in Madagascar

WWF’s REDD project in Madagascar: “There is no compensation, only penalties to pay”

The Holistic Conservation Programme for Forests is a REDD project in Madagascar covering a total area of 515,000 hectares. It is funded by Air France and run by WWF Madagascar, with support from Etc Terra and the GoodPlanet Foundation.

A new report by the news website Basta! and Amis de la Terre, found that the project has spent a large part of its funding on measuring carbon and monitoring the forests. The report points out that logic of this is lost on local communities whose land for agriculture and wood collection is restricted by the project. The report, titled, “REDD+ in Madagascar: You Can’t See the Wood for the Carbon” can be downloaded here (pdf file, 997 KB).

The first phase of the HCPF started in 2008 and finished at the end of 2012, with funding, to the tune of €5 million, from Air France. The second phase will include funding from the French Development Agency and the French Global Environment Facility. Air France’s contribution will be reduced to €1 million (subject to the final agreement). Generating carbon credits is one of the objectives of the second phase.

The author of the new report, Sophie Chapelle of Basta!, suggested to GoodPlanet and Etc Terra that they could accompany her to visit one or two of the project areas and meet local communities involved in the project. Etc Terra declined the request. Chapelle went ahead anyway, with a visit to a project area in south west Ifotaka, in the south of Madagascar. This area of spiny forest is part of the HCPF where a new protected area has been created.

One of the aims of the HCPF project is to stop communities from practising hatsake, or ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture. Xavier Vincke, a WWF project manager for aerial surveillance, explains his views on hatsake:

“Sacrificing a forest in order to cultivate the land for one agricultural season is like dismantling a bridge to build a house. You might improve your quality of life slightly but you cause great harm both to your fellow man and to yourself.”

The situation is complicated by the fact that hatsake is a way of acquiring land rights under customary land tenure systems. One villager told Chapelle, ”I am not allowed to clear land but I do it anyway. Otherwise I would not have enough to feed my family.”

Those caught clearing forest for agriculture are fined or imprisoned.

Although the project developers have recommended alternatives to hatsake, none of the alternatives had been set up in the area that Chapelle visited. GoodPlanet and Etc Terra’s response is that they haven’t had long enough and the terrain is unforgiving:

“The HCPF has only been up and running for a couple of years and in one of Madagascar’s most unforgiving terrains (the spiny forests and the ‘Grand Sud’ de Madagascar), we hope that no one expected us to have managed to either 1) bring a complete halt to deforestation in the project’s area of operation or 2) introduce alternative agricultural techniques to the entire of the region’s households. It is quite simply impossible given the large number of households that have to be assisted in adopting sustainable practices.”

Basta! produced a video of interviews with local communities:

Villagers’ comments to Chapelle about the project reveal their frustration with WWF Madagascar and the process of setting up the protected forest:

“We are asking the WWF to show us which areas are protected and which are not, that is, where we can get firewood and wood to build our houses in order to provide for our families. But above all, these things must be discussed with all the villagers. We can’t make decisions on our own.”
“Neither the information nor the money reaches us here, everything stays with the WWF [Madagascar]. There is no compensation, only penalties to pay.”
“We protect our environment but we don’t get anything back. We have had nothing in exchange.”
“The WWF [Madagascar] has taken our forest without providing us with compensation or remuneration.”
“There is a risk of prison if I don’t want to pay. We’re frightened so we don’t touch the forest there. Even to feed our children. It’s really hard: where can we get 800,000 ariary if we are caught clearing land?”

The report is critical of the project’s focus on measuring the amount of carbon stored in the forest – as Chapelle points out, “deforestation is above all a social and economic issue”.

In January 2012, Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institution for Science and colleagues from GoodPlanet and WWF published a paper in Carbon Balance and Management presenting “the first large-scale, high-resolution estimates of aboveground carbon stocks in Madagascar”. In a statement about the research, Asner said,

“Madagascar provides an excellent example of the challenges we face in mapping carbon in most tropical regions. These results show that we can obtain verifiable carbon assessments in remote tropical regions, which will be a boon not only to science and conservation, but to potential carbon-offset programs.”

GoodPlanet and Etc Terra did not want to discuss budget details with Chapelle, and as a result we don’t know what percentage of the project’s funding went on measurement.

Chapelle concludes her report by highlighting an ethical problem raised by REDD as a carbon trading mechanism:

This kind of carbon offsetting raises an important ethical problem: rather than changing the lifestyle of the most affluent members of society, who have an historic responsibility for climate change, the burden alls to the poorest members of society who have very little scope with which to adapt. When, for example, a company offers its clients the opportunity to offset their carbon emissions by financing a project like the HCPF, it equates leisure activities (air travel for holidays, the purchase of a computer) with fundamental rights (feeding oneself using slash-and-burn agriculture to clear land).


