Evaluating Madagascar’s EAP: Problems for the future

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Madagascar is globally recognized as a biodiversity hotspot. The world’s fourth largest island is home to some 10,000 plant species, 316 reptile species, 187 amphibian species, 199 bird species, and 84 mammal species (including 71 primates) found nowhere else in the world.1 It is also home to a population of 17 million people plagued by abject poverty: 71% live below the poverty level and 75% live on less than $1 a day.2 In rural areas, the picture is bleaker, with the average income as low as 41¢ a day.

Most rural people rely on natural resources for their survival, eking out a living as subsistence farmers. Agricultural yields are among the lowest in the world because farmers use primitive slash-and-burn agriculture techniques, and have almost no access to land-title due to a corrupt and decrepit bureaucracy. Increasing demand and competition for fertile land has caused alarming habitat loss.

Deforestation (due to slash-and-burn agriculture and for firewood) has reduced the country’s primary forest by over 90% since human inhabitance less than 2,000 years ago. In the past forty years, Madagascar’s population has doubled and the forest area has halved. In the past twenty years, the forested area has been reduced from 20 to 9 million hectares. Now, there is only about 10% of the original forest left (59,038 km2), with 200,000 hectares lost annually.3

In September 2003, Madagascar’s President Marc Ravalomanana pledged to more than triple the size of the nation’s protected areas, from 1.7 to 6 million hectares by 2008, in what has been heralded by conservationists as a ground-breaking step towards conserving Madagascar’s precious ecosystems. This Environmental Action Plan (EAP), financed by over $150 million in international contributions, aims to protect primary forest and encourage local communities to engage in sustainable land use through restriction, education, and poverty reduction.

The Ministry of Environment, in conjunction with environmental NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has identified the 2.4 million hectares that will be declared national parks and the remaining areas that will be provided formal conservation status. In these areas, slash-and-burn agriculture, chopping trees for firewood, and hunting will be banned. However, rural communities live within these areas, and so the government recognizes the need to “sensitize these populations about the importance of conservation.”

In April 2004, the government launched an education campaign which aims to teach rural communities: 1) There are long term benefits to the poor if they conserve the forests, as the land retains water and nutrients, while soil on land where trees have been cut down quickly erodes rendering it useless, so more land soon has to be cleared; 2) More efficient methods of rice cultivation-such as the new intensive rice system-which are more environmentally friendly, can quadruple yields per hectare. Additionally, conservation groups plan to distribute energy efficient stoves to reduce the need for chopping trees for firewood.

The most critical component of the EAP is poverty reduction. Ravalomanana has promised to end rural poverty by reforming the economy and attracting foreign investment. He hopes to make Madagascar a regional leader in ecotourism to help meet the country’s economic goal of 50% poverty reduction by 2015. Like other Community Based Conservation (CBC) plans and Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDP), the EAP simultaneously tackles conservation and development. However, this strategy has shown limited success as a conservation tool and can only work if it brings immediate economic benefits to those living in the affected area. Because the EAP lacks mechanisms to provide tangible, short-term benefits to the rural poor, I maintain that it is doomed to failure in action.

Long-term economic growth for the nation has significant potential to ameliorate pressures on biodiversity. For example, a study of rural people in Zimbabwe Communal Areas has shown that in general, the poor are more heavily dependent on environmental resources and have a greater destructive land-use tendency than those more well off.4 Innovative strategies such as nature-for-debt trades may have significant potential for long-term poverty reduction, with eventual profound implications for conservation.5

Notably, Ravalomanana has already affected 5.3% growth in the economy in 2004. However, this growth has occurred in urban areas, not rural areas where biodiversity is most threatened. Underdeveloped infrastructure limits access of rural Malagasy to these markets. Additionally, history has shown that regardless of long-term growth plans, coordinated environmental and development plans must be able to deliver immediate economic benefits to community members as incentive to actively manage the resource.6

Ravalomanana has advocated the economic potential of the nation’s growing ecotourism sector for providing short-term incentive to rural Malagasy to adhere to land restrictions and conservation policies; he should know, though, from the nation’s experience with Ranomafana National Park, launched in 1992 as a showcase project combining conservation and development, the limited revenue-generating potential of ecotourism in practice.7 If he thinks it will be different for Madagascar this time around, he need only to look to other parts of the world to see that ecotourism has had a limited capacity to generate sufficient revenue to support conservation efforts in practice.

