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

  • The Bemangidy-Ivohibe biodiversity offset was created in southeastern Madagascar by QMM, a subsidiary of mining giant Rio Tinto, to make up for the destruction of highly threatened littoral forests as a result of mining activity.
  • While the rights of people directly displaced by development projects like mines are recognized to some degree, those of communities affected by biodiversity offsets, of which there are more than 13,000 worldwide, remain unclear.
  • 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.
  • The justification for offsets — biodiversity gains — are also hard to document, especially in the case of Bemangidy-Ivohibe which is a lowland humid forest, a different landscape from the littoral forest being razed by QMM.

ANTSOTSO, Madagascar — Moussa Evariste, 53, treads lightly on sinewy legs across fields of grass that were once forest. The terrain is sandy and prickly, punctuated by the relief of slender streams. He has traced this path hundreds of times with his bare feet. A stained vest declares him Polisin’ala: forest patrol.

Bemangidy-Ivohibe, the forest Evariste patrols, looms on the low hills ahead. It’s named for an itchy plant, Hyacinthus cryptopodus. The forest has now become a source of friction between the local community and QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), a subsidiary of mining behemoth Rio Tinto.

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’

Moussa Evariste, who is a member of Antsotso’s forest patrol, points to the Bemangidy-Ivohibe forest in the background. Image by Malavika Vyawahare

On Madagascar’s southeastern coast lies the port town of Tolagnaro, formerly known as Fort Dauphin, where economic life centers on the Ehoala Port built by QMM and the World Bank. The 60-km ride north from Tolagnaro to Antsotso takes five hours. A relatively swift first half to the town of Mahatalaky abruptly gives way to swampy trails that bear the lofty title of National Highway 12. Progress slows to a crawl at several river crossings, where vehicles and people clamber onto barges that deposit them on the opposite bank. The state of the highway is explained by a much-delayed E.U.-funded project to boost agricultural markets that included building roads. That new road is yet to reach Antsotso.

NH 12 edges past QMM’s mining site just north of Tolagnaro. Inland to its left lie the lowland evergreen forests of Tsitongambarika Protected Area, and to the right, hugging the coast, the fragmented remains of littoral forests. These unique woodlands, specially adapted to grow on sandy soils, once stretched for hundreds of kilometers along the shore, but today less than 10% of the original littoral forests remain.

The mineral sands that line this slice of Madagascar’s coast are rich in ilmenite, which QMM mines and exports from Ehoala Port to Canada. There, the ilmenite is processed to produce titanium dioxide, the ingredient for the white pigment used in everything from paint to toothpaste. But to reach the mineral-rich sand, the forests that grow on it must go. An estimated 1,665 hectares (4,100 acres) of littoral forests lie within QMM’s mining concession. In satellite imagery, a stark patch where bulldozers have razed forests to expose the underlying sand marks the mining site.

A satellite view of the QMM mine in southeastern Madagascar.

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.

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.

QMM funds an NGO, Asity Madagascar, the local affiliate of BirdLife International, to manage the Bemangidy-Ivohibe forest offset. The forest is located in the northern part of a vast existing protected area called Tsitongambarika that spans 60,000 ha (148,300 acres). The protected area was created in 2008 and granted permanent protection under Malagasy law in 2015. “The effect of this protection fell very far short of guaranteeing the conservation of the forest and appropriate community development support to neighboring communities,” Rio Tinto said in a statement to explain why its offset lay within an existing protected area.

This model of outsourcing the day-to-day management of the offset to an NGO means that the company does not directly accept responsibility for how the offset is managed. Rio Tinto did not share information about the funds QMM provides to Asity. A report from the NGOs World Rainforest Movement and Re:Common published in 2016 estimated that for the period between 2015 and 2019, Asity proposed a budget of at least $350,000. The report said that communities were not involved in negotiations about funding.

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

The company added in its statement that while it funded the conservation activities, “Asity are accountable for the implementation of the offsets program.” Asity Madagascar, for its part, relies on local people to safeguard the forests. It co-manages the wider Tsitongambarika protected area with the KOMFITA (Community Forest Management) committee, which relies on 60 Communautés de Base (COBAs), made up of villagers, to surveil the forests of Tsitongambarika. Four COBAs patrol QMM’s Bemangidy-Ivohibe offset, including the one in Antsotso to which Evariste belongs.

Villagers patrolled the forest under different regimes before the QMM biodiversity offset was created in 2013. Evariste has been part of patrols since 1997, when they worked with Madagascar’s forest department. Today, a group of four guards patrols the woodland on alternate days. They set out at 8 in the morning and return in the late afternoon before darkness falls. If they expect trouble, they arm themselves with axes. The guards don’t have the power to arrest anyone; they can only report lawbreakers to the COBA, which can hand the alleged culprits over to the local police.

