Fish vs. forests?

Although Madagascar’s west coast boasts one of the largest coral reefs on the planet — and one that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods — from the perspective of global biodiversity, it is the country’s forests that are uniquely important, and uniquely threatened. In an environment where conservation funding has yet to return to levels seen before the global financial crisis in 2008, some question whether biodiversity dollars are best spent on the coast.

“I’m personally worried that forests are starting to get, well, neglected,” said Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, country director for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “There are a number of initiatives in marine which have been famously scuessful, and which are attracting the donors. Now we have a lot of funding for the marine, and now, we even have like a kind of traffic jam of NGOs working on marine issues and the marine areas. And I think it’s getting more and more difficult to find support to work on forests,” she said.

A starfish at low tide in Beheloke (species unknown). Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.
A starfish at low tide in Beheloke (species unknown). Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

Plans for the World Bank’s SWIOFish program in Madagascar took shape on the heels of a 2014 announcement by president Héry Rajaonarimampianina of plans to triple the surface of marine protected areas at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia.

Harris worries that such a high-level political commitment, together with a flood of money, could up-end the delicate policy work that NGOs and their government counterparts have already been collaborating on for years. “The commitment itself, rather like the attraction of this funding that we’re seeing from the [World] Bank, creates such a hysteria and an interest that that interest can inadvertently derail the good work that was going on on the ground,” he said

Since the President’s announcement in 2014, a new regulatory agency to oversee conservation in marine areas has already been created, then disbanded, and reconstituted once again. Meanwhile, legislation or policy reform that might facilitate the work of communities managing the fisheries on their doorsteps has been slow going. “We know that this is the most effective way to rebuild Madagascar’s fisheries and safeguard them — it’s securing rights and empowering communities for management. But the process remains very difficult, costly, obscure,” Harris said.

There are also concerns that many LMMAs aren’t achieving the same economic or conservation benefits as the early successes that have driven their expansion. “We’ve seen this flowering of marine management,” Harris said, in spite of obstacles like vulnerability to climate change, a weak government, and a growing population dependent on dwindling marine resources. But, he added, “Let’s not assume that those areas are being managed effectively. The vast majority of those sites will be lacking in capacity, will have a crying need for sustained support, and won’t have any permanent marine closures within them” — that is, permanent protected areas rather than short-term closures for fisheries management.

It’s not that more money isn’t needed, Harris said, but that more money alone won’t resolve the problems at hand.

Two villages, one reef

The most dramatic expansion of marine conservation work over the past decade has been along Madagascar’s southwestern coast. Blue Ventures has been joined by the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society and the UK-based Reef Doctor on the coast north of Toliara, the capital of the province of the same name. To the south, WWF has added fisheries management to inland programs on the Mahafaly Plateau, stretching almost as far as Madagascar’s southern tip, at Cape Ste. Marie. The expansion has not been without growing pains.

Domoina Rakotomalala, who oversees WWF’s projects in the region, explained the organization’s shift to marine work as a consequence of migration to the coast brought on by drought and deforestation inland. “It started out seasonally, in the early 2000s,” she said, referring to the Vezo’s inland neighbors, the Tanalana. “Farmers and ranchers started to convert themselves to fishermen. That’s where we needed to start working with communities, because they’re not fishermen so much as collectors,” she said. “At low tide, they go out walking on the reef and pick up everything they can find.”

A modest octopus harvest after a day of fishing. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.
A modest octopus harvest after a day of fishing. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

Up and down the coast, the pressure created by this shift from land to sea has destabilized fragile schemes for community fisheries management. In Beheloke, twin villages lie just across a sand road from one another, and fish the same reef. Beheloke Haut is primarily Tanalana, Beheloke Bas primarily Vezo

Tovombolo, the “président fokontany” or elected leader of Beheloke Haut, said it’s true that novice Tanalana ranchers-turned-fishermen have created problems for Beheloke’s reef. “When the reserve opens, everyone goes there, even if they’ve never been before — that’s why they destroy things,” he said, referring to the first few days octopus fishing is allowed. “They don’t know the sea.”

