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Dialogues East Africa takeaways

Exploring the True Value of Forests in East Africa: Maroantsetra, Madagascar

Hazo tokana tsy mba ala, Malagasy for “one tree does not make a forest” is the perfect summary for the [pun intended] true value of forests; strength in numbers. More trees mean richer ecosystems, habitats, and services. When more people understand and value these forests, they will be more intentional about protecting or sustainably using them. These were the key takeaways from the East Africa edition of the Wyss Academy Dialogue on the True Value of Forests (WAD-TVoF) held in Maroantsetra, Madagascar, on June 13-14. The event saw 26 participants drawn from government and civil society gather to develop concrete steps towards reforestation, diversified livelihoods, and awareness creation on the importance of forests. 

Tatjana Von Steiger, Head of Global Policy Outreach at the Wyss Academy, remarked, “We want to contextualize the debate, by anchoring it in the local context. This way we allow various stakeholders to bring in their perspectives, which is key to develop a joint vision and explore novel ideas." 



Fusion of past, present and future 

It is often said that moving forward requires learning from the past, and this couldn't be truer if advocacy and behavior change strategies are to be effective. Strongly held cultural and/or spiritual beliefs directly impact understanding of, and receptiveness to, scientific or other information connected to the value of forests. This is not to say that previous generations lacked an appreciation for forests. In fact, trees and forests were generally revered and rarely cut down unless some rituals were performed. For instance, in Maroantsetra, offerings of honey and alcohol were prepared for Zanahary (Malagasy for God) when permission to cut down a tree was sought, and whose acceptance came in a dream. The ritual is still in existence, with a modern condition that the permitted tree is fell using an axe, not a chain saw. In other parts of Madagascar, it was believed that the spirits of departed loved ones resided in trees and that anyone who cut them down risked getting possessed. 

As time and Christianity gradually erased these traditions, the value of forests was less protected. Trees were felled for firewood, construction, food, and medicine, often without replenishment. Therefore, the present reality of forests is to provide sustenance, which brings its own set of challenges. Soil erosion, reduced agricultural productivity, pollution, and erasure of cultural practices are some of the notable consequences of this shift. 

What does that mean for the future of forests in Madagascar? Finding a balance of the two extremes is critical. While this is easier said than done, it is certainly possible! For starters, a clear governance policy on environmental and forest protection must be developed and strictly enforced. This should be quickly followed by intensive civic awareness activities, to ensure that local communities are properly educated on conservation and sustainable management of forests. 


Value as a dynamic concept 


The “true” value of forests is a collection of varying perceptions and knowledge, which are all products of interconnected systems. Participants made it clear that advocacy and communication around value must reflect the needs of local people and emphasize that forests are a source of life for everyone; therefore, if everyone benefits, then everyone is responsible for conservation. 


Sarobidy Rakotonarivo, Interdisciplinary Social Scientist from the University of Antananarivo, was categorical about governance frameworks that empower local communities, saying, “While we must take urgent steps to protect globally important biodiversity, we need to resist the urge to cut corners. Implementing a socially-just and rights-based approach to conservation is a slow and difficult process. It is those people at the forest frontier holding an axe that have the biggest influence over what happens. We can have endless dialogues like this, but unless these people making decisions about how they farm are genuinely empowered, and their rights to land and adequate safeguards are recognized, I'm afraid that forest loss will persist.” 

For most participants, the value of forests is focused on economic, environmental and socio-cultural benefits, with the overarching view that forest preservation should directly provide income to local communities through activities such as eco-tourism and honey production. 

Beyond income, health and sustainable research were mentioned as complementary values of forests.   


As for advocacy and awareness on the value of forests, participants agreed that strengthening contacts and relationships between local communities and donors should be prioritized. Building trust between the two groups will help to more effectively develop and implement solutions, and in the long-term help with smoother separation when donor support is phased out. Regarding the content of public awareness campaigns, participants offered several key topics of focus, including: (1) biodiversity conservation and values; (2) rapidly shrinking forest cover; (3) guidelines for tourists who visit the forests.  



Integrated Forest Management and Conservation (IFMC) 

Even with a call for a clear policy on forest protection, participants discussed existing national and private sector initiatives that call attention to the importance of proper forest management frameworks. They include, but not limited to: 


  1. SNABE (national strategy for wood-energy supply): This is a strategy proposed by the government of Madagascar with strategic axes to support the growth of wood energy supply, promote the reduction of wood energy consumption, establish essential framework conditions (land tenure security, forest regulations and controls, promotion of the adoption of substitute energies) 


  1. Alliance Voahary Gasy (AVG): This is a platform bringing together about thirty member organizations for better management of natural resources, aiming to influence the government to implement policies and laws that favor a more sustainable and environmentally friendly economic model, and especially to ensure vulnerable local communities are not on the front lines of environmental damage. AVG offers advocacy, training, and application that compiles environmental laws to popularize them.  


  1. Fair Trade Certifications: Usually coordinated by private sector actors for financing and conservation partnerships.  


Creating a collective vision 

The event concluded with the generation of a collective vision, as outlined in the image below: 


Illustration: Catmouse James

As the regional dialogues have now come to an end, insights and lessons learned from all four events will form the basis of a larger connected experience at a virtual Global Dialogue slated for 1st and 2nd October, and later at the 16th Conference of the Parties of the Convention for Biodiversity. As the Wyss Academy, we are excited for this collective wisdom to turn into tangible, real-world impact! 

Photo credit: Daria Vuistiner


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