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Is What's Good For The Lemurs Also Good For The Locals?

The population of Madagascar has more than doubled over the past generation, from 11.8 million in 1990 to 25 million today. And with more mouths to feed, residents are cutting down rainforests so there will be more land for agriculture.

That’s a threat to the rainforest ecosystem. Madagascar rainforests are home to rare and endangered species like the black-and-white indri, the largest known lemur, topping out at about 20 pounds.

Responding to concerns from environmental groups, in 2015 the government restricted the clearing of virgin forest for agriculture as well as logging or mining activities.

That would mean that people in rural areas could lose their ability to make a living.

So Conservation International and the government of Madagascar came up with a plan. The non-governmental group would give supplies and training to locals to help them find new ways of earning a living, from chicken farming to beekeeping to fish farming. They called these initiatives “livelihood projects.”

Researchers have looked at how this compensation plan is working out and published their findings in a study published last week in PeerJ, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

What they found is that good news for lemurs might be bad news for humans.

“As well as bringing benefits there are also private costs of conservation restrictions,” says Julia Jones, professor of conservation science at Bangor University and one of the paper’s authors. “These tend to be felt by the people right at the forest frontier, the people whose livelihoods depend on clearing a small patch of land to feed their family.”

The study examined a rainforest in eastern Madagascar called the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ). Local Malagasy villagers have been farming in and around the CAZ for generations. Most of the forested land in Madagascar, including the CAZ, legally belongs to the state.

Conservation International administered the compensation in partnership with the Malagasy government, but funding is provided by the World Bank through the REDD+ program. REDD+ (Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) is an international effort to slow carbon dioxide emissions by preventing deforestation in developing countries.

To find out if the so-called “livelihood projects” were helping locals cope, a team of researchers from the U.K. and Madagascar conducted a series of interviews with villagers.

Walking for many days to reach villages, climbing mountains and crossing rivers, the researchers eventually spoke to 450 households.

The results were not encouraging.

The project targeted approximately 2,500 households. But thousands of people affected by the new restrictions did not receive “livelihood projects,” because the original World Bank report had significantly underestimated how many people would be affected.

And when communities did receive “livelihood projects,” their value wasn’t enough to make up for what they were losing by not being able to clear new land for farming.

According to the paper, Conservation International made a one-time investment of $100 to $170 on each household’s livelihood project, with the hope of seeing long-term benefits. But when villagers were asked to assign a dollar value to the aid, their rough estimate was less than $80.

And while many of the recipients were appreciative of the efforts to help them, the projects did not always pan out, says Rina Mandimbiniaina, a Malagasy native who was hired as a research assistant and is one of the paper’s authors.

“One family got chickens, just a few poultry,” she says. Raising chickens “was very of hard for them. They got about ten or so. But most of the poultry died.”

For its part, Conservation International seems to recognize that it may need to modify its approach.

“We always aim for improvements that benefit people and nature,” the organization said in an email to NPR. “Research such as this helps us improve our work on the ground.”

Still, Conservation International notes that the study does not fully account for the long-term value of an intact rainforest. When other intrinsic benefits of conservation are included, such as clean water, the compensation gap may shrink.

Robin Naidoo, a senior conservation scientist at the World Wildlife Fund who was not involved in the study, agrees that there are other conservation benefits the study didn’t take into account. For instance, villagers can forage for fruit and medicinal plants in intact forests.

“They excluded wild harvest products from income calculations,” Naidoo says. “It’s difficult to value those but they are nevertheless a benefit.”

So what’s the next step?

“They [Conservation International] recognize that there is limited money out there for the community development side,” Jones says. “So yes, there are all these policies saying don’t harm local people, but the money available is very limited.”

She believes that the international community needs to provide more funding for such conservation efforts.

In the end, Malagasy people are open to conservation, says Sarobidy Rakotonarivo, a post-doctoral researcher at Scotland’s University of Stirling and another study author who did research on the ground. But they want respect just like anyone else.

“They know that conservation is important, and they want their kids to see lemurs,” Rakotonarivo says. “But they’re very frustrated when they realize that lemurs are more important than they are.”

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