in Madagascar

Madagascar: What happens to REDD when there’s a sapphire rush?

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The Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor “has long been regarded as one of Madagascar’s top conservation priorities,” Conservation International tells us on its website. Conservation International is running a REDD project there covering more than 371,000 hectares.

Here’s how Conservation International explains what it’s doing with local communities, under the headline, “Avoiding deforestation in Madagascar”:

CI aims to contribute to the livelihoods of local communities — and provide economic alternatives to the use of the forest. For example, we provide financial and technical support for small income-generating projects such as rice cultivation, beekeeping, fisheries, gardening and small-scale poultry breeding.

But a 2016 study found that the project was not compensating the people most affected by the project’s restrictions on their livelihoods. The researchers, from Bangor University and Université d’Antananarivo, found serious biases in the way that people were compensated by the project. The people who were easiest to reach, who lived close to a road or the adminstrative centre, were more likely to receive compensation than communities living in areas that were more difficult to reach.

Here’s Conservation International again, explaining how it protects the forests in the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ):

CI promotes sustainable management of the CAZ, which recently became a protected area, in order to keep its trees standing. Our work includes forest surveillance and monitoring activities to ensure that no illegal slash-and-burn agriculture is taking place; developing partnerships in the protected area with local communities; and helping build the capacity of the stakeholders involved to ensure strong, effective governance of the entire landscape.

But Conservation International’s website makes no mention of a huge threat to the forests. Sapphires.

The sapphire rush

Here’s what part of the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor looked like in October 2016:

This image is a screenshot from a video made by Rosey Perkins, a gemologist who visited the area in October 2016. A gendarme told her that about 45,000 people from all over Madagascar had moved into the area looking for sapphires. This number was growing every day, by somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 people. Traders from as far away as Sri Lanka had also moved in.

Perkins spoke to some of the miners, who were busy illegally extracting sapphires from the protected area:

One miner introduced himself as a law student. He told me that for several years he had been unable to pay the bribe his university had asked from him. He needed to find a stone in order to graduate. Another said he wanted a car. The atmosphere was frenzied, as people anticipated a lock-down from the Government, which held a responsibility to protect the land.

As Perkins points out, the government cannot evict tens of thousands of people. But there are reports of deaths from disease, rapes, violent conflict, and murders. Teachers have abandoned their schools to try their luck at sapphire mining.

In April 2017, Associated Press reported that miners had cut down thousands of acres of forest. Local officials say that there could be as many as 200,000 miners in the area.

Conservation International has called for a military intervention. Bruno Rajaspera, Conservation International’s director of projects, told Associated Press that,

“We have made many requests to the government to call the army. But there are too many influential people that are involved in the trade of the stones. The government doesn’t dare take concrete action.”

Clearly, Conservation International’s REDD project is no match for this sapphire rush.

The sapphires are so valuable they are very likely to be exploited eventually, whether legally, or illegally. And the chances of the price of carbon catching up with the price of sapphires are slim.

Even if the price of carbon did soar astronomically, the people inolved in the illegal mining sector in Madagascar don’t stand to benefit from any trading of the carbon stored in forests.

Some questions for Conservation International

On 4 April 2017, I sent the following questions to Bruno Rajaspera at Conservation International and asked for an on the record response. I look forward to posting Rajaspera’s response in full when he replies.

  • Please describe the scale of the sapphire rush in Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena and how it has affected the forests, wildlife and communities living in the area. How many people have moved into the area to mine sapphires?
  • What implications does the sapphire rush have for the Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena REDD project that Conservation International is running?
  • Associated Press recently reported you as saying, “We have made many requests to the government to call the army.” What role do you see the army playing in this situation? How would the army prevent illegal sapphire miners from returning to the area in the future?
  • This isn’t the first discovery of sapphires in a protected area in Madagascar – there was another in 2012 in the Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena area (reported in the Telegraph in April 2012). How did the CI REDD project attempt to address the risk of a future sapphire rush?
  • CI’s Non-Permanence Risk Report produced for VCS assessed “the risks of potential transient or permanent losses in carbon stocks … over a period of 100 years from the start of the current monitoring period”. The risk report was issued in November 2012, but makes no mention of sapphire mining in the REDD project area. Can you please explain this oversight?
  • What do you think are the implications for REDD of this sapphire rush? In your opinion, is there any way that trading the carbon stored in the forests of Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena can compete with mining for sapphires – particularly for the people involved in the illegal mining sector in Madagascar?
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