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  1. From 1989-1996 I was involved in support of natural resource management activities undertaken by Malagasy NGOs in Madagascar.
    Funding was through USAID/Washington under a regional program called PVO-NGO/NRMS. An umbrella organization called COMODE (a bit of an unfortunate French acronym) was quite interested in exploring what could be done to provide alternatives for “Tavy”, the generic term used in Madagascar for all slash and burn activities.

    It has been long understood by communities and villagers that Tavy and its local variants come with costs. the issue is what viable alternatives exist for dirt poor villagers to even attempt substituting?

    Interestingly, a Malagasy agronomist had been researching alternatives to Tavy at one of the universities (would need to go back to notes on who this researcher was.) His strategy was to extend the slash and burn cycle out a couple of years, was opposed to fully eliminating it, as his assumption was that full elimination of Tavy would be impossible for mm any reasons, beginning of course with basic livelihood and land tenure issues.

    This type of practical approach was anathema to donors and conservationists and was to my knowledge never followed up upon. In the meantime, the progression of infeasible attempts to eliminate slash and burn continue, regardless of the logic and potential good intention for people with global level concerns for arresting deforestation related climate change while conserving biodiversity.

  2. A question rather than a comment, directed at Michael (#1), REDD Monitor, WWF or anyone else… What sort of impact do you think it would have on rates of deforestation if communities in this area were afforded secure, long-term tenure rights? Do you think it would reduce the tendency towards slash and burn? Or reduce slash and burn cycles?

  3. Yes, for maybe a generation at most, provided that communities have appropriate alternative(s)to maintain their lively-hood, such as new sustainable cropping systems or other sources of income. In the meantime middle and long term solutions are to be developed for the whole development of the region or area in order to create jobs and lively-hood sources for coming generations.

  4. This article displays a fundamental lack of understanding of voluntary REDD markets and the way they generate carbon credits which then should (and must for projects to be effective and ethical) generate benefits for local communities. (Please note that I do not represent WWF, but do have an advanced understanding of voluntary carbon markets).

    1. The HCPF project intends to be validated and verified under the VCS. This means that by definition they must spend a large proportion of project development funding that they may have available on carbon measurement. Accurate carbon measurement is a precondition to successful validation under the VCS, and the subsequent verification which would generate carbon credits and hence funding for community development activities. It is not as if project developers spend this money for fun. They do it because it is required to develop a project. Additionally please note that most funding for a project before a verification audit is typically for project development and not for provision of benefits to local communities. Most project developers would of course like to have more funding to support effective community projects before the sale of carbon credits, but this is not available.

    2. The villagers frustration with WWF about not making it clear to them where the protected areas are and not receiving benefits from the sale of carbon credits indicates an important communication problem with WWF, but in no way indicates that WWF has somehow wastefully spent money on carbon measurement. The author should take a couple hours to familiarize himself/herself with how voluntary carbon markets work. 5 minutes of google searching reveals that this project is not yet verified to the VCS therefore it has not generated nor sold any carbon credits and the funds it has to support local communities at this point must be minimal.

    3. The assumption of the author appears to be that the local communities are somehow better off under the current situation than they will be with a (future) functioning REDD project investing in alternative agricultural techniques to tavy (aka slash and burn). This is not credible. Tavy/slash and burn/swidden agricultural systems are well adapted in many parts of the tropics and were sustainable for thousands of years, but only because populations densities were a fraction of what they are now. Population has increased dramatically, therefore fallow periods have typically decreased from several decades to a few years. This means that after 1-2 years of cropping the land is unable to regenerate the biodiversity value that it can develop with decades of regrowth, and more importantly, the soil nutrients and soil structure necessary to allow slash and burn to be sustainable over the long term. In short, sadly, given population increases across the tropics, indigenous slash and burn systems need to be adapted to this new situation, or other new agricultural practices need to be developed which increase agricultural yields on the smaller areas of land that people have at their disposal. Crucial to maintaining the productivity of the system and sustainability of community livelihoods is also intact forests which provide medicine, clean water, etc. to nearby communities. I can think of no greater way to achieve these objectives in an impoverished nation like Madagascar than well designed REDD projects certified to robust standards like the VCS and CCB. Unless the author has some better tool for achieving this and routing millions of dollars of performance-based payments to help local communities to conserve their forests and livelihoods, I suggest the author refrain from articles like this which are at best poorly researched and at worst deliberately biased.

    REDD exists and there are many ways to improve it, but this is not one…

  5. Hi everyone,
    I am the HCPF coordinator in Madagascar. As Acropolisto underlined it, any REDD specialist can easily realize how the authors do not know what they are talking about…
    Among all approximations, the pinnacle of misinformation is reached at the end of the video where the “journalist” did not hesitate to divert the testimony of Jutta Kill who clearly speaks of another project in Mozambique (Nhambita) when it argues that “80-90% of the money they used to try to resolve a calculation of carbon always imperfect.”
    For REDD-Monitor readers information, during the 1st phase, we have spent 11% of the budget on carbon studies. Since we have provided them with all our critical data (budgets, programme activities, etc), CIRAD scientists could confirm that very easily.
    Let’s be critical but let’s be serious first!
    More information on: