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Are Madagascar's Efforts to Save Forests Working?

Community forest management gets put to the test, and it doesn't fare well.
Tioga County, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr)

Tioga County, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr)

At first glance, community forest management (CFM) seems like a good idea. The concept originated in the late 1970s and grew in popularity through the 1980s, and it's more or less what it sounds like: Rather than conserve the world's forests by making them off limits to human transgression, governments should instead work with local communities to meet their needs in a sustainable way. Unfortunately, a new study suggests, CFM doesn't always work very well.

That's what Ranaivo Rasolofoson and three others conclude based on a study of forest conservation in Madagascar. The island nation is known as one of the more biologically diverse places on Earth, but it is also host to more than its share of poverty. It's also a place where wood remains a primary source of fuel, threatening forests. The challenge moving forward, according to a 2007 United States Agency for International Development report, is figuring out how exploit forests to the villages' benefit without destroying them in the process.

Back in the 1990s, CFM seemed like a good idea, and the Malagasy government passed a law known as GELOSE to promote cooperation between villagers, local officials, and the state's forestry department. In theory, that would allow for solutions to forestry challenges that were more tailored to the specific needs of a given village or a given forest.

Between 2000 and 2010, when data collection ended, CFM areas saw just 0.02 percent less deforestation than non-CFM sites—statistically speaking, no difference at all.

Whether establishing CFM practices in Madagascar worked, however, is a tricky question. The flexibility of the approach means that no two forestry management systems are alike. Current CFM sites on the island vary in terms of agricultural viability, proximity to urban centers, forest cover prior to CFM being implemented, and whether particular agreements allow commercial forestry. To address those challenges, Rasolofoson and colleagues paired CFM regions with otherwise similar non-CFM forests and compared deforestation rates in both. In principle at least, that allowed the researchers to estimate the overall preservation effects of CFM while accounting for the variation in specific practices.

The results were not encouraging. Between 2000 and 2010, when data collection ended, CFM areas saw just 0.02 percent less deforestation than non-CFM sites—statistically speaking, no difference at all. Non-commercial CFM areas fared a bit better than others, losing trees at a rate two percent lower than matched, non-CFM controls. On the other hand, CFM regions that allowed commercial use saw about two percent more deforestation compared with controls.

Still, that doesn't necessarily mean it would be better to abandon CFM in favor of other strategies, such as forest preserves or a newer approach currently in vogue: payments for ecosystem services. The latter system, for example, relies in part on selling off natural resources, with premiums paid for sustainable practices. But the efforts in Madagascar suggest that could backfire.

"Some studies argue that by assigning value to forests, commercial use provides means and incentives to local communities to protect forests," the team write in Biological Conservation. "Our findings do not support the argument that permitting commercial extraction can enhance the deforestation-reducing impacts of CFM."