TNRC Blog The unusual impacts of Covid: Reflections on the links between demand, extraction, conservation, and corruption

The unusual impacts of Covid: Reflections on the links between demand, extraction, conservation, and corruption

The Covid pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the price of Madagascar’s two main export products: vanilla and gold. This has worsened the situation for already vulnerable vanilla farmers and gold miners. With more people forced into illicit activities and unsustainable extraction practices, conservation organizations face a series of interconnected challenges.

Key points

  • Successes of conservation projects designed to monitor and report environmental crime are undermined by potential corruption in the justice sector. Cases of the unexplainable release of charged individuals point towards undue influence over legal proceedings
  • Prior to the pandemic, clearing of forests for illicit vanilla production was a real problem. Covid and economic shifts have led to a significant drop in vanilla prices, but this has not translated to a corresponding decrease in illicit activities. Rather, novel pressures on, and illicit extraction of, other resources have proliferated
  • Pandemic measures such as lockdowns and a suspension of international air travel have restricted gold exports, leading to a local volatility of prices while global prices have hit record highs. Volatility in the market and the precariousness of miners’ livelihoods have added pressure to NGO attempts to manage protected areas
  • These Covid-era dynamics reveal the relationship between global demand, local practices of extraction, and (anti-)corruption to be immensely complex, tied not only to foreign markets and elite behavior, but also to local livelihood and community subsistence strategies amidst increasing precarity

About the research: This blog post summarizes early findings from the New Evidence Research Approach (NERA) initiative of the Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) project. The Madagascar component aims to develop a better understanding of (1) how conservation organizations tailor activities that rely on community participation to (explicitly or implicitly) combat, circumvent, or otherwise navigate corrupt systems and practices; (2) how local community members experience and evaluate these efforts; and (3) how associated outcomes are shaped by broader, multi-level dynamics of corruption (e.g., institutional capture) tied to the presence (or absence) of lucrative resources in the protected areas in question. The NERA initiative is led by the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre and seeks to improve evidence on the ways context affects the outcomes of anti-corruption-related initiatives in renewable natural resource sectors.

In northern Madagascar, initial interviews have helped clarify key challenges vis-à-vis corruption, as well as the ways in which organizations have tried to respond. Illicit resource extraction and use are ubiquitous across the contexts studied, though particular practices and/or the types of resources targeted vary. One of the primary ways in which the conservation projects and organizations involved in our study—USAID Mikajy, FANAMBY, and WWF—have sought to address these pressures has been the enrollment of local community members in monitoring and reporting. Often, local participants are trained to use novel technologies (e.g., SMART or other GIS/GPS tools), and are integrated into periodic “mixed patrols” surveilling protected areas. These patrols include representatives of the forest administration, park managers, and gendarmes or other law enforcement. In some cases—in the MaMaBay region where Mikajy works, for example—local residents have been trained in techniques of “public denunciation” meant to allow for the publicizing of criminal activity while minimizing risk to informers.

Success with communities, problems in the judicial system

Involving local communities in conservation work has been a success. The NGOs have managed to recruit and train community members who have put their new skills to the test. They have used associated monitoring and reporting technologies and techniques, participating in patrols. Their training has proven successful: The work by local community members trained by the NGOs has resulted in the detection, identification, and/or apprehension of numerous individuals engaged in illicit resource extraction and/or use.

It has also become clear, however, that a major threat undermining these efforts lies within the judicial system itself. Across cases, NGO staff cite the propensity for individuals caught and charged with environmental crimes to be quickly and inexplicably released from detention by local judicial courts (tribunals) as a major roadblock. This practice makes any attempts at proper law enforcement difficult. Faced with these problems in the judicial system, community members involved in conservation work feel their efforts are futile, and they end up demoralized and discouraged. As our research continues, we are working to uncover whether there are particular patterns in which offenders tend to be summarily released, whether the nature of their particular offenses matters, and whether there are differences depending on the resource sectors concerned.

The unusual effects of Covid on resource practices

The initial fieldwork also opened our eyes to a new challenge brought on by the Covid pandemic. The suspension of air travel, lockdowns and, as a result, reconfigured value chains, revealed how complicated the globally networked demand for lucrative resources is, and how it shapes local practices and landscapes.

