“We can’t invent money”

Why did Conservation International leave? In short, the money ran out. “We can’t invent money,” said Leon Rajaobelina, who ran the group’s programs in Madagascar from 1996 to 2015. “If the funders say ‘there’s no money,’ there’s no money.”

CI spokeswoman Jenny Parker McCloskey explained that the main source of funding in Bongolava was a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation that ended in 2012. Asked why an organization as large as CI, which works in more than 1,000 protected areas in 77 countries, was not able to continue funding work in Bongolava by other means, she wrote, “That was not a viable path. We are a non-profit organization and must raise all the funds we spend. Many of our funds are in fact restricted, which therefore limits our ability to redirect funds between countries or sites. While we can always do more if we secure more resources, we had to make tough decisions about where in Madagascar to focus our efforts based on our available resources.”

Map shows Bongolava Forest Corridor (unlabeled) and the adjacent Ankarafantsika National Park in green. Inset shows the protected areas’ location in Madagascar. Maps courtesy of ArcGIS.
Map shows Bongolava Forest Corridor (unlabeled) and the adjacent Ankarafantsika National Park in green. Inset shows the protected areas’ location in Madagascar. Maps courtesy of ArcGIS.

Bongolava was part of a wave of new protected areas created on the heels of a 2003 pledge by then-president Marc Ravalomanana to triple the extent of Madagascar’s protected areas in five years. Ravalomanana’s commitment, known as the “Durban Vision,” drew strong support from donors and international NGOs despite a widespread and longstanding view that Madagascar lacked the capacity to manage even its existing protected areas effectively. Ongoing reforms of the forestry administration and policies around community environmental management quickly took a backseat to the new initiative. As a representative of one Madagascar NGO told the researcher Catherine Corson in 2005, “All attention is on the Durban Vision.”

But the political winds in Madagascar changed quickly: Ravalomanana was deposed in a coup d’état in March 2009, prompting many donors to curtail existing funds for environmental programs or postpone making additional grants.

Conservation International laid off one-third of its staff in Madagascar and relocated its Antananarivo office from an upscale address in the downtown business district to a far more modest locale. Charles Séméon, CI’s lone full-time employee in the field in Bongolava, had drawn his last paycheck by June 2012, just as commercial corn farming really took off.

It may be unrealistic to expect conservation organizations to weather political crises without consequence. But the fate of orphan sites like Bongolava raises questions about the model that has shaped much of Madagascar’s protected area network, which has often prioritized planning and process-oriented work by technical staff based in Antananarivo over community engagement and a continuous presence in the field.

“To tell you the truth, CI wasn’t present at Port Bergé,” said Miandrimanana. “The problem with CI is simple. There are too many salary costs in Tana and not enough budget that actually made it here. If somebody’s in Tana, for them to come and do work, you’d have to pay for the 4×4 for gas, you have to pay for the per diem, you have to get a room, and those are big costs,” he said.

By the time CI withdrew from Bongolava, the group had been working in the area in various capacities for 15 years. Between 1998 and 2003, CI funded studies in Bongolava (then a forest reserve under the Ministry of the Environment, Ecology and Forests) geared toward “enhancing the development of natural resources,” according to the group’s website. With funding from USAID, CI also supported studies on bush meat, water resources and food security in five communities around Bongolava. There were surveys of flora and fauna before Bongolava’s temporary protected status in 2006, and afterward, in 2009, book-length plans on social safeguards and management of the protected area.

Rainbow milkweed locusts (Phymateus saxosus) in Bongolava. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.
Rainbow milkweed locusts (Phymateus saxosus) in Bongolava. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

Well over 50 new protected areas were created in rapid succession following the Durban Vision announcement. During this period, big NGOs like Conservation International came to function increasingly as clearinghouses, responsible for distributing donor funds and providing technical support to local partners rather than conducting the bulk of their conservation work directly. Within a $6 million grant from USAID, for example, CI made sub-grants to the National Association for the Management of Protected Areas in Madagascar (since renamed Madagascar National Parks), the international NGOs Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), as well as smaller NGOs. In Bongolava, programming that engaged local communities directly was done primarily by a small community group, Fikambanana Bongolava Maitso (“Association for a Green Bongolava,” or FBM). It had 10 bicycles, a single computer, and no prior experience in conservation.

