in Madagascar

Voices from Madagascar’s Forests: “The strangers, they’re selling the wind”

“Many scholars conducting research in Madagascar have demonstrated that the livelihoods of Malagasy people have been negatively impacted by various natural resource conservation and extraction interventions which have burgeoned over the last two decades.” This comes from a report of a June 2010 conference that took place in the UK.

The two-day conference, titled “Voices from Madagascar’s Forests Improving Representation and Rights of Malagasy Forest Peoples,” took place at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia in the UK. Despite the evidence of the impact of conservation and mining on local communities in Madagascar, the report of the conference (available here – pdf file, 1.2 MB) notes that,

Almost no mechanism exists enabling the voices of communities living in or near protected or mined areas to be properly heard, and at the same time conservation organisations and mining companies provide little publicly available information which is evidence based about the claims of the social impacts of their activities.

More than 40 scholars, conservationists and activists from Madagascar, North America and Europe attended the conference. The report of the conference includes a series of recommendations and a bibliography of literature relevant to the issues of mining and conservation in Madagascar.

The threat to Madagascar’s forests is serious. While forests once covered as much as 90% of Madagascar[1], the area decreased to 40% in the 1950s and was down to 15% by 2005. Today it might be as little as 10%. But the threat to local communities is also serious.

Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation International have set up a REDD project, in the Makira Forest. A report in Nature magazine, “Carbon Trading: How to save a forest,” mentions, in passing, some of the problems. The project has sold carbon offsets from the project without the local community’s permission and without a mechanism to distribute money to the people living there (despite the fact that the carbon offset project started as long ago as 2003):

In the future, the WCS intends to pay the affected communities directly using the carbon money from Makira, but currently there is no distribution mechanism in place. In the meantime, the money will go to health and development projects aimed at reducing poverty. “People are not walking five kilometres to find forest to cut down to plant rice on a 30° slope because that’s the best thing to do,” says [Christopher] Holmes [the technical director of the WCS Madagascar programme]. “They are doing it because it’s the only thing to do.”

In a Preface to the notes from the Madagascar conference, Barry Ferguson of the University of East Anglia explains how the conference came about and outlines some of the difficulties associated with REDD projects in Madagascar:

“Mivarotra rivotra ny vazaha”

