Deforestation in Cambodia.

Neoliberal logic on climate change and deforestation is severely hurting Cambodia’s rural poor.

“What is REDD+?” asks a donor-funded state television commercial in Cambodia.

“It’s about saving the forests, while getting people out of poverty, while stopping climate change, as part of the global effort to combat rising carbon dioxide emissions,” replies one of the actors in the advert.

On national radio, a dedicated weekly half-hour program explains the benefits of the national REDD+ program in similar terms: reducing deforestation, improving livelihoods and, of course, avoiding carbon emissions.

In Phnom Penh, NGOs and government departments are busy preparing documents and posters explaining REDD+ and its supposed benefits. Shiny green posters line the halls of the Forestry Administration and Ministry of Environment, adorned with arrows, flow charts, pictures of smiling farmers, all proclaiming the benefits of the program.

Dozens of workshops and meetings are held in the capital in exclusive hotels featuring endless presentations on carbon forestry, social benefits, mechanisms to ensure ‘full and effective participation’ and safeguards. But none of these things tell us anything about the controversial idea that is REDD+.

And here’s the rub; REDD+ is primarily an idea – something that exists in the virtual – a supposed silver bullet to two problems.

The first is the loss of biodiversity from forested places, primarily in the tropics which have been labelled ‘critical ecosystems’ (an obvious throwback to the old Cold War obsession with protecting ‘critical infrastructure’).

The second is rising carbon emissions from forest clearance, which at first was thought to account for as much as 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, but has now been scaled back down to a more humble 10 per cent.

The lofty aspiration behind REDD+ is that wealthy companies or states in Annex One countries (net carbon emitters) could, via a trade in carbon credits, pay for those in forested, developing countries, to protect standing forests (or at least slow down the rate of deforestation); hence the name Reduction in Emissions form Deforestation and Degradation.

At some stage someone thought it fitting to tag on the “+” which would come to represent all those other things that have come to the attention of the international development industry in recent years (like conservation, gender, indigenous people, livelihoods and so on).

In a sense, REDD+ as a policy solution is nothing less than the triumph of neoliberal thought within the field of international climate politics. After a decade of the US’s aggressive promotion of ‘carbon markets’ in international climate conferences, the rest of the world, and especially the Global South, has been forced, bribed and coerced into playing the carbon market game.

The allure of millions of dollars of start-up funds provided by the World Bank and others, and the supposed future bonanza of carbon credits, have often been great for smaller countries (especially aid dependent ones like Cambodia).

The result is that, rather than demanding climate justice or what is owed to the poor who are the lowest carbon emitters and most likely to be effected by a changed climate (for example climate debt), countries like Cambodia are instead accepting a pittance of what they are owed for a scheme that has no evidence of actually working, and which is orientated more towards protecting Annex One country investors than the poor in forested countries.

If anything, the history of pollution markets over the last 30 years has shown them to be a largely ineffective policy mechanism.

And there is good reason to question the central tenets of REDD+, which place an enormous amount of faith in the creation of these new carbon markets as the ‘only option’ whether they are ‘voluntary’ or an example of ‘compliance’. Meanwhile these markets have very little grounding in the daily struggles of the poor who will be adversely affected by climate change.

Yet, the REDD+ program with all its talk of ‘full and effective participation’, ‘community rights’ and ‘safeguards for indigenous people’ has slowly rolled forward, absorbing all criticism into its ever expanding network of experts.

REDD+ in rural Cambodia
“But who cares what REDD+ is”, as a farmer in Cambodia’s northern province of Oddar Meanchey who was involved in the countries first scheme told me when I asked him if he understood the logic behind it.

“If I wanted to sell gas, I’d start a gas company. What I want is enough land to get by, and that’s it”.

He’s right. Who cares about the abstract idea of REDD; of what experts proclaim it is about and what it can achieve. Isn’t the most important thing its real world impacts on people struggling to make a living out of agriculture?

In Oddar Meanchey, where the project has been running for seven years, where promises of money and jobs never materialised, where people have slowly lost their land to the pressures of economic land concessions, land speculation, militarisation and the very ‘Community Forests’ which they supposedly gain benefit from, REDD+ has achieved very little.

It has made money for a small carbon venture firm in the US. It has helped the careers of experts writing technical papers on gender and safeguards. It has given Cambodia’s Forestry Administration slightly more legitimisation. But it has done very little for the people who are supposedly at the centre of the project.


A faded sign lists the details of the REDD+ scheme in rural Cambodia. Photo by Tim Frewer.

For all the shiny brochures and TV commercials, when it comes down to it, all that is really left of REDD+ is; a faded sign on a rural road that most passers-by will entirely ignore. The grand abstract idea of REDD+ leaves very little material trace in rural Cambodia.

