Madagascar has received more than $700 million in international funding for conservation since 1990, arrayed across more than 500 projects, yet the overall trajectory across the country still seems to be towards rapid declines in biodiversity and natural landscapes.
“Conservation in Madagascar” is an in-depth series by Rowan Moore Gerety that digs into the reasons behind the successes and failures of conservation projects across the highly biodiverse island.
Moore Gerety criss-crossed Madagascar this summer visiting conservation sites and speaking with Malagasy people and conservationists about their experiences.
“Conservation in Madagascar” launches next Monday, October 2.
To travel in Madagascar is to be reminded of just how small we are relative to our pale blue dot of a planet, or even its fourth largest island.
Travel times in Madagascar are often counted in days. When I was planning my trip to report the “Conservation in Madagascar” series on the successes and failures of conservation work there, one piece of advice I got was to “avoid traveling over land whenever you can.” I was dissuaded from visiting one protected area about 200 miles from Toliara, in the southwest, because I was told it would take five days to reach it. To get to another, where a flock of rare ducks was discovered 15 years after researchers thought the species had gone extinct, I learned that traveling the last 25 miles would take close to a full day, not on foot, but in a rented 4×4.
Six weeks on the ground no longer seemed like much time at all to get a look at the state of conservation around Madagascar. I’ve tried, in the stories that Mongabay will run this fall, to pick examples that raise useful questions about the overall trajectory of efforts to conserve biodiversity there. What does it take to conserve even the smallest of protected areas in a landscape prone to wildfire? What have aid dollars done to support the work of Malagasy scientists and the institutions that train them? What are the prospects for projects that can’t rely on long-term support from abroad?
Madagascar has received more than $700 million in international funding for conservation since 1990, arrayed across more than 500 projects seeking to protect the country’s singular biodiversity: some 80 percent of Madagascar’s flora and fauna are found nowhere else in the world.
Today, many conservationists are re-evaluating that spending in the aftermath of a 2009 coup d’état that sent Madagacar into a protracted political crisis and led to significant cuts in funding for conservation. Whatever gains have been made over the years, rural poverty and corruption have both deepened recently, and Madagascar now faces unprecedented population growth as it looks ahead to the prospect of a volatile presidential election next year.
What does durable, effective conservation work look like in that context? Next week, Mongabay starts an extended series based on my reporting from Madagascar in June, July, and August. We will look back on the record of past conservation work in Madagascar and try to evaluate the priorities and models donors are looking to support now and in the future. Madagascar’s ultradiverse wildlife, extreme poverty, political instability, and vulnerability to drought and climate change all make it something of a pressure cooker for conservation work. We hope the lessons from this series might inform conservation efforts in other parts of the world.
Most of Madagascar’s conservation funding to date has been channeled through the National Environmental Action Plan [pdf], usually called NEAP, that spanned a seventeen year period from 1991 to 2008. The World Bank, NEAP’s leading funder, has called it “the most ambitious and comprehensive environmental program in Africa.” During that time, the country rewrote key environmental legislation, trained hundreds of civil servants, and dramatically expanded its network of protected areas under management schemes ranging from national parks and research stations to community-managed forests with funding from carbon offset credits. Along the way, Madagascar has hosted an ever-proliferating roster of NGOs, consultants, and government-affiliated conservation groups whose collective agenda has largely been shaped by international donors.
Many ecosystems would undoubtedly be far worse off today had it not been for their support. But there are also many examples of costly conservation projects that never got off the ground, or whose benefits have been eroded in a few short years, or even days. The overall trajectory across Madagascar still seems to be towards rapid declines in biodiversity and natural landscapes, even as success in meeting the goal of using sustainable agriculture and ecotourism to lift people out of poverty remains the exception more than the rule.
A paper on Madagascar published in the journal Plos ONE last year argued that while investments in the “twin challenges of sustainable development and biodiversity conservation have had positive benefits, they have failed to reverse long-standing trends,” and “barely affected rural people.” One study found that people living near community forestry projects in Madagascar stood to gain a maximum of $50 per year in net economic benefit, while others — still dependent on managed forests, but living farther away — lost out on up to $110 per year through restricted access to natural resources. Leave the negative impacts aside for a moment. Fifty dollars is no small sum in a country where the per capita gross domestic product is less than $500 a year. But it is also likely far too little to transform livelihoods over the long term in places where people are accustomed to making their living off the land.
