By Alison Clausen
Today marks the U.N. International Day of Forests. I was asked recently for an “elevator pitch” in 25 words or less on why we should invest resources in saving tropical forests and, in particular, in tropical forests in Madagascar. To those of us working in conservation, this question seems like a no-brainer, so at first I took the question with a grain of salt.
However, my questioner persisted and it made me realize both that it is not a no-brainer for everyone – particularly given the competing priorities for peoples’ attention – and that for the conservation community we need to be able to answer such questions if we are to engage people in our work.
Some values of forests will be familiar – for example providing habitat, food, and shelter for diverse species; regulating water supply and quality; and maintaining soil fertility and controlling erosion. But forests also help to regulate our climate, facilitate private sector involvement in sustainable agriculture, and empower local communities.
Forests act as climate sinks. It has been estimated that an old growth forest may store up to 250 tonnes of carbon per hectare in the span of 300 years or more. Given that carbon emissions from land clearing outweigh those of the entire global transport sector (cars, planes, trains, etc.) this is a good thing that has benefits for the entire planet.
In Madagascar, the Makira Natural Park is the country’s largest forested protected area. It is managed by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) on behalf of the Malagasy Government. Between 2005 and 2013, the implementation of conservation actions to avoid deforestation meant that 1.7 million tons of carbon were stocked in the trees and the soil and not released to the atmosphere.
This is roughly the equivalent of just over 4 billion miles of car travel. Not only were global carbon emissions reduced but by selling the credits generated on the voluntary market hundreds of thousands of dollars could be raised to support the 48,000 people who live around the Park to develop essential infrastructure such as school classrooms and health centers, and receive training in modern agricultural practices.
Forests also provide the opportunity to develop sustainable agri-businesses that can provide employment and revenue for local communities and help them engage as participants in global marketplaces. Around Makira we are working with local communities to produce certified hardwoods, vanilla, clove, and cocoa in sustainable agro-forestry systems.
These traditional products from the region are highly sought after on international markets, as are the ecotourism projects under development. Our approach ensures that communities have the training and skills they need not only to produce quality products but to be equal partners with the private sector in negotiating contracts and generating financial returns for their work.
The private sector, with its power and reach, will be an essential partner in reaching global conservation objectives. The model offered by Makira demonstrates that such engagement needn’t be limited to unsustainable products or private sector sales of natural resources on a one-off basis. Rather, private investment can drive long-term socio-economic development of local communities.
Finally, forests can promote good governance and empowerment of local communities – an essential but overlooked benefit of forests, especially in countries such as Madagascar where the rule of law has been undermined repeatedly by political crises and widespread corruption.
Around the Makira Natural Park, 67 local community associations have been established – each managing an area of forest. The associations were initially formed for natural resource management activities but the skills that they have learned and the social structures that have been formed allow them to participate more broadly in other forms of governance, whether it be requests for basic social services from the Government, engaging in election campaigns or standing for local office, or denouncing corruption and unfair treatment.
Such communities have become the watchdogs not only of the forests but of the rights of rural people more generally. In countries such as Madagascar, where real change to put the country on a clear path to inclusive, sustainable economic development is only going to come from within, it is perhaps this last value that will have the longest lasting effect.
So maybe there is no single pithy “25 words or less” pitch for why we should save forests. Maybe there are an infinite number of responses to this question depending on the circumstances. In my opinion that is just fine, for it provides evidence of the full scope and breadth of the role that forests can play in a modern society increasingly encroaching on our last wild places.