When poor people pay the price for forest conservation

  • The recent Paris climate agreement included REDD+, the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation program, as a key tool for combating climate change.
  • It’s widely recognized that conservation efforts can have negative impacts on forest-dependent communities in or adjacent to protected areas.
  • Researchers who studied the Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena, a new protected area in Madagascar, say that REDD+ compensation disproportionately flowed to those households that were more easily accessible, relatively better off, and whose members have positions of authority locally.
The recent Paris climate agreement included REDD+, the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation program, as a key tool for combating climate change.

It is widely expected — or at least, hoped — that this is the signal the market needed. REDD+ pilot programs have been running for over a decade now. All that’s needed is for the funds to start flowing to tropical forest conservation projects.But research published this week in the journal Global Environmental Change reveals a tough but critical issue for REDD+ conservation schemes to grapple with — sometimes, the research shows, the social safeguards included to ensure that vulnerable forest communities are not further marginalized by conservation programs fail to actually benefit the people they are designed to help.It’s widely recognized that conservation efforts can have negative impacts on forest-dependent communities in or adjacent to protected areas.

When people who are hunter-gatherers or who live off of forest agriculture, people who harvest everything from medicine to tools and other things essential to their livelihoods from the forest, suddenly find that their access to the forest is being restricted in the name of conservation, the harm to those people and their way of life is obvious.

Study sites are extremely difficult to access, often having to cross flooded rivers in Bamboo barges. Photo by A. Rasoamanana.

As much as 17 percent of global carbon emissions come from tropical deforestation, according to one 2012 study. The world’s tropical forests have been estimated to sequester a quarter of global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels every year, and they already store hundreds of billions of tons of carbon, so keeping them standing will be crucial to efforts to combat climate change. But any solution that does not include forest communities is becoming widely regarded as unsustainable.

The United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) formally acknowledged the need for forest conservation efforts to account for these negative social impacts by adopting the so-called Cancun safeguards and requiring that any country using REDD+ as part of their national climate plans establish a system to ensure social and environmental safeguards are in place and transparently reported on.

Researchers with the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar and Bangor University in the UK looked at a new protected area in the eastern rainforest of Madagascar, a REDD+ pilot project, in order to explore how social safeguards are being implemented on the ground.

They say their findings show that the social safeguard process failed to identify all of the people negatively impacted by the implementation of the new protected area in Madagascar.

The key takeaway, according to Professor Bruno Ramamonjisoa from the University of Antananarivo, one of the lead authors of the study, is the importance of accounting for particularly poor or vulnerable people and ensuring that compensation reaches those most negatively impacted by conservation.

“Madagascar’s forests are incredibly valuable and should be protected,” Ramamonjisoa said in a statement. “However for conservation to be successful local people need to be included and need opportunities to benefit from the conservation and must not be made poorer by it.”

Madagascar has a number of REDD+ pilot projects supported by funding from the World Bank, including the Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena, which Ramamonjisoa and team focused on. They found that nearly two thousand impacted households around the corridor had been identified and compensated, and compared those households to those not identified as being impacted by the project.

An isolated hamlet at the forest frontier. Photo by M. Poudyal.

“We have found that the compensation has disproportionately reached those more easily accessible (such as those who live closer to local administrative centres), who are relatively better off, and who have positions of authority locally,” Dr. Mahesh Poudyal of Bangor University and an author of the Global Environmental Change study, said in a statement.

Poudyal said that households with more socio-political power and greater food security, as well as those that were more accessible (i.e. not deep in the forest and far from the nearest roads), were far more likely to be identified as eligible for compensation, while many households that were just as likely to experience negative impacts from the REDD+ project did not receive any compensation.

“While this won’t surprise anyone familiar with the common issues of elite capture in development projects,” Proudyal said, “we think it is a very significant finding especially at this stage in the global process of developing safeguard systems for new REDD+ projects.”

The team may have only looked at one new REDD+ pilot project, but they believe their findings have global relevance, writing in the study that their research shows existing safeguard commitments are not always being fulfilled and that “those implementing social safeguards in REDD+ should not continue with business as usual.”

“Avoiding possible negative impacts of REDD+ is very challenging; those affected are often widely distributed and hard to reach,” Professor Julia Jones of Bangor University, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Improvements are clearly needed to ensure that some of the poorest people on our planet are not footing the bill for climate mitigation.”

Most of the households in study sites live in small hamlets. Photo by M. Poudyal.


  • Baccini, A. G. S. J., Goetz, S. J., Walker, W. S., Laporte, N. T., Sun, M., Sulla-Menashe, D., … & Samanta, S. (2012). Estimated carbon dioxide emissions from tropical deforestation improved by carbon-density maps. Nature Climate Change,2(3), 182-185. doi:10.1038/nclimate1354
  • Poudyal, M., Ramamonjisoa, B. S., Hockley, N., Rakotonarivo, O. S., Gibbons, J. M., Mandimbiniaina, R., … & Jones, J. P. (2016). Can REDD+ social safeguards reach the ‘right’people? Lessons from Madagascar. Global Environmental Change, 37, 31-42. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.01.004


Source: news.mongabay.com




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