One of the most compelling examples is vanilla cultivation in the MaMaBay region. Mikajy staff cited the clearing of forest for vanilla production as a significant threat to conservation efforts in the region. We might reasonably expect that high global demand would translate to higher levels of pressure, while low demand would result in less. But our conversations with NGO staff reveal the dynamic to be more complex than this. Past high vanilla prices have indeed meant that more land is now used for growing vanilla. Previously, these high prices also led to higher levels of hardwood logging (especially of palisander and nanto), a form of illicit extraction recently made easier by the rapid proliferation of chainsaws. But low vanilla prices (resulting from increased supply and disruptions related to the Covid pandemic) have not translated to less pressure on protected areas nearby. Instead, low prices have prompted vanilla farmers or wage workers (including many migrants to the region) to shift into other, often illicit, forms of resource extraction and use—swidden agriculture, harvesting of wood for construction and/or charcoal production, bushmeat hunting, gemstone mining—to earn a living.

The past several years have seen both record-breaking highs in vanilla prices in 2017-2019, their pandemic-era collapse in 2020, and uncertainty regarding their recovery in 2021. The illicit activities in the MaMaBay region have varied with prices going up and down. Being dependent on lucrative resources like vanilla has left the region vulnerable to booms and busts in myriad ways. Trends in demand have shaped landscapes and economics not only directly (i.e., expanding/contracting cultivation of vanilla), but also indirectly. Interactions with other resources are influenced by the vagaries of global capital flows and the realities of local subsistence. What these developments mean for efforts like Mikajy’s vanilla cooperative—whose vertical integration with certified buyers and exporters is meant to create a value chain insulated from the sector’s broader corruption—remain to be studied.

Gold is another example. While local prices have long tracked global trends, the pandemic era has brought surprising disarticulations. Covid lockdowns and the suspension of air travel to/from the island have severely restricted the transport of gold and capital to/from diggings in northern Madagascar. Consequently, while the international gold price was hitting record highs in late 2020, local prices in the region collapsed, stagnated, briefly recovered, then fell again. This decline and volatility coincided with a major gold strike by local miners in Andrafiamena-Andavakoera, a nearby protected area managed by Malagasy NGO FANAMBY.

Finding a sustainable way forward seems exceedingly difficult. The gold sector is heavily shaped by the involvement of elite, corrupt interests that often undermine enforcement measures in ways similar to the challenges with the judicial system cited above. Local miners are also increasingly struggling to make a living, so there is intense pressure for FANAMBY to allow some sort of extraction to continue. Miners experiencing extreme economic hardship—which locals call chomage (often translated as “unemployment,” though the actual work of extraction has hardly ceased)—sometimes have no choice but to switch to other forms of extraction, especially in nearby forests (e.g., charcoal production, or the harvesting of wood for construction). In other words, they trade extraction of lucrative resources tied to the global market for those used or consumed locally. This, of course, makes the situation even harder for FANAMBY. Working to stop the gold mining altogether might breed resentment in the mining community and drive local workers to undesirable alternatives in the forest; allowing it might undermine perceptions of conservation efforts as well as the integrity of the protected area itself. The organization has been left between a rock and a hard place, with a suite of undesirable alternatives with unclear implications for its “good governance” agenda.

Complexity in the relationship between demand, practices of extraction, and corruption

These snapshots of vanilla in MaMaBay and gold in Andrafiamena-Andavakoera illustrate some of the many challenges the conservation NGOs involved in our study must deal with. They also force us to rethink certain hypotheses underpinning our research: that the presence of high-value resources in a landscape might undermine community-based anti-corruption efforts because robust demand for commodities might lead local people to choose extraction/production over conservation, with high-ranking elites subverting enforcement processes. Our initial findings do not necessarily contradict these conjectures but suggest that the relationship between demand—whether collapsing, stagnating, or skyrocketing—and local practices of extraction and corruption are dynamic and complicated.

Languishing prices in one sector might amplify pressures on other resources; diminished export-commodity-based livelihoods might make enforcement of prohibitions on extractive activities undertaken for subsistence increasingly untenable. As we proceed with community-level interviews, these are some of the many dynamics that remain to be examined in greater detail. The evidence and/or answers to be uncovered will hopefully help reveal further insights on the relationships between global conditions, local resources, and practices of corruption.

© WWF / Martina Lippuner


Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus