man kicks up dust as he drives out of Chamnar village, the farthest community in Areng Valley within Cambodia’s Southern Cardamom REDD+ project area / Credit: Anton L. Delgado/Southeast Asia Globe.