"We record all the numbers — the trees, the dead wood and the leaf litter," says Ratelolahy, looking up from his clipboard. "And then back in the capital, poof, the computer calculates the amount of carbon in the forest."
"Over the years, Ratelolahy has watched subsistence farmers slash and burn away the margins of the forest to grow rice. And he has come across gangs pillaging the forest for rosewood, ebony and quartz. "It looks as though bombs have fallen on the place," says Ratelolahy about the ransacked areas."
"Makira is on the front line of the war being waged to slow global warming. As one of Madagascar's largest forests, it stores millions of tonnes of carbon. But as in most forests in the country, that carbon is being rapidly released to the atmosphere as trees are cut down for agriculture, timber, mining and firewood. The WCS, in collaboration with the government and other organizations, is hoping to protect Makira and, at the same time, generate money to support local communities by 'renting' the forest to rich countries."
"The idea is that wealthy nations could meet their greenhouse-gas emissions targets in part by buying carbon credits from developing countries such as Madagascar. The poorer nations could earn money by keeping their forests standing, rather than cutting them down."
"This strategy, known as reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), is one of the topics up for discussion at the UN climate-change summit in Copenhagen this December. Countries will negotiate whether REDD should be included in the climate deal that takes over from the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012."
"Proponents for REDD say that this mechanism is key to cutting deforestation, which accounts for around 20% of greenhouse-gas emissions. It is also estimated that REDD could generate billions of dollars each year for forest conservation, far more than is currently spent. Hoping to cash in on the future market, projects have burgeoned around the developing world, with those in Madagascar being some of the earliest to take shape.
"The projects are also helping to establish technical standards and methodologies for carbon accounting.
REDD projects must keep the promised forests standing. To succeed, this means addressing the poverty and political instability in developing countries that often lead to deforestation. These problems are particularly acute in Madagascar, where a coup earlier this year disrupted conservation efforts and raised questions about the future of REDD there."
"Madagascar is one of the wealthiest countries in terms of biodiversity, but its people are among the world's poorest. Around 85% of the population live below the World Bank's $2-a-day poverty line and most rely heavily on the country's natural resources."
"Estimates of Madagascar's original forested areas vary widely, but some studies suggest that trees once blanketed 90% or more of the island. Since aerial photographs of the country were taken in the 1950s, forests have decreased by more than 40% and by about 2005, they covered only around 15% of the country.
Over the past two decades, deforestation has been decreasing slowly with the creation of protected areas. Grants from the World Bank and USAID helped Madagascar to become one of the first countries in Africa to develop and implement a national environmental action plan."
"By 2000, the nation had protected 17,000 square kilometres of forest, mainly as national parks. But further expansion of the park system stalled because the funding stream from donors dried up. So, in 2001, the government teamed up with non-governmental organizations and started exploring the idea of selling carbon credits from their forests. "It was clear that there was a carbon market emerging and that avoided deforestation could be a very powerful way of protecting forests in Madagascar," says Frank Hawkins, vice-president for Africa and Madagascar of Conservation International in Washington DC. Hawkins was part of the team that popularized REDD on the island."
"The efficacy of a REDD project depends on how much carbon the project will prevent from being released in the absence of protective measures. Calculating that number requires first measuring the current carbon content of a forest — as Ratelolahy and his crew are currently doing — and then projecting future deforestation rates with and without the project in place. The WCS is doing that by using past satellite imagery and making forecasts that account for factors such as the proximity of the forest to roads and villages.
A study in 2004, conducted in collaboration with the non-profit organization Winrock International in Little Rock, Arkansas, estimated that the annual rate of deforestation was 0.15% in Makira. The analysis projected that the rate would rise to 0.2% a year by 2034 without any intervention. But with the REDD project in place, the deforestation rate would slow to about 0.07%. These preliminary estimates indicated that the 30-year project would avert the release of more than 9 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, similar to taking 2 million cars off the road in the United States for a year."
"It could be years before carbon payouts come through a UN-regulated REDD system. The WCS and its donors have already spent $1.9 million to establish the Makira REDD project, and the support going to local communities will increase when the carbon funds arrive. But for the people of Andaparaty, the support can't come soon enough. "People are wondering where the money from REDD is, or if it will ever come," says Ratelolahy."
"Political unrest in Madagascar makes the future of REDD projects there even less certain. On 17 March this year, following two months of protest, the 35-year-old mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina, took the presidency in a military-backed coup."
“Because of the instability people feel more liberated, which translates into more exploiting.”
Armed gangs are ravaging the northeastern region for its valuable rosewood and ebony. The park rangers and community members who have tried to impede the illegal trade have been threatened with death, says Salava.
In the past few months, thousands of illegal loggers have been raiding his national park, Salava estimates. In his dilapidated office in the regional capital Maroantsetra, he scrolls through his monthly reports to the government. The pages are a collage of photos of men posing with freshly cut wood. The loggers aren't afraid of being caught because, despite Salava's repeated calls for assistance, the government police do not stop the trade, he says. "It's a free-for-all."
Mariot Rakotovao, who led the country's Ministry of the Environment and Forests at the time, said his department had ramped up police patrols in the region and had fined illegal loggers.
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Thanks to Rhett A. Butler of WildMadagascar.org. for allowing me to use the photograph.