People in villagers are angry at the NGOs who brought REDD+ to them. They risked their lives to patrol the community forests the scheme is based on – to apprehend soldiers and armed hunters. They took time off farming to attend workshops and community meetings. But in the end it was all for nothing.

Once one of the major NGOs in Phnom Penh ran out of start-up funds, with the voluntary carbon market doing a major backflip when the price of carbon fell from $12 in 2004 to $4 in 2012, all activities ground to a halt. People in Phnom Penh proclaimed the project a success (with ‘lessons learnt’) and the National REDD+ program slowly plodded forward promising to be even more participatory and with even better safeguards.

Yet farmers in Oddar Meanchey feel they have been abandoned.

Climate justice? Climate debt?
What all this reveals is the perverse logic of REDD+ which has absolutely nothing to do with climate justice. Not only are the people in Oddar Meanchey who are participating in the program some of the poorest people in the region, they are also the lowest carbon emitters.

What REDD+ essentially does is exploit the poor to protect ‘critical ecosystems’ that are of global value. Instead of helping the most climate dependent people deal with a changed climate, it utilises their labour to generate profit for foreign companies and brokers.

It uses them at arms-length to deal with the complexities and dangers of local conflicts and poverty. ‘Non-carbon benefits’ are only an afterthought, which if Oddar Meanchey is anything to go by, rarely actually materialise.

Most of the funding for REDD+ is instead consumed by the complex process of giving carbon a commercial value that involves an exorbitant amount of expensive, expert labour to establish accounting methods and monitoring and evaluation systems.

But worst of all, instead of getting to the most crucial task of restructuring carbon intensive economies, and keeping fossil fuels in the ground, offset programs like REDD+ essentially prolong urgently needed changes by giving polluters the option of deferring reductions by purchasing discounted carbon credits from poor farmers.

With the ‘creative accounting’ of REDD+, an imagined ‘avoided’ emission of carbon dioxide from not cutting down a section of forest (compared to an imagined baseline scenario) becomes commensurate to a very real emission in an Annex One country.

This is not to say that the avoided emission is fake, just that it is not an actual material thing, but rather a potential; something that does not happen, and which is traded for a very real material thing that has already happened (emissions of carbon dioxide from Annex One countries which will remain in the atmosphere for up to 100 years causing dangerous climate change).

Forests hence become imagined not as sinks, but as sources of emissions, on par with factories. People surrounding forests are not protectors of forest sinks but become thought of as carbon emitters due to their constant expansion into forests which release stored carbon dioxide. Under this flawed approach, the survival emissions of desperately poor agriculturalists become commensurate to the luxury emissions of those in Annex One countries.

Now that it has been realised that public funds are unable to provide sufficient capital to sustain a global market in avoided emissions, there has been a major push to put private capital at the centre of REDD+ (especially institutional investors who can potentially channel billons in pensions and investment funds).

Rural Cambodians from Oddar Meanchey. Photo by Tim Frewer.

Rural Cambodians from Oddar Meanchey. Photo by Tim Frewer.

What this means is that the logic of REDD+ is now shifting towards efforts to make investments more attractive to investors. This pushes REDD+ even further away from issues of climate justice and the livelihood struggles of those who will be most affected by a changed climate.

Yet REDD+ stumbles along in Cambodia, stubbornly refusing to let go of the simplifications that make the logic behind it so alluring. People in forested areas are continually referred to as ‘forest dependent’ even when they are heavily dependent on cash crops. Land tenure is overly focused on communal forests at the neglect of individual tenure for agricultural land which is typically what people most desperately want.

It is assumed that people are happy to spend large amounts of unpaid labour tending to forests that they get little benefit from. And participation becomes the mere practice of telling randomly assembled groups of people about principles and theories that have little to do with their lives.

In other words, REDD+ is typical of development programming – becoming overly fixated on the production of success and the employment of donor driven buzzwords at the expense of any meaningful assistance to the desperately poor who are going to be most adversely impacted by dangerous climate change.

Climate change justice is too important to leave up to experts and neoliberal rationality. There is too much at stake – both in terms of the opportunity costs involved with postponing a restructuring of Annex One carbon intensive economies and lifestyles, and the urgent and desperate need to redistribute resources to the poor.

REDD+ is rapidly expanding to other countries across Southeast Asia that also have significant populations of climate dependent agriculturalists, like Laos and Myanmar. However, it needs bold and radical change to address these people’s needs.

Otherwise it should be rejected and other options to meet livelihood challenges should be taken up.

Tim Frewer is a PhD candidate at the School of Geosciences the University of Sydney.