There is widespread acknowledgement among conservation professionals that many protected areas in Madagascar are not being effectively managed. They point to unstable or insufficient funding, high turnover among key government officials, poor coordination among groups implementing conservation and development programs, and weak to non-existent enforcement of rules and regulations.
Even so, by other measures Madagascar’s protected areas appear to be functioning as critical strongholds. Christian Mahefa, director of Masoala National Park in the country’s northeast, was hired specifically to put the park’s management on sounder footing after a period of widespread illegal logging during Madagascar’s transition government from 2009 to 2014. “Look at a map of forest cover in Madagascar: if you see a forest, it’s in an area being managed by Madagascar National Parks,” Mahefa told me. Examine aerial photos of the perimeter of some of Madagascar’s national parks, and dense, dark green forest shifts abruptly to the tawny brown of bare hillsides. Some data suggest that simply designating land with official protection has slowed the curve of deforestation; protected status can also hold important ecosystems off limits to damaging industrial and agricultural projects.
One challenge in evaluating conservation projects in Madagascar is the stone soup of indicators used in monitoring and evaluation reports, which often include measurements like “kilometers patrolled” or “number of community meetings held” that have no obvious connection to conservation outcomes. And these reports are not necessarily made public to begin with. Nor are NGOs required to disclose their spending on particular projects, making it difficult to gauge the value of each dollar spent to conserve biodiversity.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, a hectare of forest loss in Madagascar does more to diminish global biodiversity than an equivalent area anywhere else on the planet. Leon Rajaobelina, a special advisor to the president who served for 20 years as the head of Conservation International’s Madagascar program, said he wishes donors used concrete, quantifiable indicators like deforestation rates to evaluate conservation projects.
Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a prominent Malagasy primatologist, took a darker view. He lamented what he sees as an unaccountable system in which donors deliver “more money for more deforestation.”
Yet even data on forest loss are not as straightforward as they seem. There is still significant disagreement about how to read historical data on deforestation and how to measure forest loss consistently going forward.
All the same, Rajaobelina argued that there have been unambiguous qualitative benefits to Madagascar’s environmental program. “There has been a monumental leap in awareness of conservation’s importance in the population: they are against trafficking protected species, they say it’s important to protect natural resources, and they are acutely aware of climate change,” he said.
Channeling those beliefs into an effective national program, of course, is a different matter. As one taxi driver put it to me in the capital, Antananarivo, “This is a beautiful country; the problem is the people running it.”
Stories about conservation are often, fundamentally, stories about loss. The best outcome you might hope for in preserving Madagascar’s biodiversity is simply to hold the baseline: to avoid further extinctions and forest loss, and to support a new equilibrium where the pressures of poverty and profit don’t weigh so heavily on the land or the people.
This is work that requires a degree of optimism, and people I spoke to were understandably eager to point to positive momentum wherever they saw it, from growth in marine conservation to the leadership of Malagasy conservationists with a more fundamental stake in their country’s future than their foreign counterparts. So far, though, the baseline they are working to maintain hasn’t stopped moving.
Banner image: Coquerel’s sifaka (Propithecus coquereli) balancing on a bamboo rail. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Rowan Moore Gerety is a reporter and radio producer based in Miami. Read more of his work at www.rowanmg.com.
Ganzhorn J.U., Wilmé L., Mercier J. (2014). Explaining Madagascar’s biodiversity. Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar. IR Scales (ed.): 17-43.
Gorenflo L.J., Corson C., Chomitz K.M., Harper G., Honzák M., Özler B. (2011). Exploring the Association Between People and Deforestation in Madagascar. In: Cincotta R., Gorenflo L. (eds) Human Population. Ecological Studies (Analysis and Synthesis), vol 214.
McConnell W.J., and Kull C.A. (2014). Deforestation in Madagascar: Debates over the island’s forest cover and challenges of measuring forest change. Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar. IR Scales (ed.) (2014): 67-104.
Rasolofoson, R.A, et al. (2016). Impact of Community Forest Management on human economic well-being across Madagascar. Conservation Letters. doi: 10.1111/conl.12272
Waeber P.O., Wilmé L., Mercier J-R., Camara C., Lowry P.P. II (2016). How Effective Have Thirty Years of Internationally Driven Conservation and Development Efforts Been in Madagascar? PLoS ONE 11(8): e0161115.