Can carbon credits save Madagascar’s Makira forests?


When Madagascar’s Makira Natural Park launched in 2005, selling carbon offset credits seemed to present a solution to one of the most intractable problems in conservation: a funding source that could be counted on year after year. The resulting annuity revenue would not only fund the park, however, as development projects aimed at helping nearby communities to improve their standard of living and to curtail deforestation would also be nurtured.

But more than a decade later, carbon buyers are scarce and much of the funding for community development has been held up. Although deforestation has slowed considerably in and around Makira, it is falling well short of deforestation targets set at the outset of the project.

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


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 US’s Yosemite at 3,725 square kilometers 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 percent to support its REDD+ programs. Thirty percent would go to WCS for managing the park and offset program, and 50 percent 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.

A captive fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), a species that lives in Makira Natural Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

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.

“We know there’s some money from carbon, but we don’t know where it is,” said Amélin Toto Arison, who runs a general store in Marovovonana. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

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.

Leonard Randriamizaka, a farmer who moonlights as a carpenter, bought a chainsaw last year with money from the vanilla harvest: there are now 25 chainsaws in his village just outside Makira, up from zero just a few years ago. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

Historically, Makira’s forests have been spared partly because so few people live there: some 2,000 people in a handful of settlements within the park. By comparison, 49,000 lived in the leakage belt in 2009, a figure that is expected to nearly double within the next 20 years. When WCS examined population size in a subset of villages where data was available in 2009 and 2014, they found a 70 percent increase in five years.

For the time being, in the words of Henri Rabenafitra, a longtime official in the neighboring Sava region, “Wood is used at every level of production.”

Ramy Canarium madagascariensis is commonly used for dugout canoes. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

The last few years vividly illustrate how fast that wood can go. With vanilla prices reaching record highs, farmers across the northeast have benefited from an influx of extra cash. Ambalamahogo has prospered. Ten small storefronts now line its lone dirt street, up from two a few years ago. There are two dozen new or partially built wooden houses and 25 chainsaws in a village that had none in 2014. Piles of floorboards and square beams wait beneath half-built houses. A small woodshop powered by a generator turns out hardwood furniture.

“When people have a lot of money, the wood goes much faster,” Ndrianopenozafy said.

Leonard Randriamizaka, a quiet, brawny farmer who moonlights as a carpenter, bought a chainsaw last year with money from the vanilla harvest. “I was thinking, many people have money in this village, lots of people want to build houses,” he said, sharpening his chainsaw while his 2-year-old daughter looked on. “Most houses in this village are from the last five years.”

Who needs a permit?

The way the permit process is supposed to work, people who want to build a house first identify the trees they’d like to use, get a permit from the association, then cut the lumber themselves or hire a carpenter to do so. In practice, there’s so much demand for wood that people often outbid one another on beams and floorboards as carpenters cut them, so that the wood doesn’t necessarily end up going to the person who obtained a permit for it. “The price of one board starts at 13,000 ariary, and if someone else needs it quickly, it can go up to 15,000, 17,000,” Randriamizaka said.

Randriamizaka and another carpenter both told Mongabay they were not in the habit of asking whether their customers have a permit; Randriamizaka said he wasn’t sure what might happen to people caught cutting trees without one.

Franklin Ramamontsoa, the vice president of Ambalamahogo’s fokontany, or village government, said it wasn’t uncommon for people to use a permit as cover to continue to cut more trees than they were allowed to. He complained that much of the wood from the community forest was being sold, against the rules, to build houses outside the village. Some wood was even being sold in the seaside city of Maroantsetra, 24 kilometers  downriver, according to Ramamontsoa and others in Ambalamahogo. In Marovovonana, members of the VOI said they’d been able to confiscate some wood logged without a permit, and used it to build a school, but not to stop businessmen from the city who had logged trees in the VOI forest repeatedly in the last two years.

“If they don’t follow the rules, we’re going to take their wood — that’s what the rules say,” Ramamontsoa said, adding that the fokontany had held a community meeting to warn rulebreakers. “I’ve said to my colleague many times, let’s talk to the people and tell them to pay for permits.” For now, he said, access to the forest is “wide open.”

“Now we have a new plan: when somebody wants wood for a new house, they must ask,” said Franklin Ramamontsoa, the vice president of the fokontany in Ambalamahogo, who logged trees without a permit in order to build his own new house. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

Across the street stood the largest of the new wooden houses in Ambalamahogo, still unfinished, and, Ramamonstoa said, built with wood harvested without a permit. The owner: Franklin Ramamontsoa himself. He said that he didn’t know where to ask for a permit because the VOI’s president had been out of town when construction began, and finally, that he had argued with his wife about it, and that she chose deliberately not to get one.

