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Safeguarding Madagascar's biodiversity

With the ears of a bat, the teeth of a rat, large eyes and a long middle finger, the aye-aye is one of over 90 types of lemur found only in Madagascar. With a landscape ranging from lush tropical rainforests to more arid, spiny woodlands, Madagascar is renowned for its unique biodiversity, of which more than 80 per cent is found nowhere else on earth. But this distinctive habitat is under threat.

Tavy causes degradation and erosion of the landscape (WWF/Meg Gawler)
Tavy causes degradation and erosion of the landscape
WWF/Meg Gawler

With illegal felling for firewood, charcoal and tavy (traditional forms of slash-and-burn to clear the forest for rice cultivation), it is estimated that 80 per cent of Madagascar's forests has already been lost. Since a military coup in March 2009, criminal gangs have been exporting rare hardwoods and killing endangered animals, threatening to reverse recent advances in conservation.

In addition to the collapse of the park management system, the harvesting of precious hardwoods was exacerbated by a decree in September 2009, which legalised the export of rosewood. In December 2009, Global Witness reported "unprecedented" levels of illegal activity: in the northeast Sava region alone, the campaign group reported that rosewood worth up to US$460,000 was being illegally harvested every day, degrading some of the world's unique forests "beyond repair".

A conservation model

In the past decade, significant efforts have been undertaken to preserve Madagascar's distinctive biodiversity. In 2003, the government launched an ambitious plan to triple the size of Madagascar's protected areas from 1.7 million to 6 million hectares by 2012, formally safeguarding two-thirds of Madagascar's remaining forest. "We can no longer afford to sit back and watch our forests go up in flames," President Ravalomanana announced.

Recognising the importance of culture and indigenous knowledge in conservation and resource management approaches, the government also established a legal framework to hand control and management of protected resources back to local communities. "National parks restrict multiple uses by communities, whereas in a transferred forest, communities can use multiple forest resources as long as they are sustainably managed," explains Malika Virah-Sawmy, WWF terrestrial programme coordinator. "More recently, I believe community-based natural resource management transfers have protected the forests to a certain extent from illegal logging by criminal gangs because it is in the communities' own interest to sustainably manage these forests," she adds.

Almost 100 per cent of the plant species in the spiny forest are found nowhere else in the world (WWF/Meg Gawler)
Almost 100 per cent of the plant species in the spiny forest are found nowhere else in the world
WWF/Meg Gawler

Madagascar's park management system also ensures that local people benefit from ecotourism, by stipulating that half of park entrance fees are given to local communities. Also, the Foundation for Protected Areas and Biodiversity - a trust fund - was established in 2005 to help maintain and expand Madagascar's protected areas. "The Foundation is now widely recognised as a 'model' foundation for Africa and an anchor for sustainable financing for Madagascar's protected areas system," says Virah-Sawmy.

Another initiative, which provided innovative financing for supporting protected areas, was the US$20 million debt-for-nature swap agreed between the Government of Madagascar and France in 2008. "Stable and predictable revenues are critical to win the battle against deforestation and biodiversity loss in Madagascar," emphasises Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, WWF conservation director.

From politics to climate change

On top of the political turmoil and its ramifications for the environment, climate change is also posing a significant threat to Madagascar's biodiversity. In the arid south, drought in 2009 meant another year of crop failures and cattle deaths. There has also been an acceleration of deforestation for charcoal production, reducing the capacity of forests to capture rain.

To help local tribes make agriculture and livestock practices more environmentally sustainable, as well as more productive in drought affected areas, WWF has been working in the Mahafaly Plateau with a group of farmers to better understand why certain methods initially promoted were not taken up by other farmers. Indigenous knowledge about certain plants and animals to improve soil fertility, rather than using manure which was believed by some local communities to harm the Zebu cattle, is amongst methods that have been found to be more culturally acceptable to local farmers.

In the Mahafaly Plateau, WWF has been helping local tribes make agriculture more sustainable (WWF/Tanya Petersen)
In the Mahafaly Plateau, WWF has been helping local tribes make agriculture more sustainable
WWF/Tanya Petersen

In the Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve, communities have traditionally collected wild fruits and tubers, while zebu herders use trees to supplement fodder resources during dry periods. But with irregular rainfall and increasing frequency of droughts, communities are becoming more dependent on these resources. To help identify and apply strategies to adapt to climate change, the School of Agronomy at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar* has been working with local people to help them manage their natural resources sustainably.

Adapting to the times

Since 2007, the reserve has been managed in partnership with the community, through Kastis (Forest and Environment Committees). According to Jeannin Ranaivonasy, Beza Mahafaly programme coordinator, handing over rights to the community has been very effective. Using forest resources for commercial uses is prohibited, but the collection of forest products for community use is allowed. In return, local people help carry out regular forest patrols to prevent illegal logging and clearing land for agricultural expansion.

Climate change, insecurity, corruption and lack of governance are long-term challenges affecting the Malagasy as well as the country's unique biodiversity. However, rural communities are proving to be resilient and willing to learn and adapt. As the Tandroy say, "undray mandeha no naha manra vary, tsy handevi trotobe": if the rice is not well cooked, there is no need to cut the spoons. In other words, although there are problems, there is no need to give up.

*The School of Agronomy is being supported by the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation and the programme on Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA)

Date published: March 2010


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