- There is growing concern that the COVID-19 crisis will enfeeble conservation efforts across the globe, particularly in developing countries.
- The concern is acute for Madagascar, one of the poorest nations in the world, which relies heavily on foreign funds to implement conservation programs.
- The disappearance of tourism revenue in the short term and the possible drying up of international funding and deepening impoverishment in the coming months and years could grievously endanger Madagascar’s unique biodiversity, Madagascar’s environment minister told Mongabay.
While the internet abounds with feel-good stories about how animals play while humans are locked away, there is growing concern that the COVID-19 crisis may be enfeebling conservation efforts across the globe. The concern is particularly acute for developing countries. Madagascar, one of the poorest nations in the world and also a biodiversity hotspot, relies heavily on foreign funds to implement conservation programs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged communities and shut down economies, but international agencies have warned that the worst might yet be to come. The International Monetary Fund estimates that global economic losses will run into trillions of dollars, and the United Nations warned this week that the pandemic could precipitate famines of “biblical proportions.”
For Madagascar, the economic fallout may be far worse than the disease itself. The country reported its first COVID-19 cases on March 20 and announced a state of health emergency a day later. As of April 24, it has reported just 122 cases and no deaths, out of a population of 26 million. But the global pandemic means the disappearance of tourism revenue in the short term and the possible drying up of international funding and deepening impoverishment in the coming months and years.
To understand what impact the crisis may have on conservation efforts in the island nation and how the country is bracing for it, Mongabay contacted Madagascar’s environment minister, Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina, by email. These are excerpts from the interview that have been translated and edited for clarity and length.
Mongabay: How will the pandemic and the resulting restrictions affect the network of protected areas in Madagascar?
Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina: Measures taken to implement the state of health emergency proclaimed by the government have stimulated a slowdown in administrative services. Encouraged by the administrative closure, rural communities will certainly exert pressure on protected areas and biodiversity. Thus, there will be an increased risk of non-observance of relevant laws and, consequently, an increase in environmental crimes and offenses.
Secondly, corruption cases tend to increase during and beyond this period of administrative slowdown. Illegal forest products could invade markets, to the benefit of criminals, and the detriment of local communities, protected areas, and biodiversity. In addition, the urban out-migration and relevant family needs could harm the sustainability of medicinal plant stocks. Recently, the collection and trade of various organs of such plants (stems, branches, and leaves) have aroused popular enthusiasm.
In addition, urban out-migration could lead to the spread of fires. The reactivation of old fallows or the creation of new crop plots presents the increased risk of natural fires inside and around protected areas. The risk of fire spreading is also favored by the trade wind. Furthermore, the efforts dedicated to monitoring and correcting reforestation actions will be reduced, which have impacts on conservation and protected areas. Most of the Malagasy population are ignorant of laws dealing with biodiversity and protected areas, and thus, ignore or remain oblivious to sustainable practices.
Has there been an increase in illegal environmental activities such as logging, poaching and mining?
We immediately understood that these measures to implement the state of health emergency have impacts on biodiversity and natural resources of Madagascar. Consequently, we immediately ordered the closing of all protected areas. We are developing cooperative law enforcement task forces at regional levels to fight biodiversity loss by adopting zero tolerance for serious crimes. Consequently, violation reports multiplied. Many cases were reported, and offenders were detained. For example, we noticed repetitive cases in the Boeny region in the northwest (illegal collection and transport of timber from primary forests; charcoal fireplaces in protected areas), the Atsimo Andrefana region (illicit transport of timber) and the Menabe region (fires; illegal collection and transportation of timber), and some localities in Eastern Madagascar (illegal collection and transport of timber). We have adopted zero tolerance for trafficking timber from primary forests, which also involves corruption in some cases. We have also detained delinquents linked to fires.
Most of the funding to manage Madagascar’s protected areas has come from foreign governments, intergovernmental agencies and foreign NGOs. Is COVID-19 jeopardizing this funding?