Vezo fishermen complain that many of their Tanalana neighbors don’t respect the seasonal closures at all. “Some fish with mosquito nets,” said Retsipa, or go diving for wild sea cucumbers at night, using flashlights wrapped in condoms. “When you’re using a flashlight, even big fish will come right up to you,” he said.

Map shows the location of Beheloke, Madagascar. Map courtesy of Google Maps.
Map shows the location of Beheloke, Madagascar. Map courtesy of Google Maps.

Years ago, WWF sought to minimize the potential for conflict by creating two separate associations, one in each village, both adhering to the same set of rules and managing the fishery jointly. In practice, as one Tanalana fisherman put it, “The Tanalana association is weak, and the Vezo assocation is strong.”

The gap plays out in both communities. Solotena Manofiky Mahavy, who moved to Beheloke Haut to pastor a church there, said he’d been a member of the Tanalana association for eight years and never received any of the fishing equipment WWF distributed to the group’s leaders. He and others said the equipment was often sold off to the highest bidder or passed out among a select few, and that the association’s members didn’t have the wherewithal to band together and push for new leadership.

“That’s why people don’t follow the rules, because the equipment isn’t distributed fairly,” Mahavy said. “It creates resentment.” Mahavy reached for a box where he kept homemade painted wooden fishing lures and pulled out a flashlight and a condom. He’d grown up nightfishing with a flashlight in his hometown, he explained. “When WWF came and gave a training, I stopped, in hopes that I’d get some equipment, but I haven’t gotten any. So, one day, if I don’t have a good catch, maybe I’ll go out at night again. Life is hard here.”

Pastor Solotena Manofiky Mahavy says he hasn’t gotten any of the equipment distributed by the fishermen’s association in the village of Beheloke Haut, in spite of the permit that comes with being a member. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.
Pastor Solotena Manofiky Mahavy says he hasn’t gotten any of the equipment distributed by the fishermen’s association in the village of Beheloke Haut, in spite of the permit that comes with being a member. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

When it comes to enforcement, Retsipa said the “strong” association is often left flat-footed, able to levy occasional fines on violators without managing to restrict access to the reef on a consistent basis. “Night fishing is our number one problem,” Retsipa said, yet the association does not do night patrols because it doesn’t have the resources to pay anyone for the work. “It’s not easy to ask people to go out at night because they have to get up before dawn to go out and fish,” he said.

Outside the first days after the end of a 90-day closure, the catch continues to suffer. One afternoon as they returned from the reef, diver after diver reached the beach in Beheloke with empty buckets. After an hour, a lone teenager walked ashore with a few pounds of octopus in a mesh bag over his shoulder. “I kept diving,” he said, by way of explanation. “Even after the others went home.”

“Marine is very sexy”

Fourteen years ago, when president Rajaonarimampianina’s predecessor, Marc Ravalomanana, made an earlier pledge to triple the extent of protected areas in Madagascar, the focus was almost entirely on forests. Just one of the three large international NGOs that dominate conservation work in the country had a longstanding marine program, Wildlife Conservation Society’s research on cetaceans in Antongil Bay, and it was limited to a single site. As recently as 2009, the only mention of marine conservation in a newsletter for the Madagascar program of the NGO Conservation International (CI) was a brief recap of a conference held on Reunion Island.

Today, marine conservation is front-and-center in promotional spreads from each of the three so-called BINGOs (for Big International NGOs) working in the country. “CI Bets on the Blue Economy,” blared a headline in April, for instance. The cover of WWF’s 2016 annual report for Madagascar featured a group of women standing in the water with a long strand of rope knotted with clumps of seaweed grown through aquaculture.

“Marine is very sexy,” a senior manager at one of the BINGOs told Mongabay, asking to remain anonymous for fear of alienating donors. The manager recited a list of fads that have grabbed the Malagasy conservation sector since the 1990s: “It was species-focused, then ecosystem-focused, protected area focused. And there are mini-trends: natural capital resources, ecosystem services.”