“Now we have a new plan,” he said. “We’re starting from scratch. We’ll leave those who didn’t pay and from now on, everyone will have to pay, even me.” Still, he didn’t plan on getting a permit for the lumber he’d already obtained.

Wood remains at the center of the economy in Ambalamahogo and Marovovonana, and uncontrolled access to both communities’ forests is quickly laying claim to many of the biggest remaining trees — hintsia, nanto (genus Sideroxylon) and ramy Canarium madagascariensis — sometimes in concert with more destructive practices like clearing forest for rice cultivation. Data from 2005 to 2013 suggest that deforestation in Makira’s leakage belt has been far lower than it might have been without WCS’s intervention. Even so, a map WCS produced shows that deforestation rates continued to increase in three out of four communities managing forests in the leakage belt over the same period.

Map shows the boundaries of Makira Natural Park (black line) and the community forests set up so far in its “leakage belt.” Pink indicates an increased rate of deforestation over baseline levels, as of 2014. Light green indicates a reduced rate of deforestation. Map courtesy of WCS.

Will a “compliance” carbon market ever come?

Makira was planned at a time when global carbon prices were high, and the offset market seemed poised for steady growth. In the early 2000s, proponents hoped that a UN-brokered climate agreement might soon require countries and companies to buy large quantities of offsets at set prices. The Dixie Chicks bought offsets from Makira and encouraged their fans to do the same.

Then came the 2008 financial crisis, a commodities slump and a glut of offset projects competing for a small pool of money. Carbon prices plunged during the recession, while failed negotiations at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen dashed hopes that a so-called “compliance market” would take off quickly.

A black and white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata), a critically endangered species that lives in Makira Natural Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

As Todd Stevens, WCS’s executive director of conservation challenges, explained, the voluntary market “was always [seen as]a bridge to a compliance market. We just had no idea what that compliance market might look like in 2005 when Makira started.” Today, the compliance market still doesn’t look like much: the bulk of offset purchases are made through government-backed pilot programs or negotiated on a voluntary basis as a matter of corporate social responsibility.

Initially, Makira’s architects used a target revenue figure of $1.2 million a year for operating the project, which would require selling some 240,000 tons of CO2 equivalent (or CO2e; in effect, carbon dioxide absorption) a year at $5 a ton — a reasonable price at the time. After falling to $3.30 in 2015, the average price for offsets sold by REDD+ programs rebounded to $4.20 a ton last year, which would require selling nearly 300,000 tons annually. According to records maintained by Verified Carbon Standard, the group that tracks sales from the Makira project, WCS has sold just under 600,000 tons of CO2e in the last four years.

Stevens declined to provide more specific budget information or any of the pricing projections that were used to plan the Makira project.

The upshot is that instead of funding 100 percent of WCS’s interventions in and around Makira, offsets pay for just 10 to 15 percent, with WCS contributing the remainder through grants and fundraising, said Alison Clausen, WCS’s country director in Madagascar. The proceeds from carbon offset sales earmarked for community development have been similarly underwhelming. “It’s still a functional carbon project … but we’re a long way from a full self-financing park,” Clausen said.

Dugout wooden canoes and shallow metal skiffs are the main form of transportation for many communities around Makira Nature Park. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

WCS has responded to the shortfall with a combination of fundraising and belt-tightening. WCS has only recently been able to hire additional “animators,” or field staff who work in the villages around Makira, after cutting 20 percent of project staff based in the region during a political crisis from 2009 to 2014 that hurt conservation funding across Madagascar. Technical staff who might have been able to work on programming in Makira have had to spend more time on grant applications instead, explained Clausen.

“Initially, we had a much more ambitious plan in terms of the degree of ecological monitoring that we would be able to collect through the park,” she said. Now, rather than conducting lemur population surveys using transects as field biologists would, for instance, WCS has relied on patrol agents recording each lemur sighting as they go about their work, generating an “encounter rate” for each lemur species per kilometer hiked. “We’ve still got a good basic level of data that we need to make good decisions, but it’s not an ideal world,” Clausen said.

Even so, Clausen was quick to point out the benefits of what little carbon funding has flowed to Makira. Chief among them, carbon funding is free of the restrictions that often come with money from development agencies and foreign governments. In Makira, carbon revenue paid for emergency relief and repairs to the local WCS office after widespread damage from a cyclone earlier this year, and it has allowed WCS to bridge the gap between grants that ended and began a few weeks apart.

