Together, We Thrive: How Community Support Can Make a Difference in Forest Conservation

Analysis of early data from a USAID-funded activity in Madagascar may reveal an important insight into how best to protect forests, encourage tree planting, and improve human well-being. The answer lies within the communities themselves.

Thriving, Tangible and Sustainable Investments for Land Restoration and Economic Opportunity – TSIRO, which means “flavor” in the local Malagasy language – addresses threats to Madagascar’s biodiversity by supporting cacao and spice farmers and promoting sustainable practices such as agroforestry. The partnership, known as the "TSIRO Alliance," unites local and international private and nonprofit organizations, including Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA), Beyond Good, Guittard Chocolate, Akesson’s Organic, Sahanala, and the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP), as well as technical partners, Centre ValBio and the Bristol Zoo.

TSIRO is one of 17 programs that make up the USAID Health, Ecosystems, and Agriculture for Resilient, Thriving Societies (HEARTH) global portfolio, a cutting-edge initiative that partners with the private sector across multiple sectors such as climate, health, biodiversity, and agriculture. A major component of all HEARTH programs is rigorous monitoring and evaluation to build the evidence base around the effectiveness of integrated strategic approaches.

Beyond Good farmers in Ambanja, Madagascar. Credit: Beyond Good

Beyond Good farmers in Ambanja, Madagascar. Credit: Beyond Good

Gathering that data and evidence is essential to adaptively manage programs and to inform and improve development strategy. To measure the success of TSIRO, USAID’s Integrated Natural Resource Management activity conducted a baseline survey of 755 participating households from July to August 2021. The team asked households about their income, lifestyles, and environmental perceptions and actions.

While the main purpose of this data is to monitor and evaluate TSIRO’s work, it also provides insight about program participants and their interactions with each other and the environment. This data reveals that household membership in a community organization, such as a mutual savings, agricultural, or religious group, is correlated with multiple positive behaviors such as tree planting and the use of natural resource management practices.

Environmental Appreciation and Protection

On average, households that are active in their communities scored 2 points higher on a 16-point survey of how important they believe their ecosystem to be1 and were 25 percent more likely to believe their ecosystem to be under threat.2 They were also more likely than non-members to act on those beliefs, as shown in the graph below.


Many households in this survey recognized the importance of environmental protection but may have been unable to act on those beliefs due to the lack of information, credit, and safety nets necessary to implement natural resource management practices like agroforestry, irrigation, and erosion control. Further research is needed to support this hypothesis, however, it is possible that group membership provides families with these and other resources. Families may be more likely to try a new sustainable agricultural technique if they are part of an agricultural group that will teach them about the technique, a credit group that can loan them money for the supplies, or an insurance group that will protect them and their families if the technique does not work out.

This increase in natural resource management is particularly important in Madagascar, which is losing its forest cover partly due to unsustainable agricultural practices. According to the graph below, households who participated in groups were twice as likely to plant trees in the past three years as other households. This could have a substantial impact on the forests of Madagascar and the diverse species that live there. Members of community groups were also far more likely to be planting trees for their permanent ecosystem services, such as shade and erosion control, rather than to cut down for firewood, charcoal, or timber in the future.3 While both motivations are helpful for rebuilding and protecting Madagascar’s forests, the former can have an even greater impact, especially on the wider ecosystem.

Social Cohesion and Poverty Reduction

The environmental benefits described above may stem from the resilience, education, and empowerment derived from membership in a community organization. Households whose members participated in community groups were less likely to live in poverty, suggesting that groups such as trade associations and producer’s groups can help boost families’ income. These organizations may provide important access to resources, markets, credit, and knowledge shared among families.

Social households were also more likely to be food secure than non-social households, even at the same income level. This suggests that group membership can help insulate families from shocks by promoting resilience through shared resources. Member households were also four times more likely to achieve minimum dietary diversity,4 suggesting that groups can go beyond pure quantity in food assistance to ensure that families are receiving all necessary nutrients for their health and development.

Impact for Communities and Future Development Programs

These findings, summarized in the correlation plot below, show the potential of strong social groups to improve environmental, physical, and economic health within communities. The exploratory analysis presented here underscores the importance of the rigorous data collection and monitoring efforts that are characteristic of all HEARTH activities. Future data collection efforts planned for the TSIRO activity will allow researchers to further explore the hypothesis that Malagasy community groups are important for both poverty reduction and environmental protection. With confirmation from this analysis, promoting membership in community groups could become part of a long-term strategy for the protection of Madagascar’s forests and increased well-being for local communities.

Data and analysis documentation:


1Members had an average score of 13, non-members had an average score of 11.

89% of members versus 71% of non-members

383% of members who planted trees planted at least some for their permanent ecosystem services, versus 54% of non-members who planted trees.

4 28% of members versus 7% of non-members

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Stella Banino is a Virtual Student Federal Service Intern with USAID’s Health, Ecosystems, and Agriculture for Resilient, Thriving Societies (HEARTH) program. Kelvin Gorospe is an American Association for the Advancement of Science Biodiversity Fellow in USAID’s Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation.