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Expert Interviews

Matthew Edwardsen Discusses Advancing Biodiversity Conservation and Combatting the Impacts of Climate Change

Headshot of Matthew Edwardsen
Matthew Edwardsen is a climate change, environment, and development specialist with Tetra Tech’s International Development Group.
He has more than 20 years of experience integrating biodiversity conservation, low-emission and climate-resilient approaches, and sustainable economic growth models into impactful projects worldwide.

He most recently served as the Chief of Party of the Tetra Tech-supported United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Greening Prey Lang (USAID GPL) project in Cambodia. For five years, this project focused on protecting and restoring biodiversity in crucial forest and watershed ecosystems across the 3.3-million-hectare Prey Lang Extended Landscape in Northeastern Cambodia. The area is threatened by deforestation, the impacts of climate change, illegal logging, and wildlife trafficking.

Under Matthew’s leadership, USAID GPL achieved the following results:


million invested in forest carbon, ecotourism, and sustainable agriculture


protected area projects developed to generate $50 million in revenue


small grants to support community-based organizations


people benefiting from improved economic and livelihood opportunities

Matthew previously led Tetra Tech’s International Environment and Natural Resources team who design and deliver solutions that empower communities and partners to improve natural resource management, conserve biodiversity, and enhance local, regional, and national resiliency.

This interview with Matthew Edwardsen about his role as Chief of Party for the USAID Greening Prey Lang project originally appeared in the Climate Change Business Journal.


Congratulations on implementing the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Greening Prey Lang project in Cambodia. You mentioned improved governance as one of the approaches of the project. What does that mean in the context of forest conservation in Cambodia?

Under USAID GPL, we focus on three principal approaches: communities, conservation, and governance. Success lies where these three approaches overlap. Governance is undoubtedly the most important of the three approaches. Without effective governance, improving livelihoods for communities or conserving biodiversity is extremely difficult.

Our principal approach to improved governance involves a combination of alignment of our overall project activities with Cambodia’s priorities and direct support to over a hundred community-based organizations. For example, we have provided direct funding through grants to communities to implement activities which they have defined and prioritized. These activities complement larger country-wide efforts such as securing financial payments for forest carbon sequestration.

When we provide grant funding, it is complemented by technical capacity building, but the activities themselves are undertaken by communities. Activities include patrolling forests to prevent illegal logging, poaching, or land clearance; improving ecotourism offerings; or holding monthly meetings with all local stakeholders. In each of these instances, community ownership is the defining principle. While this approach requires significant human resources to implement, we have monitored demonstrable changes in forest governance taking place across dozens of communities due to this bottom-up effort.


Your project supported the development of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) projects, which you state will generate tens of millions of dollars. Where does this money come from? Is this a one-time payment or recurring?

We have supported three separate REDD+ projects under USAID GPL. Two of them fall under Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard program. The other falls under the Joint Credit Mechanism endorsed by the Japanese government.

In all three instances a multi-year REDD+ project development process will result in verified reductions in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from avoided deforestation. Private sector companies purchase emissions reductions, known in the REDD+ vernacular as verified carbon units. The income received from sales is used to improve protected area management and support local communities in Cambodia. REDD+ projects are verified annually by a third party. Following each verification, a batch of verified carbon units is sold to private sector companies. We anticipate each of these REDD+ projects to run for ten years with payments taking place each time a batch of verified carbon units is sold.


It is very exciting to hear that the populations of Asian elephants may be double the previous estimates in the area where you work. How did you come to this conclusion? Beyond Asian elephants, what else makes the area where you work unique from a biodiversity standpoint?

Working with our partner Flora and Fauna International, we used non-invasive genetic sampling of dung samples in areas known to have regular elephant presence. Genetic analysis noted a high level of genetic diversity among the elephants and an overall population size that was approximately double the previous estimate.

While the overall population estimate of 51 individuals is still quite low, we believe these populations can recover if their habitat is protected. Their habitat includes several protected areas such as Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, which is the largest lowland evergreen forest in Southeast Asia. This area is home to numerous endemic species, many of which are endangered. From gibbons to the giant ibis, the rich biodiversity of this landscape is of global significance and is irreplaceable.


Agriculture has been a major driver of deforestation worldwide. Is that the case in Cambodia? If so, how are your approaches on agriculture commodities such as cashew and rice combatting this trend?

Cambodia is no exception to this global trend. Significant tracts of Cambodian forest have been cleared for both large cash crop plantations and smallholder agriculture. This has resulted in increased incomes and development for the Cambodian people, which is of great importance.

That said, this trend is not sustainable, and Greening Prey Lang has been working with numerous partners to identify alternatives across numerous commodities. What we aim to do is link private sector partners who are committed to purchasing zero-deforestation agricultural products to communities which can grow them. This involves support along the entire value chain.

One great example of a company we partner with to achieve this goal is the Cambodian firm IBIS Rice. The rice they sell is certified as both organic and deforestation free. Given the high demand for their product, they pay farmers a 70 percent price premium when rice is grown according to their specifications. Getting farmers to the point where they can become certified IBIS Rice farmers is something that USAID GPL has supported through grants to a local agronomic nonprofit to train farmers and direct technical support for farmer compliance monitoring.


What is the most compelling example of climate change that you’ve observed in Cambodia? How are you addressing climate change in your activities?

The most compelling example of climate change I’ve seen in Cambodia has been weather variability. Rains come early, come late, or they don’t come at all. This creates significant challenges for many of the individuals we’re trying to support, as much of their income is linked to rain-fed agriculture.

Under USAID GPL we’re utilizing numerous approaches to help them adapt to this new normal. We need to ensure that communities have diverse options for income generation. For example, direct grants which support community members to conduct forest patrols also ensure that communities have long-term access to the numerous non-timber forest products they harvest such as honey and wild mushrooms. Private sector companies which develop buyer agreements with communities also provide drought-resistant seeds. We’ve also been supporting opportunities for communities to enter new sectors such as ecotourism, which has boomed domestically in the last few years.

Through a combination of diversification of livelihood options, improved management of forest resources, and long-term access to financing through mechanisms such as REDD+, my hope is that we can improve the adaptive capacity of communities so that they can be resilient to the shocks of climate change.

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