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Forest conservation measures can come at a high price for locals

Tropical forests are not only home to rare and incredible biodiversity, but are also home to many hundreds of thousands of people. Conservation policies can have a huge impact on local people, and a new study has demonstrated just how costly the new restrictions can be.

Among other donors, the World Bank has made a clear commitment to ensure that individuals who are negatively impacted by their projects are compensated. For the first time, researchers have analyzed this type of compensation scheme, and have found it to be inadequate.

The team of experts from Bangor University in the UK and the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar evaluated a new protected area and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) project in the eastern rainforests of Madagascar. The project, which is called the Coridor Ankeniheny Zahamena (CAZ), has been designed to protect high-profile biodiversity and mitigate climate change.

The researchers have found that restrictions associated with the project have brought very significant costs to local people, affecting an estimated total of up to 85 percent of local annual incomes. Compensation in the form of help with improved agriculture was offered to a small group of people, but none were fully compensated.

According to the researchers, approximately 27,000 people – who are all extremely poor – have been negatively impacted by the conservation project.

Study co-author Dr. Sarobidy Rakotonarivo explained how real the costs of forest conservation have become.

“Those who clear land for agriculture are often those that are most food insecure,” said Dr. Rakotonarivo. “Beyond the economic costs of not being able to grow food to feed their family, local people suffer from conservation enforcement. I have heard first hand reports of people being arrested and held in deplorable conditions for cultivating on forest fallow which they consider ancestral land. In a country where jail conditions are inhumane, this shows how desperate people are.”

While the compensation is very much appreciated, few have received it. Those who did receive help were not usually the most in need, and the value of the support was very low when compared to the costs of conservation.

“While our results show that policies which promise to compensate communities for the cost of conservation are not being met, this is not a case of corruption,” said Professor Julia Jones. “Money has not gone missing. The truth is that the world is not currently paying enough to ensure that poor local people are properly compensated. We show that if rich countries were willing to pay the full social cost of carbon, proper compensation could be affordable.”

The research team conducted in-depth interviews with 603 people from several communities. Over a period of more than two years, households were visited up to three times.

“These are difficult results to present,” said Professor Jones. “I strongly believe that conservation of Madagascar’s rainforests is hugely important for Madagascar and for the world and know many dedicated and extremely hard working people working in conservation in Madagascar. This is no criticism of them. However if the international community underpay for the true cost of conservation, then the rich world is essentially freeloading on extremely poor forest residents; gaining benefits while they bear the costs.”

The study is published in the journal PeerJ.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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