Raze here, save there: Do biodiversity offsets work for people or ecosystems?

Raze here, save there: Do biodiversity offsets work for people or ecosystems?
For patrolling the forest Evariste said he receives 25,000 ariary ($6.80) per month from the NGO that co-manages the forest along with the community. Image by Malavika Vyawahare

Antsotso, Evariste’s native village, sits near the edge of Bemangidy-Ivohibe. To compensate for environmental destruction wrought by its ilmenite mine about 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Antsotso, QMM decided to protect this forest, turning it into a biodiversity offset. Critics say QMM fortified the forest and restricted villagers’ access to essential resources, pushing them toward starvation. The company says it has saved the forest from certain destruction at the hands of local people.

A biodiversity offset is a conservation project with a difference. If a developer cannot make up for ecological damage and biodiversity losses at its project site, it can establish a conservation project elsewhere to make up for it. Today, there are an estimated 13,000 biodiversity offsets across the world. While the rights of people directly displaced by development projects like mines are recognized to some degree, those of communities affected by the creation of a biodiversity offset remain unclear. What’s more, the raison d’être for offsets, biodiversity gains, are hard to document.

“In many cases, with these policies, how it impacts people is forgotten,” said Julia Patricia Gordon Jones, a conservation scientist at Bangor University, U.K., who has worked for two decades in Madagascar. “Restrictions on land expansion are felt by the poorest people.”

The island nation is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of per capita income, and one of the richest in terms of biodiversity, with high rates of endemism.

‘A heritage for our grandsons and future generations’

Rio Tinto owns an 80% stake in the QMM mine, the second-largest mine in Madagascar, and the Malagasy government owns the rest. Production started in 2008 and is expected to continue for at least 40 years. In 2004, a year before it signed the mining agreement, Rio Tinto launched its net positive impact (NPI) policy, a commitment to leaving the environment better off that built on a partnership with the U.K.-based NGO BirdLife International. It decided to make the QMM mine the pilot site for the new policy because of Madagascar’s status as a biodiversity hotspot.

Raze here, save there: Do biodiversity offsets work for people or ecosystems?A satellite view of the QMM mine in southeastern Madagascar.

The NPI strategy relied on the “mitigation hierarchy” approach that outlines how project developers should prioritize actions to mitigate environmental destruction. The first priority is to avoid, as far as possible, actions that cause damage. If the actions must be taken, the next consideration is to minimize their impact. Once the impacts are known, the approach requires developers to restore whatever can be restored. If negative effects occur even after doing all that, the approach calls for companies to take conservation actions in other places so that gains there can offset losses arising from their industrial activities.

QMM created three offsets associated with its mine, totaling about 3.5 times the area of littoral forest it plans to destroy. Bemangidy-Ivohibe is the largest at 4,000 ha (9,880 acres). The other two, Sainte Luce Forest (500 ha or 1,235 acres) in the Mandena protected area and 1,500 ha (3,710 acres) in the Agnalahaza Forest, are “like for like,” which means they seek to protect the same kind of littoral forests the mine is destroying. Bemangidy-Ivohibe, on the other hand, is a lowland humid rainforest, a “like for unlike” offset.

For the service, Evariste said he receives 25,000 ariary ($6.80) as compensation from Asity every month. Even considering that it’s not full-time work, that’s well below Madagascar’s minimum wage, which in 2018 was about 170,000 ariary per month ($45). Rio Tinto is one of the top three mining companies in the world by revenue, which was an estimated $40 billion in 2018. Madagascar’s GDP for that year was $12 billion.

Evariste’s long-standing involvement in the forest patrols has earned him the nickname Colonel Charbon. He believes it has something to do with constantly chasing out people who chop down trees to make charcoal, charbon in French. Villagers have traditionally relied on the forest for fuelwood, building materials, timber to make dugout canoes, and to hunt for food. The main threat to the woodland, though, comes from the practice of shifting cultivation, or tavy.

“It will be a heritage for our grandsons and future generations,” Evariste said of the forest. “If the parents keep on cutting down the forest, the grandchildren will suffer because of it.”

“It has resulted in starvation”

Raze here, save there: Do biodiversity offsets work for people or ecosystems?Manioc is the staple crop in this region, not rice, which doesn’t grow well in the sandy soils here. Image by Malavika Vyawahare

Evariste said he believes the 1,600 villagers living in Antsotso have been shortchanged in the creation of the offset. Having lost access to the forest and now contending with restrictions on their traditional practice of shifting agriculture, many are struggling to reshape their lives and livelihoods. To provide alternatives, Asity started programs to encourage villagers to plant pink peppercorn, keep bees and grow rice. Only a few people benefit from these activities, according to Evariste. “People are complaining about Asity because the pledges are not fulfilled,” he said. “When we complain, it causes conflict.”

The program to provide alternative livelihoods started in 2016. The peppercorn program seems to be working, but the beekeeping and rice-planting initiatives are not, according to Mbola Mampiray Miandrito, a researcher at the University of Toliara. Manioc is the staple crop in this region, not rice, which doesn’t grow well in the sandy soils here. To improve the quality of the soil requires adding manure, but many people don’t own enough zebus, the native Malagasy cattle regarded as a sign of prosperity. Asity offers a one-time capital loan to households to start up a project like rice cultivation. But if it fails, they don’t have the resources to start over, Miandrito said.

According to Rio Tinto, the livelihood program is “progressing well.” The company said in its statement that the area under rice cultivation grew from 20 ha in 2016 to 90 ha in 2019 (50 to 220 acres); that microcredit schemes had benefited 288 people in 2019; and that 565 people had been trained in other activities like weaving and beekeeping.

Keep reading the full article in the Mongabay website: Raze here, save there: Do biodiversity offsets work for people or ecosystems?

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