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Madagascar's Rich Natural Heritage Is Hanging on a Knife's Edge, Experts Warn

The country's president has a poor environmental record, raising concerns over the preservation of Madagascar's iconic biodiversity.
A man fills a bag with charcoal he and other men made after they cut down a patch of secondary forest near Andasibe in southwest Madagascar.

A man fills a bag with charcoal he and other men made after they cut down a patch of secondary forest near Andasibe in southwest Madagascar.

As President Andry Rajoelina marked 100 days at the helm of Madagascar on April 30th, an international team of conservation experts weighed in on how to shape the country's conservation goals and address persistent challenges. They warned that the fate of the country's rich natural heritage hung in the balance.

The president's record during his last term, from 2009 to 2014, when he rode to power following a coup d'état, does not augur well for natural resource management in the country, but there is room for cautious optimism, according to an opinion piece published in Nature Sustainability.

In a February letter to his ministers, Rajoelina highlighted the importance of reforestation in a country that has lost almost half of its forest in the past six decades. The president went on to announce an ambitious reforestation plan at the One Planet summit in Nairobi in March, pledging to reforest 99,000 acres every year, or the equivalent of 75,000 football fields. However, reforestation is only one aspect of a comprehensive set of recommendations put forth in the recent opinion piece by scientists from Madagascar, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and Finland.

They identified urgent actions to improve the quality of protected areas, which are a primary tool for safeguarding critical ecosystems; bolstering conservation efforts by reinforcing people's rights over natural resources; mitigating impacts of infrastructure projects on biodiversity; curbing environmental crime; and boosting reforestation efforts in response to growing demand for fuelwood.

The critical question for Madagascar, the authors contend, is: How to make conservation work for the people? "Conservation needs to contribute to, and not detract from, national efforts targeting economic development," said Julia P.G. Jones of Bangor University, the first author of the piece. "It must not make situations worse for the rural poor who are so often marginalized in decision making."

Globally, it's a tough balancing act, but for Madagascar the stakes are especially high and conditions particularly challenging. It's the oldest island in the world, having separated from the South Asian landmass about 86 million years ago, and now hosts a plethora of plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth, including at least 100 species of lemurs. It's also one of the poorest countries in Africa; about 75 percent of its population lives below the poverty line.

In many areas of Madagascar forest-dependent communities are paying a hefty price for conservation. Safeguarding carbon stocks and protecting biodiversity in forests has real implications for the food security of local communities, according to Sarobidy Rakotonarivo, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and a co-author of the new piece. "Devolving secure forestland tenure to local people and genuinely negotiating conservation with forest users may be the best way forward for Madagascar conservation and development," Rakotonarivo writes in an email.

Poverty only explains part of the pressure on forests and other resources. Deforestation linked to expanding cash-crop plantations that benefit a privileged few has also taken a heavy toll. So have illegal extraction of precious timber, mining, and wildlife trafficking.

In the face of these mounting challenges, the tenuous state of law and order in the country has only exacerbated the damage. Madagascar fell eight places in the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index between 2016 and 2018, and is currently ranked 107th among 126 countries. "Where there is weak rule of law, elites can take advantage and exploit natural resources for private benefit without paying taxes," Jones said. The authors say corruption and weak regulation are detrimental to both the environment and people.

The size of protected areas in Madagascar expanded fourfold between 2003 and 2016, but the protection they offer is weak. Tree cover loss, an indicator of deforestation, has accelerated in the past few years. In many cases the loss occurs within protected areas. To stem this trend, let alone reverse it, will require much greater investment in protected areas, according to the authors.

The new government has placed infrastructure development at the core of its development strategy.

Madagascar relies heavily on foreign aid to fuel its economy and bankroll conservation. In 2016, a group of donors and investors announced financial support of $6.4 billion for the country, about half of which is earmarked for infrastructure development. On a visit to Madagascar on April 29th, World Bank President David Malpass said the bank would approve $100 million, in addition to the $292 million it has already disbursed since March 1st, for investment in a social safety net for the poorest, land tenure, and electricity projects.

However, a constant flow of aid is not enough, the authors of the opinion piece say. "No amount of international aid can solve Madagascar's biodiversity crisis. Sustained commitment from the national government is essential," the paper says. Conservationists also fear that rapid infrastructure development could give rise to greater environmental damage and biodiversity loss. The authors say the government must do everything it can to limit the impact of these projects on biodiversity.

Promoting tourism poses challenges of its own, but the authors say they believe boosting this sector, as the president plans to do, may benefit local people and drive economic growth—provided the country's biodiversity occupies a place of pride and is effectively protected.

One place that is harnessing this potential is Ranomafana National Park in southeastern Madagascar. The Centre ValBio research station managed by Stony Brook University, established more than 15 years ago, conducts biodiversity research, reforestation, and community health and education outreach in this area. Patricia Wright, founder and executive director of Centre ValBio and a co-author of the opinion piece, said that, since the park was created in 1991 people living nearby have benefited: from being involved in research, working with non-governmental organizations, or through tourism and related activities. Non-governmental organizations working in the area also bring in funds to address security issues and provide relief from natural disasters.

"It is a prime example of what can happen in Madagascar if you do projects long term and give the projects the attention (not just money, but expertise and encouragement) that they need to prosper," Wright writes in an email. "We are expanding our efforts to other regions in order to duplicate this model."

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.