Carbon offset programs are a growing feature of conservation projects around the world, seen as a flexible, sustainable source of funding for forest conservation and community development. Forty-seven countries have signed on to REDD+ and undertaken the years-long effort of drafting laws and regulations to make it workable. In Madagascar, Makira is one of five major REDD+ pilot projects. But so far, evidence of REDD+’s impact and potential is decidedly mixed. Globally, the supply of REDD+ credits still outstrips demand nearly tenfold. And in Madagascar, some observers have been skeptical [pdf]that offset programs can be effectively overlaid on a deeply dysfunctional system of protected areas.

Many families say they don’t have big enough rice paddies to get by, and the region’s rapidly growing population has created pressure for new land. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

Communities wait for development

One of the Makira project’s aims is to raise the local standard of living enough that local economies won’t need to depend so heavily on forests. But the revenue sharing provisions that will ultimately send half of carbon revenue to the communities have yet to be fully implemented. Today, nearly four years into carbon offset sales, less than a third of the revenue earmarked for community development projects has actually been spent, forcing WCS to fund these initiatives by other means and at a slower pace than intended.

Makira is in a remote area where rivers and footpaths are often the only way to travel. Illiteracy rates are near 40 percent, and dams, schools and other infrastructure projects have often been delayed by the most basic requirements. In one case, Clausen recounted, a community representative spent days walking to the nearest bank branch to sign his name for the first time so he could open an account. Having done so, he returned home. By the time the bank transfer came through weeks later, he had forgotten his signature altogether, and he had to start the process over.

Many of Makira’s development projects are aimed at improving rice productivity and curbing tavy, slash-and-burn farming practiced by rice farmers who do not have access to irrigated land, and which is a major driver of deforestation. These include building small dams to allow farmers to control the water flow for rice paddies in Marovovonana, and training in a technique called SRI, for “System of Intensive Riziculture,” that relies on weeding and carefully managed irrigation.

In 2013, 300 WCS-trained farmers living in Makira’s leakage belt more than doubled their rice yields through SRI, but widespread adoption has been slow to take off. In Marovovonana, Arison said WCS’s efforts had been successful in curbing tavy. But, he explained, delays in the distribution of rice seeds and tools meant that even people who received SRI training were reluctant to try it out, worried that they wouldn’t have time to implement it correctly. “When the money is late, people don’t want to do SRI,” he said. “They plant in the traditional style.”

Petra Lahann, WCS’s program coordinator for Makira, said she’d seen a similar dynamic in another community, where the gap between learning and using SRI seemed larger than WCS anticipated. “The other day, I went to one of the villages. They’d had one training in SRI. They liked SRI but they didn’t feel confident to do it on their own.”

WCS has also conducted trainings in clove and vanilla growing, fish farming (which requires far less land than rice to generate the same income), beekeeping and livestock husbandry, including a vaccination program that dramatically improves mortality for chickens.

As these initiatives reach a critical mass and show results for early adopters, WCS hopes that the new techniques will spread on their own, reducing the pressure for new farmland as the population grows. “At least for communities where we do a lot of activities, we hope we’ll see a change within five years,” Lahann said. “But [population growth]is going to be a problem for the next 30 years.”

Forty-year-old farmer Zafinaty built her house with wood she got by buying a permit from the local association that manages the communal forest. She sent her kids to school in the city and hopes they can find work there so they won’t be affected by land shortages in Marovovonana. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

Even if offsets are never able to provide adequate funding, one implicit benefit of structuring Makira as a REDD+ program is that the model requires WCS to remain involved in conservation work there for 30 years. Madagascar is a country where instability has been a defining feature of many important conservation targets, with projects passed through a series of NGOs, or expanding and contracting along with donor funding.

“WCS went into this as a forest conservation project with two different outcomes we wanted,” Stevens said. The first was to conserve a threatened landscape with huge importance to global biodiversity. “That,” Stevens said, “has been a success — which is to say, we used grant money to help us figure out what a projected deforestation rate is, to understand the drivers of deforestation, to work with local communities to get their land tenure, to understand the economic practices that were contributing to deforestation, and work with them to change that.” That success, though, is relative. Despite improvements over the baseline rates of deforestation, WCS is still a long way from stabilizing the loss of forest at levels seen nearby in Masoala National Park. The growing population and dwindling forests in the leakage belt hint that it won’t be easy to do so.

Secondly, WCS hoped that Makira would become a viable REDD+ project, with people outside Madagascar funding conservation in Makira on an ongoing basis through the carbon market. “On that, I think we’ve achieved as many failures as successes,” Stevens said, “but the game’s not over on that either.”

This article was originally published by Mongabay. It is the seventh in Mongabay’s multi-part series “Conservation in Madagascar” being published during the fall of 2017. The entire series will be collected here. Rowan Moore Gerety is a reporter and radio producer based in Miami. Read more of his work at







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