Study co-author Rina Mandimbiniaina entering data. (S. Rakotonarivo) Study co-author Rina Mandimbiniaina entering data. (S. Rakotonarivo)

Earth’s tropical forests serve as valuable carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots, vital to maintaining the diversity of life on the planet. While protecting tropical forests should remain a priority for environmentalists everywhere, many based in the developed world often fail to recognize the true costs of global forest conservation. This is especially true in developing countries where lower-income communities abutting forest conservation projects can be hurt by efforts to preserve globally significant ecosystems located in their backyard.

Some argue that any communities affected by international conservation projects must be compensated for physical and economic displacements. The United Nations has launched numerous Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) projects to implement this idea, and for the first time, researchers from Bangor University in the United Kingdom and the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar examine the impact of internationally-funded conservation projects on vulnerable populations living near conservation projects and the effectiveness of REDD+ compensation efforts.

‘Local people suffer from conservation enforcement’

Sarobidy Rakotonarivo, a Malagasy researcher involved in the project, examined a new protected area (and REDD+ pilot project) in the eastern Madagascar rainforests. This conservation project, tucked into a region called the Corridor Ankeniheny Zahamena, aims to protect high profile biodiversity, including the critically endangered Indri, the largest lemur in the world. Yet climate change mitigation is also a significant reason why the Corridor Ankeniheny Zahamena, known as the CAZ, is being set aside for conservation, the better to lock up carbon emissions in trees (and protect the Indri).

Rakotonarivo’s paper, co-authored with eight other academics published in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ, the Journal of Life & Environmental Sciences, found the costs of conservation are very real for those living near the CAZ. “Those who clear land for agriculture are often those that are most food insecure,” Rakotonarivo said in a release. “Beyond the economic costs of not being able to grow food to feed their family, local people suffer from conservation enforcement. I have heard first hand reports of people being arrested and held in deplorable conditions for cultivating on forest fallow which they consider ancestral land. In a country where jail conditions are inhumane, this shows how desperate people are.”

"Beyond the economic costs of not being able to grow food to feed their family, local people suffer from conservation enforcement."

In 2003, a study out of Cambridge University defined conservation costs in terms of the immediate and long-term actions, dubbed active and passive costs. In the case of those living near the Corridor Ankeniheny Zahamena, most of the immediate costs were paid by national and international stakeholders. Yet locals were bearing the brunt of passive costs like restrictions on swidden agriculture, a sustainable farming method practiced in the region by some families for more than a century, and upon which 90 per cent of the local population depends.

Funding those in need

Researchers at Bangor and the University of Antananarivo used a carefully designed choice experiment to compare opportunity costs to the compensation received by locals. What they found was that agricultural support compensation isn’t reaching the right people. Less than 50 per cent of those eligible for compensation were identified, and of the 2,500 households designated to receive assistance as of 2015, almost half did not.

The team also found what funding that was paid out rarely went to those in the greatest need; rather, compensation often (but not always) flowed to those enjoying a prominent position in the local society and economy. While opportunity costs totalled between $13 million and $15 million US, the total projected compensation paid out was less than $425,000 US.

“While our results show that policies which promise to compensate communities for the cost of conservation are not being met, this is not a case of corruption,” said Bangor University conservation scientist Julia Jones. After conducting in-depth interviews with more than 600 people from numerous communities over two years, sometimes visiting the same household three times to check for updates, Jones concluded that “money has not gone missing. The truth is that the world is not currently paying enough to ensure that poor local people are properly compensated. We show that if rich countries were willing to pay the full social cost of carbon, proper compensation could be affordable.”

Global conservation efforts are already underfunded by an order of magnitude. Where might those extra funds come from? Andrew Balmford and Tony Whitten, researchers who led the 2003 Cambridge study, argue tourism is one option, though Balmford suggests tourism is unreliable since many protected areas are too isolated and dangerous for high-revenue tourism. Another option could be increasing donations from developed nations, though even this is an unreliable source of income. Donations are helpful for the maintenance of natural areas, but it is impractical to plan long-term conservation projects around voluntary funding from the public.

“Money has not gone missing. The truth is that the world is not currently paying enough to ensure that poor local people are properly compensated.”

Using the global marketplace as a source of income might become a viable solution. The idea is to create new sectors in the global economy and have beneficiaries like governments or corporations pay for the ecosystem services provided by the world’s natural areas. The most developed market in this sector is the market for watershed protection. In Columbia, Ecuador and Laos, per legislation, hydroelectric companies that draw from rivers pay a significant portion of their revenue to upstream forest conservation. Some programs currently allow for voluntary payment for ecosystem services, but for this to become the norm, governments will likely need to insist on it.

Local people in the area depend traditionally on shifting agriculture; clearing land from the forest, growing a series of crops, before leaving the land to regenerate and regain fertility. (M. Poudyal)

Savings rainforests, saving ourselves

Conservation efforts financed by wealthier countries on a global scale will always be a delicate topic because of conflicting cultural expectations. REDD+ pilot projects like the CAZ are a step towards working in harmony, but in the environmental and conservation community we must recognize that traditional practices are not inherently unsustainable simple because they lack the trappings of modernity. Moreover, we would do well to remember that being green in a limited economy isn’t easy. Livelihoods in places like Madagascar depend on natural resources, and without adequate compensation, no one should expect an immediate switch to sustainability.

“These are difficult results to present,” said Jones from Bangor University. “I strongly believe that conservation of Madagascar’s rainforests is hugely important (for Madagascar and for the world),” she wrote, and many people working in conservation in Madagascar have dedicated their lives to preserving tropical forests. If they fail, the fault will be ours in the developed world. “If the international community underpay for the true cost of conservation,” Jones said, “then the rich world is essentially freeloading on extremely poor forest residents; gaining benefits while they bear the costs.”


Emily Yeung an undergraduate student at Trent University studying biology, hoping to expend her passion for the natural world in a career in marine and conservation biology. Raised in the countryside of Southern Ontario, at six years old she featured as the host of the children’s television program “This is Emily Yeung” in before returning to school to continue her education.


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