Once, the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar was covered in thick forest - a giant sponge, soaking up carbon dioxide. Now 80 percent of it is gone, and time is short to save the rest.
Madagascar's flora and fauna are in great danger
Michel Rozanakoto's farm lies on the edge of the Mantadia National Park. Across the boundary marking out his land, the thick forest canopy is home to scores of species of lemur, exotic frogs and plants found only in Madagascar.
Once, the Indian Ocean island's central plateau was covered in forest - a giant sponge, soaking up carbon dioxide and throwing out oxygen.
But like his parents and generations before them, Rozanakoto has always made way for crops and grazing pastures by "tsavy" or slash-and-burn. When the nutrient-deprived soil became exhausted, he would simply move on to another stretch of rainforest.As a result, the world's fourth-largest island has lost four-fifths of its original forest cover and time is short to save the rest.
According to Rozanakoto, weather patterns in the region have changed. "When I was a child, we used to have the occasional cyclone, but today one arrives and before it's over we hear another is on its way," said the sixty-year-old village chief.
Hopes dashed in Copenhagen
More funding is needed to protect Madagascar's forest regions
Conservationists wanted to see forests included in a new climate change deal at the Copenhagen conference in December. They banked on a UN scheme known as REDD - Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation - which they thought would help protect forests, help counter carbon emissions and provide income for developing nations.
Under REDD, the carbon stored in these forests would be traded on the booming international carbon market. Experts estimated that Madagascar could earn $5 million per year by selling its carbon.
However, progress on REDD was hampered in Copenhagen by a lack of funding commitments from developed countries. REDD is not yet part of a broader climate pact that the UN hopes to seal by the end of the year at major climate talks in Mexico.
Johannes Ebeling, a Madagascar-based independent carbon markets expert, believes the potential of REDD is huge in African nations such as Madagascar, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. "It would be a huge opportunity to mitigate greenhouse gases in a lot of different countries, especially those that don’t have a lot of industrial emissions," said Ebeling.
Ebeling is convinced that REDD would also allow such countries to opt for another development pathway, instead of starting to industrialize at the expense of natural ecosystems.
Conservationists point to the potential of eco-tourism in Madagascar.
For now, it is the donor community that is exploring REDD's viability. For it to succeed, the private sector will need to be brought on board.
Corruption stumbling block
War and unrest have left Madagascar impoverished
The harsh reality, however, is that private investment and Africa have never been highly compatible bed partners. Deforestation has been at its most rampant in countries where corruption is rife and the politics unstable. Madagascar is a case in hand.
A power-vacuum following a military-backed coup in March 2009 has rendered the country’s natural resources a free-for-all. In protest, international donors cut funding, including that directed at conservation efforts. The result: widespread pillaging of the forests for precious wood, illegal smuggling of wildlife and a return to unmonitored slash-and-burn farming.
Jean-Roger Rakotoarijaona, the man tasked with getting the country's REDD projects on track, said twenty years of educating local communities to protect and respect their forests was undone in a matter of months.
"We had done so much to protect these national parks, the forests, but we're now back to zero," said Rakotoarijaona. "It's going to take at least ten years to get back to where we were. But now things are even harder for us as the people are poorer because of the political crisis - they're poorer than they were in 1990 and for them it's a matter of survival."
Carbon market players say private investors on the international carbon market will be looking at long-term investments but wary of political risk. They will want see REDD or any kind of carbon market investment like any other private sector-based investment and seek answers to the questions, "Can the carbon credits be generated?" and "Is their ownership secure?"
In other words, who can guarantee these forests will be standing in ten years' time?
Forest communities the key
The slash-and-burn agricultural tradition lives on
The first step is to ensure those who have traditionally chopped down trees are on board, thinks Rozanakoto.
"Of course there's this great temptation for us to clear the forest," said Rozanakoto. "What frustrates us is the lack of alternative given to us in exchange for not clearing the forest. Despite promises, we're not getting that."
Jeannicq Randrianarisoa, who is overseeing Conservation International's pilot REDD project in eastern Madagascar, says the most daunting task ahead is to change traditional ways of life. "The biggest challenge is to have these communities change their current practices of slash-and-burn cultivation," said Randrianarisoa. "That's how their ancestors showed them how to make a living, so it's a very hard cycle to break as it’s the only way they know how to live."
Author: Victoria Averill (ew)
Editor: Anke Rasper