Madagascar has 144 protected areas; 46 are managed by Madagascar National Parks (MNP), 92 managed by nongovernmental organizations, and 15 under the supervision of the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development.
In terms of funding, protected areas in Madagascar can be primarily categorized into two types: Protected areas established before 2005, benefiting from financial support from historical donors and partners in environmental protection: The French government, the German government, and the World Bank. They are currently in co-management with MNP; all protected areas in Madagascar remain nationally owned.
In the second category are the “new protected areas” (NPA) established under the 2003 Durban Vision, which, from 2007, began to benefit from support from the Madagascar Biodiversity Fund (Fondation pour les Aires Protégées et la Biodiversité de Madagascar, or FAPBM). FAPBM was created through an initiative of the Malagasy government, with initial support from Conservation International and WWF. It currently funds more than 40 protected areas with a capital of $75 million. This support reinforces the funding, mostly international, that their promoters had access to during their implementation and temporary protection between 2006 and 2015. NPA promoters are NGOs that are currently delegated as managers of particular NPAs. Some protected areas managed by MNP also benefit from FAPBM support.
The capital of FAPBM is placed on the financial market, from which income is generated. Any lethargy in the international financial market will, sooner or later, have repercussions on income and consequently have harmful effects on the resources that the FAPBM can allocate to protected areas.
Some agencies under the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development also receive foreign funding to perform key functions. Has the funding of these agencies and their functioning been affected?
Conservation actions in Madagascar are funded through numerous channels. In the recent week, the country’s bilateral partners, such as the European Union and German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), have discussed with the ministry regarding immediate actions that need to be taken with regard to environmental and conservation concerns.
At the same time, many initiatives under international convention implementation continue to be executed, although confronted with the prevalent international lethargy. For example, the World Bank REDD+ initiative or the PRCCC climate change adaptation project executed by GIZ with funding from the European Union and the German government. Various projects under the 7th support of the Global Environment Facility are also in the approval and development stages.
To what extent does the country depend on tourism revenues to finance these efforts?
The part of tourism in biodiversity conservation in Madagascar is under development. According to Madagascar’s 6th Report of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the objective for 2019 was to reach 190,000 visitors into the country’s parks and protected areas to ensure the sustainable funding of conservation actions. This would correspond to a total of 500,000 visitors at a national level. Statistics show a total of 350,000 visitors in 2019, which implies a mitigated target as far as the number of visitors in protected areas is concerned. It is important to emphasize that tourism revenues cannot cover the total cost of conservation actions in MNP-managed protected areas that hold the most important infrastructures for ecotourism activities in the country.
How will the drying up of tourism revenues affect conservation?
Firstly, there will be a decrease in revenue, which means a reduction in the resources allocated to conservation actions, for example, the mobilization of patrol agents. Secondly, the decrease in tourism activities, whether standard tourists or scientific tourists, will reduce family income. Households will then be tempted to resort to irrational exploitation of natural resources and may undertake illegal activities that will have serious consequences for biological diversity. These activities include illegal and irrational land occupation and exploitation of natural resources in protected areas; hunting of wild animals; trafficking rare, endemic and protected species of flora and fauna; clearing and transforming natural habitats into crop plots; overfishing in coastal zones; illicit charcoal manufacturing; illegal mining, among others. The threats will be potentially exacerbated by urban out-migration triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The absence of concrete actions will, therefore, prompt an increase in environmental destruction, a worsening of rural poverty, and, consequently, significant loss of biological diversity.
What are the long-term consequences of this disruption?
Madagascar is currently progressing toward the resumption of administrative and socioeconomic activities. We have high hopes of being able to stem this pandemic, and therefore, we are ready to take up the challenges of being able to “Make Madagascar Green Again.” Certainly, population poverty and the very low levels of environmental education remain challenging. We hope, while staying on the lookout, that the conjuncture associated with COVID-19 passes and that efforts are generated and amplified so that the country regains its ecological and environmental dignity, which has amazed foreign visitors before.
Banner Image: A gray mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus). Image by Rhett A. Butler
Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.