Carbon dreams: Can REDD+ save a Yosemite-size forest in Madagascar?

When Makira Natural Park launched in 2005, it was able to find a source of funding that could be counted on year after year through the sale of carbon offset credits. But more than a decade later, carbon buyers and funding have been scarce.

Two years ago, a group of foreigners visited Marovovonana, the riverside village where Amélin Toto Arison runs a general store, to make a presentation about carbon.

Arison couldn’t recall what carbon was, exactly, but there was one thing he was sure of: “We know there’s some money from carbon,” he said, “but we don’t know where it is.”

“The local people, the farmers, when you tell them something, they believe it right away,” Arison said.

As he understood it, residents of Marovovonana had been asked to protect the forest near their home in exchange for funding for community development projects; but he found the terms of the deal murky. Talk of carbon money had raised expectations for benefits that still hadn’t come.

He worried people had soured on conservation as a result. “When it’s not clear, it’s best not to tell people. As soon as they hear it, they want it.”

Arison’s is one of more than 70 villages on the periphery of Makira Natural Park in northeastern Madagascar, an expanse of rainforest larger than the U.S.’s Yosemite at 3,725 square kilometers (1,438 square miles), with the highest density of endangered primates anywhere on the planet.

When Makira launched in 2005, it seemed to present a solution to one of the most intractable problems in conservation: finding a source of funding that could be counted on year after year.

Makira’s sponsor, the New York-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), pledged to protect the forest’s vast stores of carbon for a generation, using a model called REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (the “+” is for conservation and sustainable forest management).

With support from another international NGO, Conservation International, WCS would fund the project by selling “carbon offset credits” on behalf of the Madagascar government to corporations and others looking to compensate for their outsize carbon footprints.

Revenue would be collected by the government, which would retain 20 per cent to support its REDD+ programs. 

Thirty per cent would go to WCS for managing the park and offset program, and 50 per cent would go to local communities like Arison’s for forest protection and sustainable development projects meant to bolster their support and curtail deforestation.

In this arrangement, any development and conservation benefits from Makira would flow from the main objective of avoiding 33 million tons of carbon emissions over 30 years.

But the idea to conserve Makira began the other way around — not with carbon, but with the silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus) and the black-and-white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata), both critically endangered, along with 45 other mammals, 114 amphibians, 62 reptiles, 101 birds, 145 butterflies and 222 plant species that call Makira home, the vast majority of them endemic to the area.

As one of the first programs of its kind, Makira was designed to show proof-of-concept for the notion that carbon offsets could fund operations for a large-scale protected area.

So far, the challenge of finding buyers for carbon offsets, and of translating that revenue into effective community projects, has proved far greater than the project’s creators anticipated. After more than a decade of planning and conservation work on the ground, carbon buyers are scarce, and much of the funding for community development has been held up along the way.

And although evidence shows that the WCS initiative has helped slow deforestation considerably in and around Makira, it is still far in excess of deforestation targets set at the outset of the project.

WCS’s website touts 6,000 hectares (60 square kilometers, or 23 square miles) of “saved” forest, a figure based on the fact that deforestation rates have been cut in half compared to the period just before Makira began, from 2000 to 2004.

Nevertheless, an implementation report released in 2015 [pdf], which includes the most recent available data, shows more than 2,600 hectares (26 square kilometers; 10 square miles) of unplanned deforestation in Makira between 2010 and 2013, almost four times the target of 689 hectares that WCS set at the project’s outset.

Some of this may be corrected over the course of Makira’s 30 year timeline: WCS set aggressive goals for slowing deforestation in the first years of the project, and used deliberately conservative estimates of how much forest could be lost without the project.

But as the population grows and the forest continues to dwindle, that gap will only get harder to close. In the interim, the best way to gauge Makira’s prospects for long-term success is to look not to the park itself, but to the communities living on its perimeter.

When people have money, the wood goes much faster

On a rainy day in July, Chrispel Ndrianopenozafy climbed a steep trail through a community-managed forest on the eastern edge of Makira, pointing out the hulking stumps of felled hinstia trees (Intsia bijuga) along the way.

He shook his head as he passed a pile of bright red wood chips and sawed-off branches by a bend in the trail, calling out “No permit!” for the umpteenth time that day.

“People who live here can get a permit for two trees for 10,000 ariary,” or a little more than $3, he said. “That’s not expensive. The money isn’t the problem. They just don’t want to ask: that’s the problem.”

Ndrianopenozafy is president of one of the dozens of village-based associations that manage forests on the periphery of the protected area.

The associations, known as VOI, for Vondron’olona Ifotony, or “local communities,” serve as a conduit for development programs and revenue from the sale of carbon offset credits.

Their work also includes issuing logging permits to locals who need lumber to build or expand their homes, to ensure that woodcutting falls within annual limits set forth in management contracts between the VOIs, WCS and the Ministry of the Environment, Ecology and Forests.

In the village of Ambalamahogo, where Ndrianopenozafy lives, that contract allows the harvest of over 3,000 small saplings for roofing, 355 square beams (enough to frame three houses), and 13 floorboards. But the contracts don’t seem to reflect rigorous assessments of what a sustainable harvest would be.

They don’t specify tree species, and the contracts in Ambalamahogo and Marovovonana bear the exact same limits in each category of timber, despite the villages and their forests being different sizes.

Neither association could provide figures on how many woodcutting permits they had issued in the past year.

The forest above Ambalamahogo is part of Makira’s so-called “leakage belt.”

As part of the verification process for carbon credits it sells, WCS must demonstrate that efforts to protect Makira haven’t led to increased deforestation elsewhere.

Any increase in logging or clearing there, measured against Makira’s baseline projections, is considered “leakage,” and counts against the number of credits WCS can sell each year.

While no carbon credits are sold on the basis of emissions reductions here, these community forests in Makira’s leakage belt ultimately safeguard the park’s 30-year promise to reduce deforestation.

Over time, the ability to manage community forests sustainably will help keep the next generation from going into Makira itself looking for wood to build their homes.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.

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