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”

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.

Faniry Rakotoarimanana, project manager at Asity Madagascar, said the organization did not keep people out of the forest, but rather sought their help to co-manage it. He said some people were unfairly criticizing Asity for not doing enough. “When we launch the activities, there are people who just want the money and are not willing to work,” Rakotoarimanana said. “They are parasites because they were not trained to be resourceful people, they act with this primitive spirit,” he said, alluding to the villagers’ traditional practices of hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture. “Changing that mindset is part of our challenge.”

Activists pushing QMM to change its practices at its offsets don’t share the view that people are trying to sponge off the NGO. Rather, they say that the people’s demands are rooted in their circumstances. “They are not asking to return to the forest, but they want material and more money for creating and developing these activities. They want education because they have no tradition of establishing rice fields,” Miandrito said.

Evariste’s brother, Monja Athanase, 61, formerly the assistant mayor and now mayor of the Iaboakoho commune where Antsotso is located, is also critical of the agreement. To him, the emphasis on rice farming is particularly troublesome. “Since this is something that our ancestors were not used to doing, it has resulted in starvation,” Athanase said. “Finding food is the only thing that matters to us right now.”

Monja Athanase said he was not able to attend Rio Tinto’s Annual General Meeting in London in 2017 because he was denied a visa. Image by Malavika Vyawahare

Measuring the effects of offsets

The problems that have cropped up at Bemangidy-Ivohibe are not unique. “Biodiversity offsets suffer from all the problems of any conservation project in a poorly regulated country, including elite capture,” said Jones, the Bangor University conservation scientist. She was part of a study that evaluated the social impacts of a biodiversity offset for one of the world’s largest nickel mines, in eastern Madagascar. The mine is owned by Ambatovy, a joint venture between Canadian company Sherritt International, the Japanese Sumitomo Corp., and Korea Resources Corporation (Kores).

Ambatovy’s mining activity is expected to lead to the destruction of 2,065 ha (5,100 acres) of eastern rainforest. Its offset, established in the Ankerana forest in 2011, spans 6,800 ha (16,800 acres) and is supposed to make up for the forest loss by curbing the small-scale farming that was gnawing away at Ankerana. The purpose of the offset was to ensure “no net loss and preferably Net Gain of biodiversity” as a result of the mine, the company said in a report. The offset is managed by the NGO Conservation International.

Jones’s research team, composed of British and Malagasy scientists, visited the area in 2014-2015. Most of the local people the team interviewed felt the offset had left them worse off. “People most involved in clearing forest were those who were least likely to benefit from agricultural support activities, potentially undermining the effectiveness of the offset,” the study, published in 2017, noted.

Weaving is another alternative livelihood for the people of Antsotso. It is arduous but low-paying work. Image by Malavika Vyawahare

For its part, Ambatovy has tried to gauge if its management curbed deforestation in the offset. A study, which company employees presented at an Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) conference in Madagascar last August, compared deforestation rates in the period from 2006 to 2010, before the offset was created, to the period from 2011 to 2015. It concluded that the Ankerana offset had prevented the destruction of 325 ha (800 acres) of forest in the four years since it was established. However, what was equally interesting was that the data suggested that the deforestation was displaced to areas outside the protected forest: People were still getting the wood they needed, just not from the trees inside the offset.

“The success of the commitment to No Net Loss of biodiversity will only really be able to be measured at the time of closure, when Ambatovy ceases mining activities and completes rehabilitation efforts and associated biodiversity monitoring,” the company said in a statement. “However, the company has a wide range of routine monitoring activities that check for the presence and absence of species, as well as developing other metrics to monitor relevant trends.”

Giuseppe Donati, a primatologist at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K., who has studied lemurs in the Fort Dauphin region for more than two decades, said he believes that QMM’s intervention has contributed to preserve the less degraded fragments of littoral forests. Oxford Brookes collaborates with Asity to conduct research in the Tsitongambarika Protected Area. “I am one of those researchers who saw the conservation area in Mandena in 1999, it was about to be completely chopped down by illegal logging and charcoal makers,” Donati said. “Now the forest is there. One of the questions is, what would the situation be if QMM wasn’t there?”

A collared brown lemur (Eulemur collaris). Image by Rhett A. Butler

The company did not share data on what happened to deforestation rates in and around the offset or how it impacted populations of priority species.  “To our knowledge, there has been no authoritative account on the pattern of deforestation at the Bemangidy-Ivohibe offset site and neighbouring areas,” Rio Tinto said in its statement.

