The killing of three conservationists patrolling Cambodia's biggest carbon credit project exposes the nearly insurmountable conflicts of interest plaguing schemes in which huge corporations such as Disney and Virgin Atlantic have invested millions of dollars, observers say.
Military Police Officer Sek Wathana, Environment Ministry Ranger Teurn Soknai and Wildlife Conservation Society staffer Thol Khna were shot dead Jan. 30 in O'Raing district while patrolling in the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.
Border Police Chief Phal Penh confessed to the shooting. He and his partner, Military Police Officer Keut Veha, have been charged with premeditated murder, while another military police officer, Keut Veta, has been charged as an accomplice.
Penh has alleged in a videotaped confession that the victims tried to solicit bribes to keep quiet about illegal logging they had witnessed, although court and Ministry of Environment officials say they do not believe him.
The 292,690-hectare Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, in Cambodia's northeast, is protected under the purview of the ministry and is supposed to be the example of Cambodian carbon credit plans.
In a major coup in 2016, the Wildlife Conservation Society, or WCS, helped negotiate the sale of $2.6 million worth of carbon credits in the protected area to The Walt Disney Corp. through an initiative known as REDD+, which stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
REDD+ is designed to enable polluting corporations to offset their emissions by paying developing countries to protect forests, which store significant amounts of carbon dioxide. The process is supposed to stop much of this carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere by slowing deforestation, although critics of the scheme have long raised questions about how this is measured and enforced, or whether it amounts to a reduction at all.
In its role in the Keo Seima REDD+ project, WCS must negotiate a precarious balance among competing interests to try to guarantee those credits in an area where cross-border illegal logging is a well-documented trade linked to powerful local officials.
WCS Country Director Ken Serey Rotha said his organization could not negotiate those interests alone.
"You get all the ingredients, and it's a matter of what kind of lunch you want to cook," he said. "We are here to help government to protect and conserve natural resources, forestry and wildlife. ... Basically, the ball is in the hand of government."
Rotha refused to discuss the implications of the killings on the carbon credit program, while Disney has not responded to VOA requests for comment.
In January, Virgin Atlantic announced it was pulling out of Cambodia's first REDD+ project in Oddar Meanchey province following the release of a damning report on the project by the nongovernmental organization FERN, which showed ongoing and rampant illegal logging linked to military syndicates.
A 2016 study by Sango Mahanty and Sarah Milne, lecturers at Australian National University, examined how a juggernaut of powerful interests, including military and border police, have logged and cleared areas of the Seima Protected Forest since 2005.
Little restraint on powerful actors
Describing Keo Seima as a "frontier borderland" where carbon conservation efforts looked "rather quaint in the face of Seima's deforestation problem," the authors concluded that powerful actors "pursue their interests almost unhindered."
Milne is a lecturer in the Resources, Environment and Development Group at Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy. She said it was "incredibly hard" to make sure carbon credits didn't "evaporate" under such conditions.
Evidence of violence in REDD+ project areas should be a signal to Disney and any buyer of carbon credits about what is actually packed inside those credits, Milne said.
"It's an ephemeral and risky kind of commodity, so that's a warning to Disney, and that's a warning to all buyers," she said.
Conservationists like Milne see the voluntary Oddar Meanchey and Keo Seima projects as test sites for a national framework for selling compulsory carbon credits that the United Nations and its partners aim to have up and running by 2020.
U.N. Development Program Country Director Nick Beresford told VOA his organization and the national framework project "have no relationship with either the Oddar Meanchey project or the Keo Seima voluntary forest carbon projects."
"We therefore, do not monitor its implementation nor evaluate its results," he wrote in an emailed response.
Vietnam's Department of Customs data just compiled and released by deforestation nonprofit monitor group Forest Trends show that, despite a government ban on exports of timber to Vietnam in 2016, the number of Cambodian logs imported by its eastern neighbor from border areas like Keo Seima increased by close to 20 percent in 2017.
Chea Sam Ang, general director of natural resources preservation at the Ministry of Environment, declined to speak about the carbon credit project.
Environment Minister Say Samal reportedly held up the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary as an example of Cambodia's success in combating illegal logging at a business luncheon in January, according to The Phnom Penh Post.