To its first human settlers, the African island of Madagascar must have seemed a strange paradise: vast rain forests, rushing mountain rivers, and animals unlike anything previously known. For centuries people reaped the bounty of this unique land, but by the 1990s, Madagascar’s once mighty forests had been reduced to mere islands of green. Now annual rains washed the island’s famously fertile soil off its deforested hills and out to sea. It’s a story that’s not unique to Madagascar.
Deforestation Is Like Burning Fossil Fuels
When forests, wetlands, or oceans are damaged – usually by unsustainable agriculture or harvesting – the fresh water, food, fiber, natural medicines, and other ecosystem services they provide begin to vanish. This makes life in poor countries like Madagascar particularly hard, especially for rural villagers who depend on healthy ecosystems for survival. Today governments everywhere are facing this growing dilemma: how to use the natural resources that often form their economic bedrock, without destroying the ecosystems that produce and nurture them.
Most conservationists believe the solution lies in a revolutionary idea that's taking root throughout the developing world: Countries can prosper by using their natural resources sustainably. Until recently, conserving natural habitats didn't attract much foreign investment to poor countries. But now people are discovering how valuable healthy ecosystems really are, because of the natural benefits they provide.
When farmers in tropical countries use "slash-and-burn" agriculture to clear forested land, their fires loft vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, intensifying global warming. Worldwide, this kind of land use accounts for almost a quarter of the planet's annual CO2 emissions. If this burning and deforestation could be reduced – or avoided altogether – it could slow climate change.
Slow Climate Change by Protecting Forests
Madagascar has accepted this challenge. In 2003 its new president, Marc Ravalomanana, announced a visionary strategy to spur sustainable economic development by protecting and managing more than 12 million acres of wild habitat – three times Madagascar's previous coverage. Since then, Ravalomanana has made safeguarding forests a top political priority. Under his plan, 1 million hectares (2. 5 million acres) of Malagasy wild lands will be protected every year. When the first million was announced in December 2005, the largest portion was a swath of rain forest in the northeast called Makira.
Covering some 1,300 square miles, Makira is home to many of Madagascar's most threatened native species. Long recognized as a high-priority conservation area, Makira is also a vital watershed for more than 150,000 local people. In 2002 the Malagasy government asked the Wildlife Conservation Society
to spearhead efforts to protect Makira from further destruction by slash-and-burn farmers. Launched with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund
and the Global Conservation Fund – both administered by CI – this strategy soon became a dynamic partnership called the Makira Forest Project.
The Makira Forest Project Delivers Multiple Benefits
Joined by the Madagascar government and CI, the project found ways to provide reliable, long-term funding and sustainable management for the Makira Forest. Working with the project team, local farmers are using agroforestry techniques instead of slash-and-burn, a method that provides a larger crop-yield without the need to clear more land. Smarter use of fresh water also improved irrigation for lowland rice fields. Managing and patrolling the forest not only provides new jobs for local communities, it assures reliable protection for Makira as well.
Almost a decade ago the United Nation's Kyoto Protocol showed the international community how reduced CO2 emissions could help slow climate change. Since then developing countries have found that CO2 "offsets," like forest fire prevention or protecting woodland ecosystems, can attract foreign investment. As Madagascar's premier offset project, Makira shows that the world's emerging carbon market can boost the economies of poor countries by supporting the protection of their forests. In fact, CI and partner Winrock International calculated that Makira – now safe from deforestation – could stop more than 8 million tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere over 30 years.
Since its creation, the Makira Forest Project has attracted more than $200,000 in contributions through CI's Conservation Carbon Program, from SC Johnson, Mitsubishi, the rock group Pearl Jam, the World Bank, USAID, and many others. CI itself is supporting Makira by offsetting its entire Washington D.C. headquarters' 2006 emissions, some 12,000 metric tons of CO2. Over the next three decades this will help protect more than 1,300 acres of Makira's forest and thousands of plant and animal species found nowhere else.
Today, as nations work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, they can enhance these efforts by investing in projects like Makira, protecting a unique biodiversity hotspot and providing new hope to impoverished local communities there. It's proof positive that global problems like poverty and climate change can often be mitigated by protecting Earth's healthy natural ecosystems.