Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation

On Saturday January 25th, Hery Rajaonarimampianina was sworn in as President of Madagascar, the first democratically elected President since the government was overturned in 2009.  Turnout was low in the run-off round of balloting in December, the electorate was deeply split, and charges of voter fraud flew thick and fast.  Although the losing candidate subsequently accepted the outcome in an encouraging sign of reconciliation, the new President’s mandate is still fragile, and the task of reconstructing the state, restoring the economy, and breathing new life into civil society is huge.  Yet there was a flicker of hope in Madagascar on Saturday evening that, just possibly, this day marked the new start so desperately sought and needed by the island’s beleaguered people, forests and wildlife.  

Madagascar is at once a place with a breathtaking array of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world and a place where many animals aren’t, and never have been as far as we know.   Bewitching and enigmatic, it is a magnet for metaphor, from “floating laboratory” to Alison Jolly’s encapsulation: “a place where time has broken its banks and flowed to the present by a different channel”.

What difference might Saturday’s events make to the island’s forests and wildlife?  “Too soon to tell”, and “not much in the short term” are the honest answers.  Yet there are grounds for optimism.  Amidst the turmoil of recent years, the grand goal of protecting 10% of the island’s natural habitats launched by President Ravalomanana in 2003, has never been abandoned or repudiated in principle, even though in practice more has been lost than gained since then; while many institutions have faltered, Madagascar National Parks has gathered strength and effectiveness, and a rising generation of Malagasy conservationists reinforces older leaders, bringing new energy, commitment and expertise.

Equally important, Madagascar has proved exceptionally fertile ground for community-based approaches to conservation long nurtured and supported by LCAOF here and elsewhere.   In the absence of strong, stable government at the national level, the direct involvement of communities in protecting their environment has been key to “holding the line” in many parts of the island.

There are several reasons for the particular effectiveness of community-based conservation in Madagascar.  First, from the mid-90s, successive governments developed governance arrangements to share and devolve environmental management to local communities.  Second, Madagascar’s communities are without the deep fissures of ethnicity or religion afflicting communities in so many places in the world, though of course they have their share of local frictions and conflicts like small communities everywhere.  Third, being an island is a shield against the destabilizing effects of refugees fleeing across borders to escape violence in their own countries.  Last but not least, and particularly in southern and western regions of the island, relatively small areas of forest support rich arrays of wildlife:  the scales of natural communities and human communities are unusually well matched.

All these advantages are evident at the Bezà Mahafaly Special Reserve in the southwest, where a strong partnership has evolved between the community, Madagascar National Parks and the School of Agronomy at the University of Antananarivo.  Supported by LCAOF since 1993, the partnership is based on a combination of traditional agreements and governance arrangements developed and recognized nationally.  Now, at the height of the wet season, the forest is green and a very busy place, with tortoises trudging determinedly through the undergrowth, restless sifaka on the prowl in search of mates during the short breeding season, giant Coua strutting their stuff on the forest floor...  The monitoring team recruited from villages around the Reserve has been tracking these and other wildlife populations since 1995.  Populations within the Reserve are broadly stable or growing, and many species are present in high numbers.  Unprotected forests around the Reserve have fared much less well, and it is encouraging indeed that villages adjacent to them are starting to enlist the advice and help of the Bezà team to change that.  

Are efforts like these at Bezà Mahafaly and other sites around the island too small to matter?  No.  Effective national leadership is sorely needed over the long haul, to be sure, but small-scale, community-based approaches are working in Madagascar.  For now, they are a mainstay of conservation here – and more urgent and important than ever.

written by Alison Richard