Royal Chitwan National Park (RCNP) in Nepal is one of the most heavily visited parks in Asia. By creating economic incentives for impoverished villagers and their communities, ecotourism at RCNP is thought to encourage local guardianship of biological resources. However, a study of ecotourism’s effect on villagers found minimal economic impact: 1,100 of 87,000 (4%) locals were employed directly by the ecotourism industry, and only 6% earned direct or indirect income from ecotourism. 8 Researchers attribute the remarkable success of RCNP in restoring its rhino and tiger populations to the strict protection by Nepalese army and park staff, the law-abiding nature of Nepalese citizens, and the absence of firearms among the rural populace, rather than from any incentive program.9

By contrast, the campfire program in Zimbabwe, in which local people have financial stake in preservation of wildlife because they receive a sizeable portion of revenues generated from safari fees, does provide tangible benefits from ecotourism for conservation. However, areas without big game do not have the revenue-generating potential required for conservation based projects that rely on revenue sharing because there is insufficient financial reward.

The intention to make wildlife and protected areas ‘pay for themselves’ is injudicious. Conservation initiatives must recognize the reality that most protected areas do not realize sufficient revenue to offset the costs to communities of retaining them.10 It is difficult to see how reserves in Madagascar could ever provide enough financial benefit to offset local people’s land-use preferences, which are strongly linked to their perceived long-term economic needs. 11

Any environmental action plan can only work if it brings immediate benefits to those who live in the forests. The EAP hopes to curb destructive land-use techniques by teaching rural Malagasy the long-term value of conservation. However, conservation education will have little importance for rural Malagasy whose most immediate and biological concerns are about survival from day-to-day; they cannot afford to hold out to glean the purported long-term benefits of conservation!

Education will not change land-use practices of rural Maligasy. Slash-and-burn agriculture is a tradition that has been practiced for centuries. More importantly, because of lack of formal land rights, farmers have limited incentive to invest in (more costly) agriculture techniques. The majority of Malagasy have no official title for the land they work on, so the most rational method of cultivation is the cheapest and shortest (slash-and-burn, plant, move on to more fertile land, and so on… until no forest is left)-a tragedy of the commons! As such, any conservation plan that aims to curb slash-and-burn agriculture techniques must be implemented in coordination with serious land reform policy in order to be successful.

Starving Malagasy, just barely able to eke out a living by subsistence farming, have no incentive to adhere to land-use restrictions. As in much of Africa, rural Malagasy often view wildlife conservation as misguided because it puts the needs of wildlife above those of people. 12 EAP restrictions will not change land-use practices of rural Malagasy in the absence of thorough and stringent patrolling and management of protected areas. This has been evidenced by the failures of land restrictions in other parts of Africa.

The Central African Republic (CAR), like Madagascar, has made impressive commitments to conservation of biodiversity threatened by deforestation and harmful land-use, with protected areas covering 10.9% of the country. In most of these areas, though, the CAR has failed to provide significant economic incentives for locals to refrain from logging and poaching. Due to inadequate resources for patrolling and management, the protected areas are mere “paper parks” with formal conservation status but significant continued threat to biodiversity as before.13

The EAP is a great accomplishment… on paper. However, as is, this management plan will be unable to protect Madagascar’s unique ecosystems because it fails to bring immediate and tangible benefits to the rural poor. Starving Malagasy have no incentive to adhere to land-use restrictions. The government’s attempt to teach the value of conservation will be futile in a population plagued by abject poverty. Education about the importance of biodiversity and conservation will have no resonance with individuals whose fundamental concern is day-to-day survival. Without the cooperation of rural Malagasy-because enforcement of land restrictions on 6 million hectares is financially and physically unfeasible-the EAP is unlikely to succeed in affecting its noble conservation and development goals.

Ravalomanana’s commitment to more than triple the size of protected areas has been hailed by conservationists as one of the most important announcements in the history of conservation, as Madagascar-with megadiversity and levels of endemism unlike any place on earth-is globally recognized as an urgent biodiversity priority. While his efforts are certainly commendable, the EAP at present is just “hot air” and without serious reevaluation and coordination at local, national, regional, and international levels, the few remaining primary forests of Madagascar will go up in smoke.

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