July 5 (UPI) -- Conserving tropical forests is an essential part of the fight to slow climate change. Tropical forest conservation benefits everyone, but the economic burden is mostly shouldered by some of the world's poorest people.
When local communities are prevented from harvesting the natural resources contained within tropical forests, their economic opportunities are diminished. Many conservation groups have developed compensation programs, but new research suggests these programs are inadequate.
The World Bank operates one such compensation program in eastern Madagascar as part of its Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation efforts. When researchers from Bangor University in Ireland and the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar investigated how conservation efforts have affected the people, they found only a small group of people had benefited from an agricultural program, but none were fully compensated.
By protecting the rainforests of Coridor Ankeniheny Zahamena in eastern Madagascar, conservationists have helped insulate a wealth of biodiversity from the impacts of human development, including vulnerable lemur populations. The efforts also ensure that ensure tree stands will continue to sequester carbon.
But as the latest study showed, as many as 27,000 people in the region have been negatively affected by the conservation efforts. With the forests off limits, some of the world's poorest people are left with few options for improving their economic situation.
"Those who clear land for agriculture are often those that are most food insecure," Malagasy researcher Sarobidy Rakotonarivo said in a news release. "Beyond the economic costs of not being able to grow food to feed their family, local people suffer from conservation enforcement. I have heard first hand reports of people being arrested and held in deplorable conditions for cultivating on forest fallow which they consider ancestral land. In a country where jail conditions are inhumane, this shows how desperate people are."
The new study, published Thursday in the journal PeerJ, showed those who received agricultural support as part of the World Bank's compensation program were appreciative of the help. However, researchers determined very few people actually benefited from the program. The funding for compensation programs is insufficient, researchers argue.
"While our results show that policies which promise to compensate communities for the cost of conservation are not being met, this is not a case of corruption," said Bangor professor Julia Jones. "Money has not gone missing. The truth is that the world is not currently paying enough to ensure that poor local people are properly compensated. We show that if rich countries were willing to pay the full social cost of carbon, proper compensation could be affordable."
In addition to being unfair, inadequate compensation programs can foster resentment among local communities -- antagonism between the compensated and uncompensated.
The latest research was based on more than two years of fieldwork and surveys. Researchers interviewed hundreds of people in the communities of eastern Madagascar. They say their findings aren't a criticism of conservation programs, but of the economic burdens placed on poor people.
"I strongly believe that conservation of Madagascar's rainforests is hugely important -- for Madagascar and for the world -- and know many dedicated and extremely hard working people working in conservation in Madagascar," Jones said. "This is no criticism of them. However if the international community underpay for the true cost of conservation, then the rich world is essentially freeloading on extremely poor forest residents; gaining benefits while they bear the costs."