While deforestation data is easier to collect, it is difficult to define biodiversity losses and gains quantitatively, and even more difficult to compare them. That’s especially true with an offset like Bemangidy, which is supposed to square losses that occur in a different forest type. The littoral forests that the mine is destroying are home to a host of endemic species like the collared brown lemur (Eulemur collaris), the ring-wearing tree frog (Guibemantis annulatus) and the Antanosy day gecko (Phelsuma antanosy). These species will not be protected even if the forest in Bemangidy is.

“For lemurs, it works, but for other groups of organisms it may work a little less,” Donati said about the strategy of saving lowland humid forests like Bemangidy to make up for destroying littoral forests.

Others question the very principles that undergird offset projects, in particular the cost-benefit calculation.

For example, gains in deforestation are measured against what would have happened if the offset did not exist. Say the deforestation rate was expected to increase from 10% to 15% over a period of time, and the offset limited it to 13% — that would still be considered a positive outcome even though the forest would still be lost in a matter of years.

The Tsitongambarika protected area can be accessed by a 90-minute boat ride followed by an hour-long hike from the town of Iaboakoho. Image by Malavika Vyawahare

“Biodiversity offsetting, however, is almost never designed to align with the achievement of national or sub‐national biodiversity targets that aim to halt species and ecosystem decline, or achieve biodiversity recovery,” a recent study noted.

Saving forests often requires weaning communities off forest resources and onto other activities. The 2016 WRM and Re:Common report offered a scathing assessment of Rio Tinto’s Bemangidy offset. It decried the lack of alternatives for people impacted by the offset and their exclusion from the decision-making process.

A year after the report’s release, commune mayor Athanase was invited by a group of international and local NGOs to speak at the Rio Tinto annual general meeting in April 2017. But his visa was rejected by the U.K., where the mining company is headquartered. The reason reportedly given by representatives of the U.K.’s home office was that he was not qualified to speak on human rights and environmental issues. Rio Tinto denied any role in his visa rejection.

This exclusion of local voices is built into how the offsets are evaluated, according to Jones. “We were told there are no costs because the deforestation that the project aimed to avoid was already illegal,” she said of their research at Ambatovy’s Ankerana offset. “If they take credit for slowing deforestation, they must recognize that those communities are being denied access to a resource and that it is impacting their lives.”

Light and shadow’

Villagers in Antsotso rely on the forest to meet their need for fuelwood. Image by Malavika Vyawahare

There is also the looming question of what happens when the mine shuts shop and leaves, which could be just a generation away. The fate of the forest will remain in jeopardy unless, by then, the communities become less dependent on it. “The closure plan has accounted for the offset sites. Due to being a formally Protected Area, the Bemangidy-Ivohibe offset site will remain managed by Asity in the long-term,” Rio Tinto said in its statement. The company did not address the fact that management efforts would lose funding and that the ineffectiveness of protection offered earlier was one of the main reasons why Bemagidy-Ivohibe was selected as an offset in the first place.

“QMM’s plan is full of light and shadow,” Donati said. “They are not a conservation organization, there are aspects that they have done better and aspects where they are a little more rigid.” The offsets’ access to the mine’s deep pockets to fund conservation activities and research is often cited as an advantage that many protected areas in Madagascar do not enjoy. Choosing to work with QMM or against it has presented a real dilemma for conservationists and researchers.

The fact that QMM, and by extension Rio Tinto, is not a conservation organization has broader implications not limited to one offset. In 2016, struggling with sluggish demand for ilmenite and rising costs of mining the mineral, the company abandoned its policy of net positive impact. A biodiversity committee consisting of conservation experts set up under the initiative resigned in protest at the company’s failure to meet biodiversity targets and its abrupt reversal of policy.

Some are still trying to influence the company in the hope of improving outcomes for people and biodiversity. “If the conservation community just comes down on the mine, ‘what you are doing is terrible,’ it won’t solve anything,” Jones said. She and other experts have developed a set of good practices for projects that apply the mitigation hierarchy, called “Ensuring No Net Loss for People as well as Biodiversity.” Jones said it is in companies’ interests to listen to and look out for the people their projects impact. “When big developers are planning a project, the social risk is a big concern. If people are unhappy, that can be a real cost to your project,” she said.

If he had been allowed to attend Rio Tinto’s meeting in London, this is what Athanase said he planned to say: “As a partner, as a human being, respectful of the effort to protect the forests in Madagascar, and the government law, we are asking them: Are you ready to consider our livelihood so that we don’t face starvation?”


Bidaud, C., Schreckenberg, K., Rabeharison, M., Ranjatson, P., Gibbons, J., & Jones, J. P. G. (2017). The sweet and the bitter: Intertwined positive and negative social impacts of a biodiversity offset. Conservation and Society, 15(1), 1-13. doi:10.4103/0972-4923.196315

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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