Ibis Rice is a scheme, active since 2007 in three Protected Areas in Northern Cambodia, whereby communities are incentivized to protect critical habitat through sales of a high-quality agricultural product. Under the scheme, farmers that abide by the rules, including agreed land-use plans and no-hunting laws, are able to sell their rice through the village committee, which is legally mandated to administer the land-use plan. The committee provides farmers with a premium price for the rice, which is supported by selling the rice directly into national markets, as “Ibis Rice” to consumers who are willing to pay a premium for a high-quality product with conservation benefits certified under the global “Wildlife Friendly” label. The committee monitors compliance by farmers, which is also independently verified by an external agency. This scheme directly incentivizes compliance with existing laws and regulations, which is especially important in the presence of weak state governance. The scheme preserves wildlife habitat, and is particularly beneficial for several Critically Endangered bird species, including the Giant Ibis, Cambodia’s national bird, and number one on the EDGE list of endangered and distinctive species. The scheme has been shown to benefit both wildlife and livelihoods. It has also had a major effect to empower local institutions and is widely supported by local people.
Deforestation from agricultural expansion is a major threat to biodiversity across the Asia region, in particular in rapidly developing economies. In the post-conflict reconstruction of Cambodia, these threats have been particularly acute, and Cambodia was in the top 5 countries globally for forest loss from 2000-2012. A key driver of deforestation in Protected Areas is encroachment by smallholders to expand existing fields or claim new land. In northern Cambodia, the majority of encroachment is by poor farmers for growing rice crops. Encroachment is attractive as land is seen as a secure form of wealth, and an open-access resource, and enforcement of laws is rare. Such encroachment has serious impacts on wildlife habitat, and in recent years the distribution of several species of conservation concern has contracted significantly. Hunting, disturbance and habitat destruction by both residents and immigrants are the key threats to wildlife. Conservation strategies typically focus on remnant populations of highly threatened species, where there is little room for error. The Ibis Rice program addresses this by linking improvements to local livelihoods directly with benefits to biodiversity conservation of critically endangered species.
The key elements required for the scheme to work are:
- Agreed village-level land-use plans
- A village institution empowered to administer land-use, monitor compliance with the land-use plan
- A high-quality agricultural product that most farmers can grow, and ideally one intrinsically linked to the threat of forest clearance
- A market willing to pay a premium for environmentally positive products, and private sector actors willing to distribute and sell the product
- A trusted certification scheme so that consumers are sure of the credentials of the product
- Local institutions empowered with monitoring local level compliance and managing the purchase of rice.
- An external agency that certifies compliance with the regulations
- An external agency that facilitates the establishment of the institutions reinforces the rules and can help mediate conflicts.
- PA authorities, who enforce relevant laws, support village institutions by resolving cases they are unable to solve internally, and removes illegal outsiders.
We have demonstrated that an Agri-environmental incentive scheme can work to support habitat conservation, and increase the numbers of critically endangered birds, while also reducing poverty and supporting loval institutions. In the Cambodian context, with weak external governance, community-level institutions with the respect and authority to enforce regulations and manage the scheme are the key to successful implementation.
The most important outcome in terms of long-term conservation has been the development and strengthening of village institutions.These community structures now have regular discussions about land clearance, hunting, and use of chemicals, and are actively monitoring their communities to encourage compliance with the rules. In Cambodia, with a recent history of weak governance and impunity to rule-breaking, this is a major achievement. The numbers of critically endangered birds nests has increased substantially since the start of the scheme.