“The truth is that [NGOs] wanted to reach the 6 million [hectares],” about 23,150 square miles, said Gérard Rambeloarisoa, who runs the Madagascar Biodiversity Fund, a national foundation that supports the protected area network, referring to the target for protected area coverage under the Durban Vision. “They didn’t anticipate the crisis. So, they said to themselves, in 2006, 2008, ‘there’s a lot of financing if we want to create protected areas’ … and then, in 2009, everything was cut short.”

The shrinking footprint of conservation groups during the years of Madagascar’s post-coup transitional government, from 2009 to 2014, left a dozen areas created under the Durban Vision with some legal protected status but no funding to manage them. Taken together, these orphan sites cover more than 4,000 square kilometers (1,544 square miles), an area about the size of Glacier National Park in the U.S. and larger than Madagascar’s single largest protected area. In some cases, the areas were left without a sponsoring organization. By default, they came under the aegis of Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forests, which was upended by constant changes in leadership and lacked the resources to run programs on the ground.

The number of these orphan sites has since declined to seven, according to Rambeloarisoa, as the Madagascar government and its partners look for funders and organizations to take them in hand. But, he said, it is hard to undo the damage of an interim period with no oversight.

A protected area in Bombetoka Bay, for example, which covers 460 square kilometers (178 square miles) of wetlands in northwestern Madagascar, one of the largest remaining tracts of mangrove forest in the country, was spearheaded by the Madagascar NGO FANAMBY, then abandoned in 2009. “Now, I just learned there’s an aquaculture farm inside the park,” said Rambeloarisoa, adding that Chinese investors had illegally logged mangroves inside the protected area to grow crabs for export. “That doesn’t just fall from the sky! It’s done with local authorities,” he said. But the local NGO currently listed as the protected area’s sponsor has no funding whatsoever, he said, “even the small amount it would take to put someone there to find it.”

“I saw the destruction”

Miandrimanana grew up on the fringes of Bongolava, exploring the woods near the village where his father still works as a school principal. He charted CI’s progress toward conserving the area on trips home while he studied botany at college in the capital. In those years, Miandrimanana said, the main threat to the landscape came from pockets of slash-and-burn agriculture, when fires sometimes spread out of control as people cleared fields for planting.

Bongolava is home to at least one endemic species of mouse lemur and several endemic plants, as well as a number of species found only there and in Ankarafantsika National Park, which lies directly to the south. It’s a mixture of lakes, open grasslands cleared by fire long ago, and vestiges of dry deciduous forests that represent one of the most threatened ecosystems in Madagascar. CI’s project documents offer a mix of caution and sweeping ambition for transforming it into a model of sustainable management and development.

In 2009, a CI analysis found, hopefully, that threats to Bongolava’s biodiversity were still relatively weak. Only 13 percent of the area’s nearly 9,000 households practiced slash-and-burn farming, and most of them did so not out of necessity but because they “don’t want to dirty themselves in the mud of rice paddies,” the analysis asserted. But the organization’s five-year plan noted that the project scored 27 out of 100 on a “management effectiveness index” developed by USAID and WWF for conservation projects. “Since the protected area has not been formally created, the resources mobilized, the management process, and the strategies implemented are all relatively ineffective,” it cautioned.

As such, the plan set what it described as “necessarily modest” targets for work through the end of 2014: “For starters, the aim is only to maintain, not improve, the state of biodiversity and the local standard of living.” But the document nevertheless outlined a sweeping set of changes required to achieve those goals. These included the imposition of a tax on the harvest of raffia (a type of plant used to make baskets and other handicrafts), the creation of a land registry for residents of the 54 communities bordering the protected area, the launch of associations of farmers, ranchers and charcoal producers capable of enforcing environmental restrictions on one another, and a transition to sustainable rice farming techniques — all within five years.

Charles Séméon, whose job as Conservation International’s only full-time employee on the ground in Bongolava ended in 2012. He now works as the personnel director for FBM, the group now managing the protected area. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.
Charles Séméon, whose job as Conservation International’s only full-time employee on the ground in Bongolava ended in 2012. He now works as the personnel director for FBM, the group now managing the protected area.
Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

According to Charles Séméon, delegations of two to three people from CI’s headquarters in the capital visited Bongolava roughly every two months in the late aughts. The rest of the time he worked with local forestry officials and members of FBM. Although he remained on staff until 2012, he remembered CI’s engagement on the project tapering off sharply after the coup. Beginning in 2009, he said, “We had a few thousand dollars left, and we worked until it was spent.”