Asked whether the popularity of marine conservation posed a threat to funding for terrestrial conservation, the manager said, “That’s what I’m living now.”

“I think this world of international development and conservation is a world of trends,” wrote Benjamin Garnaud, a project leader for SWIOFish2, in an email to Mongabay. “The current trend is oceans, the blue economy, etc. It’s very much the case at the World Bank (not only in Madagascar)!”

How much can the private sector help?

One important element of the trend is a push for private-sector partnerships, not just in octopus or lobster exports, but in aquaculture, which turns the barren sandy bays opposite many fishing villages into underwater farmland. Sea cucumbers are grown in large pens cleaned of predatory crabs each week. Clumps of red seaweed (Kappaphycus alvarezii) are tied onto long ropes where they swell in the space of a few weeks, like grapes on a vine.

In July, Julienne Dany Andrien waded out into the bay by Beheloke Bas to untangle her lines of seaweed after high winds had kept her out of the water for close to a week. Traditionally, she explained, fishing for octopus was women’s work; men began to take over when the fishing got worse. “Before this, there was nothing to do,” she said. “When we went to look for octopus, there were no octopus. Then, after that, we started to plant manioc, but there was no rain.”

Andrien said income from growing seaweed with her daughter had allowed them to send her grandkids back to school after more than a year when there was no money for tuition.

Carageenan extracted from seaweed is widely used in the food insdustry as a gelling or thickening agent. Indian Ocean Trepang (IOT), a French-financed, Madagascar-based affiliate of the main octopus buyer in the region, also buys dried seaweed for 500 ariary a kilo, earning Andrien $20 to $25 in a good month.

ulie Dany Andrien, who grows seaweed with her daughter, says fishing got so bad that the family couldn’t pay school fees for her grandchildren. She says the income from seaweed has enabled them to send the kids back to class. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.
Julie Dany Andrien, who grows seaweed with her daughter, says fishing got so bad that the family couldn’t pay school fees for her grandchildren. She says the income from seaweed has enabled them to send the kids back to class. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

The main advantage of seaweed farming is that it’s an expanding resource. Unlike fishing, a community’s overall production increases as more people join in. There are also residual benefits: knotty fields of seaweed create a sparse habitat that attracts fish to sandy-bottomed bays where before there were none. And, as one fisherman said, “When people plant seaweed, they won’t touch the reef.”

All this relies on a three-way partnership between communities, NGOs, and companies like IOT: NGOs help communities form and manage growers’ associations that allow them to work collectively and interact with the government, while IOT provides a market and technical training on how to farm seaweed.

Rakotomalala said WWF has taken a conscious step back from efforts to fund livelihood activities outright, as it often has on land, opting instead to act as a bridge between communities and the private sector. One consequence of that, she said, is that “We’re really working with percentages of the community, not the whole community.”

“We do choose winners,” said Benjamin Pascal, who oversees community relations and aquaculture training for IOT, which currently enjoys a monopoly as a seaweed buyer on the southwest coast. “Our goal isn’t to bring along 100 percent of people —we’re doing the work of the private sector — but if we can get 20 percent of people to do good work, that’s great. That brings more money into the village, and people who own farms can become mini-entrepreneurs.”

NGOs have had difficulty persuading the company to offer producers higher prices. Even the most successful seaweed farmers in the region earn roughly $100 a month, while most earn far less, said Emma Gibbons, country director for Reef Doctor. That makes it hard to see seaweed farming as a path to development as long as fish stocks continue to decline. “There’s a big line,” Gibbons said, between providing an alternative livelihood to fishing and simply providing additional income.

Sea cucumbers have the potential to be more lucrative for local farmers, but only, Pascal said, as long as IOT continues to provide affordable hatchery-raised baby sea cucumbers for farmers to raise on their own. For the time being, he said sea cucumbers amounted to a kind of “corporate social responsibility” program. Over time, it’s one that could be threatened by plans to expand aquaculture operations run directly by the company. Asked when village-level sea cucumber farming might be sustained without support and financing from NGOs, Pascal said, “For us, never.”

