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14 December 2022

How to empower forestland peoples

TWAS awardee Sarobidy Rakotonarivo is working to ensure that poor villagers in remote parts of Africa have their say in conservation measures that affect their lives

Forestlands threatened by development need conservation policies to survive. But for such policies to be “humane”, they must account for the livelihoods of those who live in those remote areas, according to Malagasy socio-economist Sarobidy Rakotonarivo, the winner of the 2022 TWAS-Samira Omar Innovation for Sustainability Award. TWAS honoured her work combining research with policy engagement in Africa, including remote areas of Madagascar, Gabon and Kenya.

Rakotonarivo is a TWAS Young Affiliate and a researcher at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar. Her research focuses on remote forestland communities whose lives are deeply and directly affected by policies designed to protect natural lands, and her work helps rural people who might otherwise be ignored by such policies, advocates for their interests — and thus finds a proper balance between their well-being and the stability of nature.

The TWAS-Samira Omar Award is an annual honour sponsored by TWAS Fellow Samira Omar Asem of Kuwait, and carries a cash award of US$4,000. The prize honours scientists from Least Developed Countries who are working in a field tied to sustainability. Rakotonarivo is the sixth winner of the award, and past winners have been from Uganda, Sudan, Benin, Togo and Ethiopia.

“This award justifies the hundreds of hours of interviews I had with poor rural communities and the perseverance of engaging with busy policy-makers,” said Rakotonarivo. “It is a wonderful recognition and encourages me to work harder.”

Rakotonarivo’s work focused on the human dimension of forest conservation restrictions, particularly their impacts on people’s ability to live securely and well. Efforts to protect forestland through legal enforcement can shield endangered species from extinction and help stabilize the climate. But the same efforts can also damage people’s livelihoods, as forestland peoples often rely on wildlife hunting or the ability to convert forestlands to croplands to acquire food.

Ultimately, said Rakotonarivo, it is a matter of determining and respecting the trade-offs between the two often-competing needs of nature and development.

“If we restrict people’s access to forest resources, how does that impact their lives? What are the positives and negatives?” she said. “The narrative is always that conservation is good for people, if we keep the forest protected, people are going to be better off. But I’ve been trying to argue that it’s mostly about trade-offs between conservation and development activities.”

Rakotonarivo’s focus is to find ways that would make conservation beneficial to local people, so that they will have stronger reasons to support conservation activities, and so that conservation policies will be fairer to them.

“My aim was really to make policy recommendations, and design and implement interventions for conservation that are beneficial to both nature and people,” Rakotonarivo said. “That way we can lose less forest land and reduce biodiversity loss, without negative impacts to local people.”

The hard work of building trust

Rakotonarivo completed her PhD research at Bangor University in the UK in 2016, she then went on to do a postdoc at the University of Stirling. In late 2019, backed by a grant from the UK government, she returned to her home country of Madagascar and has since contributed to the reform of the protected-areas policies there. To reach these villages, it typically takes many hours of walking, she said — sometimes as much as two days’ worth.

Once in a remote village, she would begin the difficult work of identifying people who might be affected by the policies, usually farmers. She would then devise an evaluation method that could measure how forest conservation efforts affected their lives.

Part of her reform efforts were also to propose grievance mechanisms for local communities to report any issues or conflicts, and establishing trust is key, Rakotonarivo said. It’s hard to get people to talk openly about their perspective on the impacts of restrictions without that trust, and it takes time to build the necessary relationships.

“There would be small huts scattered all over the village, no showers, rough conditions — and you need to live with these people and understand their way of life and build trust and understand their livelihoods,” she said.

The practice of clearing forests for agriculture provides poor farmers in Madagascar with access to fertile soil, making it a major cause of deforestation. This led the government to criminalize the activity. But now many poor farmers won’t openly acknowledge clearing forests out of fear of criminal prosecution.

“The problem is there is a power imbalance between local farmers and the government,” Rakotonarivo said. “Lots of farmers have limited education with which to negotiate and seek legal recourse. Most didn’t even go to school, and can’t read or write. So this is about making their voices heard and finding mechanisms where they can become heard.”

Rakotonarivo is currently leading a project to strengthen the ability of conservation managers and rural community leaders to communicate and negotiate more effectively. She was also recently awarded a five-year research grant to study the most effective policies for facilitating more sustainable agricultural practices among remote forestland communities, in order to enable long-term prosperity for both people and nature. A significant part of the work entails providing rural community members with training on how policies work, as well as what their roles and responsibility would be with regard to the co-management of forestlands.

Innovation and experience

One innovative way Rakotonarivo and her colleagues have gone about connecting with villagers on these issues was conducted in Gabon — through a specialized game on tablet computers that presents them with a digital farming landscape.

Farmers can interact with the game to demonstrate how they would respond to different situations and voice their preferences. For example, the game would present the villagers with nine plots of land, but elephants are eating their crops in one of them, so they can choose to kill the elephants, or they can set aside the land to serve as an elephant habitat. Some wildlife conservation policies protect elephants, but pachyderms can destroy an entire year’s worth of crops in a single visit, causing serious hardship to subsistence farmers. The findings by Rakotonarivo and colleagues, which showed the need for policymakers to address these losses, were published in the journal Ecology and Society.

“The game provided a safe atmosphere for expressing their preferences for these very sensitive choices they wouldn’t be able to make every day,” she explained. “It was used as a decision support tool through which they express their needs and wants, and we can survey them.”

Her research has also landed her a role at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. She took part in high-level panel discussions on the most urgent environmental issues of the moment, based on her experience working with peoples living in remote communities. At the conference, her team also showed a 10-minute video explaining their work with remote farming communities.

But in the end, Rakotonarivo believes policymakers need to keep in mind that they can’t make assumptions on the needs of remote and rural people without taking the time to interact and be among them.

“You need to spend time living in these villages to understand their livelihoods,” she said, “because otherwise it’s very difficult to develop an understanding of who they are.”

Sean Treacy

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