Battle of the Jungle

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Brendan Brady

Forest guardian: Tha Soun has confronted illegal loggers numerous times in his effort to preserve Sorng Rukavorn, a prized prayer ground

Cambodia's Sorng Rukavorn forest is a sanctuary for nature — and faith. Situated in the country's remote far north, Sorng Rukavorn became a prized prayer ground at the turn of the century, when a senior Buddhist monk sought an undisturbed location for his disciples. Instead of living in peaceful isolation, however, the monks have had to fend off illegal loggers as well as local officials trying to parcel out the public land for their own profit. Given their moral authority as holy men, the monks have succeeded so far. But now the guardians of Sorng Rukavorn want the world's help.

Sorng Rukavorn is one of 13 community forests in Cambodia's Oddar Meanchey province — spread over a total of 68,000 hectares — being registered with climate-change groups as a bank of carbon credits. Under a nascent U.N. plan, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), governments and companies in industrialized nations pay developing countries to cut carbon emissions on their behalf by not cutting trees. Deforestation accounts for roughly a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions from human activity, according to the U.N. Trees and plants absorb the gas — produced by a number of man-made and natural sources, from factories and cars to volcanic eruptions and the flatulence of livestock — and are therefore essential to balancing its levels in the atmosphere.

While the science of climate change may be largely new to the monks of Sorng Rukavorn, the importance of preserving nature is not. Forests have always figured prominently in the imagination of Buddhists. "It was under a tree that Buddha was born, meditated, achieved enlightenment and passed away," says Tha Soun, 42, a Sorng Rukavorn monk. Tha Soun says he has repeatedly confronted illegal loggers, who often include rogue soldiers and police. "We have had success in protecting this land because we are monks," says Tha Soun. "If they wouldn't stop, I would just take their chain saws and weapons."

Most of Cambodia's forests are not so blessed. Primary forest cover has shrunk by more than half since 1990, according to the U.N. The destruction would have been much worse if the government hadn't canceled most logging concessions a decade ago. At one point during the 1990s, nearly 40% of Cambodia's total land mass was signed over to loggers, according to the London-based NGO Global Witness, which was expelled from Cambodia in 2005 after it released a report critical of the country's timber trade. Two years later, the group linked top politicians, army officers and businesspeople with illegal logging. The government denies the report's findings, but its commitment to maintain protected areas appears less than firm. The English-language Cambodia Daily recently reported that, in a seeming reversal of policy, the authorities approved 17 concessions granting agribusinesses the rights to some 1,100 sq km in 10 protected areas across the country.

In Oddar Meanchey, the auction of public resources has left residents ever-shrinking space for their livestock to graze and for them to harvest forest products, including fruit, honey and traditional medicines. That makes the environmental value of a forest like Sorng Rukavorn, which is accessible to all, even higher, says Choun Chun, a resident who volunteers for a village committee that, in cooperation with the monks, oversees the forest. "If we cut down the trees, there will be nothing for the next generation," says Choun Chun. "We will have ruined ourselves."

Oddar Meanchey has already seen much devastation. The province became a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge after a Vietnamese invasion ousted the fanatical revolutionaries from power in 1979. In Oddar Meanchey, Khmer Rouge leaders and their depleted militia held out against the new regime until the late 1990s, funding their war by selling timber to dealers in neighboring Thailand. The area has since opened up to the outside world but remains depressed, with poor infrastructure and few economic opportunities. Pact, the Washington-based NGO that facilitated the carbon-credit application for the Oddar Meanchey forests, says REDD revenues will pay for the building of roads, schools and hospitals and create jobs, including those of forest rangers.

Leslie Durschinger, managing director of Terra Global Capital, the San Francisco – based company that is marketing Oddar Meanchey's carbon assets, says the province's forests could generate as much as $50 million over 30 years — a typical duration of a REDD contract. First, however, Oddar Meanchey's carbon assets must be validated by an independent carbon auditor, as well as attract a buyer.

Another holdup has to do with REDD itself. Some environmentalists feel the scheme has lost momentum: it was not committed to during last year's climate-change summit in Cancún, Mexico, because of differences over how it should be funded. The European Union Emission Trading System — which, with tens of billions of dollars in annual trade, is the largest mandatory carbon market — has placed a moratorium on considering REDD credits until 2020. The fledgling California Compliance Market, one of a handful of American state bodies that regulate carbon emissions in the absence of U.S. federal laws, is the only public compliance body in the world that has committed to accepting REDD credits. There is also concern about the allocation of REDD revenues in countries like Cambodia, which Transparency International routinely ranks as having one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

For now, Oddar Meanchey's carbon credits will be offered in a voluntary market driven by governments and companies that want to be seen as environmentally conscious or are anticipating future compliance requirements. Vann Sophanna, a senior official in Cambodia's Forestry Administration, says state-sanctioned REDD contracts will empower residents to confront loggers by putting the full weight of the government's authority on their side. "Villagers can have those who try to destroy the forest — even if they are police, soldiers or Forestry Administration officials — arrested," he says. "We will enforce the law." Yet it's the very role of the government that worries many. "The money might go to the people, or it might go to corrupt officials," says 58-year-old Kuy Thourn, a village leader. "We will find out." Cambodia's forests could do with a little prayer from the monks of Sorng Rukavorn.