As it is, he said, NGOs’ and donors’ appetites for expanding seaweed farming along the coast has outstripped IOT’s capacity to provide technical oversight that guarantees the company a quality product. In Beheloke, for instance, WWF began providing seaweed farming equipment without technical support from IOT, and Pascal said it showed in poor yields there.

“[IOT] was reluctant to expand at first,” he said. “WWF wanted to do seaweed, but their guy was never in the water. He verified the work remotely….So we started to do it, rather than see people discouraged and make it harder to start again.”

Breaking down the project mentality

To hear Dieudonné tell it, the coast north of Toliara is already littered with the remnants of conservation and development projects that have come and gone. Now in his sixties, Dieudonné has served in a variety of roles in nearly every project that has come through his hometown of Andrevo, 30 miles north of the city.

In 1998, the United Nations Development Programme created the Association LOVASOA to oversee new drinking water wells and distribute fishing equipment; in 2004, the association was given a large boat with outboard motors so fisherman could reach richer waters farther off the coast. Dieudonné said the boat was used twice and then abandoned because fuel was too expensive to make the trip worth it: it lay around until 2008, when it was finally stolen. In 2001, the World Bank provided a grant to create a fishing permit scheme that folded a year later. Another defunct association, FITAHIANSOA, was created in 2003 as a vehicle for a different project distributing fishing equipment. In 2008, the French NGO Trans Mad’Developpement launched a sea cucumber farming operation that ran out of money within two years.

Dieudonné said just one fisheries-related community group, the FIKASOA association, has managed to survive all these comings and goings, but it still has trouble getting traction with the NGOs that come to town. “Each time there’s a new project, we ask for a list of materials” to help improve fishing or expand access to seaweed farming, Dieudonné said, “and we never get an answer.”

Dieudonné looks over drying seaweed near his home in Andrevo, north of Toliara. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.
Dieudonné looks over drying seaweed near his home in Andrevo, north of Toliara. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

“Throughout all the villages, you’ll find shells of associations,” said Gibbons of Reef Doctor, who has lived and worked in the area for 14 years. “Projects come in and last two, three, five years, but there’s no integration with projects that are already ongoing.”

Twin challenges evident all along the southwest coast threaten to undermine effective community-level fisheries management: first, the need to make associations and other community fishery organizations strong enough to withstand conflict or gain leverage working with non-profit or private-sector partners, and second, the need to fill the void left by a mostly absent government.

Harris, of Blue Ventures, argued for “breaking down the project mentality” that has contributed to some of the churn in Andrevo. He credits much of Blue Ventures’ success to a long-term commitment to the same group of places and communities, facilitated by funding from two private foundations, the Helmsley Charitable Trust and the MacArthur Foundation. Recently, both of those foundations decided to draw down their programs in Madagascar in marine and terrestrial conservation alike. In each case, the decision followed the death of a foundation trustee who had been an advocate of conservation.

To Harris, it underscored another risk that comes with any trend: there’s no telling how long it will last.

Banner image: Sanazy, from Beheloke Haut, says “hunger” pushed her to start farming seaweed three years ago: she earns about $20 from the crop during her best months. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

Rowan Moore Gerety is a reporter and radio producer based in Miami. Read more of his work at www.rowanmg.com.

This is the fifth part of Mongabay’s multi-part series “Conservation in Madagascar” being published during the fall of 2017. The entire series will be collected here.

Citations

Oliver, T.A., Oleson, K.L., Ratsimbazafy, H., Raberinary, D., Benbow, S., & Harris, A. (2015). Positive Catch & Economic Benefits of Periodic Octopus Fishery Closures: Do Effective, Narrowly Targeted Actions ‘Catalyze’Broader Management?. PloS one, 10(6), e0129075.

Bringing in the day’s seaweed harvest in the village of Beheloke. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.
Bringing in the day’s seaweed harvest in the village of Beheloke. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

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