Ben Doherty, Cambodia
Sorng Rukavorn monks Sove Ui, Kea Mony Tapkea and Sou Mai in their community forest in Oddar Meanchey, northern Cambodia. Photo: Ben Doherty
A religious order aims to tap polluters to help a community.
THE forest surrounding the Sorng Rukavorn monks' pagoda in northern Cambodia has forever been ''theirs''.
They have always depended on the forest for food, for timber and for a living. They have long understood their forest's boundaries, its cycles of wet and dry, of fire and regeneration.
But they have never owned it. Until now. Having spent nearly two years winning legal control of 18,000 hectares of forest, they are now able to lock it away from logging interests and other encroachments, and rehabilitate areas previously cleared.
The carbon that saves, they hope, might soon be for sale. They want to be players on a global carbon market. ''Any revenue from the forest will be important for the people here, and for Cambodia,'' monk Lee Ragana says.
''When the revenue comes in, we can use the money to build infrastructure, to build schools … and to build better roads. And we can improve the management of the forests.
''We will use the money to educate farmers in better land practices and technical improvements. We will be able to supply patrols with trucks and equipment … do more fire suppression and replanting.''
The Sorng Rukavorn monks are on the cusp of entering what is still a voluntary carbon market, in preparation for a time industrialised countries legislate to force polluters into offsetting the carbon they produce.
They aim to be a UN-recognised REDD - Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation - project, in which governments and companies in industrialised nations that cannot reduce their own carbon emissions pay communities in poor countries to cut emissions on their behalf, usually by not cutting down trees.
Already, yellow-and-green signs mark the monks' land as a ''community forest'', and regular patrols are conducted by volunteers to see that trees aren't being felled illegally or land cleared for farming.
The monks' community forest is one of 13 such sites in Oddar Meanchey province, on Cambodia's northern border with Thailand. Combined, they preserve nearly 68,000 hectares of forest land and, maintained over 30 years, are expected to sequester 7.1 million tonnes of carbon. Within months they will seek a carbon buyer.
But even before a dollar has been paid to the monks, they feel they've won a victory in taking control of land that - informally at least - they have regarded as theirs for generations.
''Before we had the community forest, people from outside would … cut down trees illegally, clear land, and the people who depended on that forest had no right to stop them,'' Mr Lee says. ''Now we feel we own this land, we have control, and we can stop it being used badly.''
Kurt MacLeod, vice-president of Pact, a non-government organisation helping Oddar Meanchey's community forests bring their carbon to market, says REDD projects will bring enormous benefits and development to the poor communities running them.
''As soon as legislation is enacted [in major industrialised countries], there are going to be private sector companies looking for validated REDD projects,'' he says. ''The demand in five years will be much higher than supply.''
Industrialised countries see enormous value in paying poorer countries to preserve forests on their behalf. Germany, France, Norway, the US, Britain, Australia and Japan pledged $US4 billion towards REDD initiatives at the last round of climate talks in May. But just how much carbon will be worth on the market of the future is still unclear.
There is also the issue of measuring the carbon sequestered in forests, and how that might be affected by its growth, climatic change or unforseen events such as fire.
And there is concern at the sellers' end about how much of the money, in a country such as Cambodia, where a notoriously corrupt government has the sole right to ''sell'' the carbon, will ever reach those on the ground.
Cambodia has a poor record in forestry. It has experienced some of the most rampant deforestation. More than 7 million hectares of forest - 39 per cent of the country's land - was sold off for logging. In the four decades since 1970, primary forest cover in Cambodia was reduced from 70 per cent to just 3.1 per cent today.
Deforestation accounts for 20 per cent of all the world's greenhouse gas emissions - some 5.9 billion tonnes a year.