Halfway into CI’s five-year work plan, when the group cut Séméon loose and pulled out of Bongolava for good, the borders of the protected area still hadn’t been fully marked, and there was no programming to speak of aimed at its major objectives on the ground, according to Séméon, as well as members of FBM, government forestry officials, and community residents. CI spokeswoman McCloskey disputed this characterization in an email, saying that forest patrols and support for livelihood activities were both active at the time, but declined to provide any records that would support this assertion.

“FBM kept going for as long as they could,” said Miandrimanana, who made use of trips home to keep tabs on Bongolava’s progress. But he said it was obvious that the group was not up to the task of taking over.

Gerard Ramarolahe, the forestry official in the district at the time, was more candid, faulting CI for abandoning a project midstream. “They stopped without the work having been done. They handed the work over to FBM. And FBM were sitting there like children’s toys: They didn’t have any funding, any pay, any means of transportation. All they had were people.”

At the same time, a number of factors steadily increased pressure on the forest: corn prices rose dramatically across Madagascar, domestic chicken production continued to expand, and a deep drought across the south sent a wave of migrants looking for work and land in other parts of the country.

“Every time I went on vacation,” Miandrimanana said, “I saw the destruction.”

“It’s complicated”

The land rush had begun a year earlier with a group of young men whose rice paddies filled with sand in the floods that followed Cyclone Bingiza in 2011. After they planted their first corn crop inside Bongolava, it didn’t take long for much of the district to join in.

Public officials looked the other way, or, in some cases, actively encouraged people to clear the forest, and even participated themselves. “When we receive requests to clear land, they have signatures of the village leaders and the local mayors,” said Raphael Razafindraibe, a forestry officer based in Port Bergé who has jurisdiction over permits to clear or cut wood on public lands. “Even the sheriff’s deputies and the police pay people to cultivate inside the protected area,” he said.

Conservation International’s departure from Bongolava left the protected area in a tenuous position. The order giving Bongolava temporary protected status had expired years before; turmoil in the transitional government in Antananarivo meant that high-level approval to make protections permanent were still a long way off. But Bongolava had been considered a public forest reserve for decades, allowing modest use of medicinal plants and lumber for construction. Did CI’s departure mean that the old rules applied once again, or that no rules applied at all?

At the courthouse in Port Bergé, chief clerk Gabriel Heritiana Rahalison sits surrounded by tall stacks of handwritten case files, suggesting that no one in Port Bergé has gotten a definitive answer. In the last five years, he said, the court had been overwhelmed with property line disputes that arose inside Bongolava. “It’s complicated. The land belongs to the state, and it’s also a protected area. Neither [party in a dispute] is an owner,” Rahalison said. “The law says you can’t touch it. But people refuse — people destroy each other’s crops. It’s not up to the court to tell people they can’t go in the area,” he said.

With no organization actively pushing for conservation on the ground, overlapping layers of corruption filled the void and muddied any issue the court was supposed to resolve. In one of dozens of similar cases, a woman named Justa Manitra and her neighbor, Tsimiholiby, had received signed (but illegal) authorizations from the forestry office in 2012 to cultivate neighboring parcels inside Bongolava. Manitra had loaned her parcel to Tsimiholiby for two years, but the two had a falling out, and the court was asked to determine who was entitled to an illegal harvest that both of them claimed. The court sided with Manitra.

Hervé Jukihambana, a wholesaler who has been one of the main buyers driving corn’s expansion in Bongolava since 2012, told Mongabay the destiny of the protected area would ultimately be determined not by the rural people living nearby, but by the civil servants and businessmen in Port Bergé who had taken advantage of the confusion following CI’s withdrawal. “The peasants … will follow the people in the city. If they expand production, so will the peasants. If they withdraw, so will the locals.”