I thought it would be helpful to start this report by describing how and why the idea for holding the meeting emerged. Copenhagen in the middle of winter is perhaps an unlikely place for ideas about rights and representation of Malagasy forest people to crystallise. However the much anticipated 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC ) was expected to mark a historical moment when a new agreement on global climate change regime post 2012 would be signed.
The ‘post Kyoto‘ convention which was under negotiation in Copenhagen included an addition to its predecessor, namely REDD. REDD is the concept for a mechanism which could allow wealthy countries whose forests are already largely cleared to offset their excessive CO2 emissions by paying less wealthy but forested countries to reduce their deforestation rates. Among the arguments justifying this is that it is cheaper to stop a peasant farmer in the global south from slashing and burning forest to create new farmland, than it is to stop pollution or capture carbon emissions in the industrialised north.
The REDD mechanism was certainly one of the hot topics of the Copenhagen meetings, and it had attracted thousands of activists and indigenous and forest peoples representatives from the global south to express their opposition to ‘Carbon Imperialism’. The efforts by the agents of global capitalism and neoliberal international conservation organisations at promoting REDD in Copenhagen were seen by their opponents as a further assertion of control over tropical forests.
During the few days I spent there I encountered activists and representatives from Latin America, South East Asia and Africa as well as many from industrialised nations. These activists were handing out pamphlets, manning stalls, attending side events, posing for photo opportunities and attending public demonstrations. I was dismayed that in contrast to these representatives of forest people lobbying for their peoples rights, that the only Malagasy in attendance seemed to be representatives from international conservation NGOs such as Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund, accompanied not by forest peoples representatives but by senior employees from the forest administration, national environment office (ONE) and the transitional government.
I met some familiar Malagasy collaborators, and for the first time various REDD officials inside the conference centre where delegates were busy extolling the virtues of REDD initiatives through presentations and side events publicising and promoting REDD. In one such side event which I attended the representative of Conservation International described their new Conservation Growth Poles approach and how through carbon marketing and other approaches they would translate ecosystem services into economic opportunities for local people*.
However when the presenter was asked by a representative of a Congolese Pygmy group about how indigenous rights were being respected, the response was to downplay any suggestion that rights were being compromised by the REDD activities in Madagascar, by saying that only one group in Madagascar qualified for the label ‘indigenous’ (that group being the Mikea of the southwest), and that they weren’t that numerous or widespread anyway.
No mention was made of the hundreds of thousands of Malagasy people whose customary farmlands and forests have been subsumed into new protected areas since 2003, nor of the restrictions which international NGO designed conservation policy has imposed (or tried to impose) on rural Malagasy whose livelihoods depend on the forest or on clearing new land from forest for subsistence agriculture.
No mention was made either, of the fact that CI in partnership with WCS had already sold quantified CO2 offsets from the Makira Forest to prominent rock stars such as the Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam as well as multinational corporations such as Mitsubishi and Dell.
CI and WCS had facilitated these ‘goodwill carbon deals’ at $10 a ton despite no consent having been given by the communities of Makira to sell the forest carbon on their customary lands.
Meanwhile, back in Madagascar, researchers working in the Makira region are routinely forbidden by WCS from even mentioning carbon or REDD to rural communities, lest it cause unrest, unrealisable expectations or requests for a share of the proceeds. Inevitably the word has got out in Makira about what all the measuring of trees and introduction of conservation rules means on the other side of the world, and local Betsimisaraka people express this latest innovation of conservationists quite aptly, mivarotra rivotra ny vazaha, literally translated this means: the strangers, they’re selling the wind.
The juxtaposition in Copenhagen of a body of activists from the south defending the rights of indigenous and forest peoples against REDD, beside the representation from Madagascar being only by NGOs and government officials with a vested interest in REDD was to me striking, and somewhat concerning. The realisation of how much Madagascar really is an island, and a special case hit home. In conversations with several scholars of Madagascar on the periphery of the COP15 meetings in Copenhagen, a number of central questions emerged: Why were there no representatives of Malagasy forest people there? Are there actually any such representatives or activists for Malagasy forest people‘s rights who could counterbalance pro-REDD and conservationist tendencies which currently prevail among the elites in Madagascar? And if there aren’t any such activists, why not, what can be done to remedy this, and who should be doing it?
So the idea to hold a meeting to explore these questions was born. Initially the idea was to bring together a small group of likeminded scholars who had experienced difficulty in getting their concerns about these kinds of issues heard by the powerful actors of conservation. Ten months later things have moved on a little, the meeting made many of us realise that there is a great diversity of views on these issues. The original questions remain only partially answered, but we have at least identified some ideas about who might like to consider doing what.
Representatives from international conservation organisations invited the participants in the ‘Voices from Madagascar’s Forests’ meeting to prepare a white paper to feed in to the ongoing debates and reviews about where the future of conservation policy in Madagascar should head to. I am sorry to say that this report is no such white paper, I am under no delusions about my own ability or availability to complete such a project, but I do hope that this report can provide the activists, scholars, practitioners, policy makers and donors who do need to deal with these issues, with an insight into what those who assembled in Norwich in June 2010 had to say on these matters. It also provides some leads as to where else to look for inspiration and advice.
Since acronyms and abbreviations still seem to be all the rage in Malagasy conservation circles I’ll finish by highlighting two acronyms which I think are particularly important. Both represent sets of principles which I enthuse all Malagasy conservationists and conservation organisations to adopt as soon as possible. Activists, scholars and anybody else concerned by inadvertent negative impacts of conservation on rural Malagasy might also like to evaluate, critique and publicise the successes and failures of the operationalisation of the CHRF and FPIC in the field.
Firstly, the Conservation and Human Rights Framework (CHRF) is part of a global initiative endorsed by a consortium which includes the three major international conservation NGOs active in Madagascar (CI, WCS, WWF). The full text is included on pages 51 and 52 of the report. The CHRF lays out a comprehensive set of principles to improve accountability and safeguards for human rights in conservation interventions, it is awaiting an agreement to implement it on the ground in Madagascar.
Secondly, the concept of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is one which will help to avoid any misuse or abuse of the notions of consent, consultation and participation which have too often undermined conservation in Madagascar. If applied for the first time in Madagascar, FPIC will require significant national level policy reform to enshrine customary law in the legal system. It will need to allow Malagasy farmers and custodians of the land, real free choice as to whether conservation or farming and logging are more desirable ways of making a living. Part of this would also require conservation policy to ensure that customary land owners living within new protected areas can take advantage of the new land laws in Madagascar and obtaining private land certificates under the Propreté Privée Non Titrée (PPNT) system, something which is not currently possible. The challenge is for conservation to shift from its current model of restriction, enforcement and undelivered/inadequate livelihood alternatives and compensation, to a model of democratic conservation policy, a right to free choice and the provision of real incentives and compensation before restrictions are enforced upon Malagasy forest people. They are after all the rightful custodians of Madagascar’s globally important forests, and have voices which I hope will be better heard in the future.
Barry Ferguson
September 2010
Ben Vista, Baile Nua na hArda

# ^^ Mivarotra rivotra ny vazaha – The strangers, they‘re selling the wind
* ^^ Rakotoniaina Pierrot, 2009, Lessons Forest Carbon Project Experiences in Madagascar, Presentation at Side Event of COP15, Copenhagen 12th December.


UPDATE – 28 September 2010: I received the following comment by email after posting this: “The idea of Madagascar originally being 90% forested has largely been rejected by scholars these days, as the highlands and much of the west are though to be naturally savanna/grassland.”
The 90% figure came from the article in Nature magazine: “Carbon trading: How to save a forest,” which states: “Estimates of Madagascar’s original forested areas vary widely, but some studies suggest that trees once blanketed 90% or more of the island.”
Back to text ^^

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