“Family is a weakness and a strength

After years of purgatory under Madagascar’s chaotic transitional government, the protected area gained permanent status in February 2015. It would take another two years for Miandrimanana to resuscitate FBM, secure approval from the environment ministry for FBM to become Bongolava’s official manager, and, this past March, receive a three-year, $185,000 grant to jumpstart operations. Charles Séméon signed on as the personnel director, managing the team of section chiefs that work in each zone of the protected area. The funding marked a return of sorts for CI’s involvement in Bongolava: it came from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, a consortium that includes the World Bank and the European Union in addition to Conservation International, and is run out of their Arlington, Virginia, headquarters.

In the interim, Miandrimanana has spent much of his time in Port Bergé trying to prod the various pieces of the local bureaucracy to work in concert. He sent out more than 60 copies of the protection decree to every relevant government office in the district. When, a year later, the second-in-command at the sheriff’s office complained that he still hadn’t seen it, Miandrimanana told him he should ask his boss — well known as one of the officials who has paid sharecroppers to clear parcels of protected forest.

And he hasn’t hesitated to use his ties to the community in Port Bergé to exert leverage in favor of conservation. Recently, Miandrimanana has been fighting to block an application working its way through the district land office, in which a local businessman is seeking permission to clear 1,200 hectares (about 3,000 acres) of forest in Bongolava’s core. “He’s already cleared and planted on a big piece of it, and he’s trying to make things official before he invests too much more,” he said. “He wants the whole forest. It’s dangerous. And you know what? It’s my father’s cousin.”

“That’s what I was talking about with my father this morning,” Miandrimanana added. “Family is a weakness and a strength” — a liability if the conservationist-in-chief is seen as having relatives who flout the law, and a foothold to use to gain traction when all other measures fail.

“It’s not time to abandon this work”

Corn does not have limitless potential in Bongolava. One morning this summer, Miandrimanana led a small convoy of motorcycles through the heart of the protected area to take stock of the recent destruction. At the northern end, charred stumps and wisps of blackened corn husks stood out in a barren panorama. The soil underfoot was deep red and as fine as dust. But nearly everywhere there was still forest, Miandrimanana explained, it was over sandy soil not nearly so conducive to agriculture. At least some of the forest, he hoped, would be spared by its geology.

The task ahead is to convince farmers that they have more to gain from fighting erosion and drought than from burning their way to a few years of solid harvests. According to Jukihambana, the wholesaler, yields on former forest land have already declined significantly as the soil’s nutrients become depleted, and corn prices have dropped by 40 percent compared to 2012.

But FBM is still far too weak to roll back incursions from corn growers without building more community support, Miandrimanana said. “Our priority isn’t convincing people to leave the protected area, but that it’s possible to grow corn elsewhere,” he said. And as long as they haven’t managed that, fire is an ever-present threat.

A fire, likely set by someone clearing their field after a corn harvest, that spread on open farmland in Bongolava, threatening the forest on the other side of the ridge. Video by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.


Miandrimanana stopped his motorcycle at the top of a ridge and got off to survey the valley below, where smoke rose in thick gray plumes over a wide expanse of dry farmland. Someone’s attempt to clear their fields after harvest had gotten out of hand. The crackle of 3-meter (10-foot) flames whipping through green underbrush was audible from 100 meters (about 100 yards) away. Scores of raptors glided overhead, waiting for the blaze to smoke out rodents and lizards that would be left with nowhere to hide.

Miandrimanana watched the fire for a few minutes, his eyes wet behind his sunglasses, quietly awed by the scale of the work before him. “I don’t know what to say,” he said at last. “This is our real problem: fire. This usually doesn’t happen until September or October.” It was July 5. Had the wind been blowing the other way, the fire might have raced up the hills to the south and east, dangerously closer to the forest in Bongolava’s core. Sandy soil or not, it would still burn.

Sometimes, Miandrimanana said, he wonders why he decided to leave Antananarivo and come home to stare down such a complex problem: the scale of fire damage, the depth of poverty, the tangled knot of corruption, underfunding and incompetence that strangles much of the government. Then again, his choice was made. He’d already convinced his wife and recruited his staff. He’d gotten a grant, and signed a management agreement with the government.

“It’s not time to abandon this work,” he said. “It’s too late to be pessimistic.”

Banner image: Coquerel’s sifaka (Propithecus coquereli), an endangered species that lives in Bongolava. 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.

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


Corson, C.A. (2016). Corridors of Power: The Politics of Environmental Aid to Madagascar. Yale University Press.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Article published by Rebecca Kessler
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,