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‘If the Government Is Not Bringing Us Rice, We Have to Slash and Burn’

A conversation with Julie Hanta Razafimanahaka, conservationist and director of Madagasikara Voakajy.

By Rucha Chitnis


Julie Hanta Razafimanahaka. (Photo: Madagasikara Voakajy)

Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is home to staggering numbers of unique flora and fauna. The island’s isolation allowed for the evolution of plants and animals of astonishing diversity, making it a living laboratory for evolutionary biologists. Six of the eight Baobab tree species in Africa are found on the island, for example. It’s also home to all of the world’s species of lemurs, including the Indri, who communicate using haunting, whale-like songs.

Julie Hanta Razafimanahaka is a conservationist and director of Madagasikara Voakajy, a Malagasy group striving to conserve the biodiversity of the region with community participation, Julie’s task is by no means simple. Lemurs are among the most endangered mammals on Earth, and they are co-habiting a fragile ecosystem in a country where nearly 70 percent of humans live below the poverty line. Preserving a dazzling array of endangered endemic species — bats, frogs, chameleons, and baobabs — requires a strategic vision, as well as deep empathy for the realities facing the Malagasy people.

Last year, Hanta Razafimanahaka was awarded the Young Women Conservation Biologists Award by the Africa section of Society of Conservation Biology.

How did your journey begin in biodiversity conservation in Madagascar?

I was born in the capital of Madagascar. I didn’t know much about conservation or the country’s biodiversity until I was in 13, when we went camping in the forest with guides. There we saw the lemurs and the Indri. I loved the song of the Indri. This really inspired me, and was at the back of my mind as I continued my studies.

When I was in the university, I was more interested in agriculture. I wanted to be a big farmer. I still had the dream of traveling and being in nature and seeing the Indri again. In the end I chose to be in the forestry department just because that department is traveling more than others. When I was finishing at university I had to work on a research project, and there was a group that was working on bats. I wrote to them to see if I could work on the research project. The leader of the project mentioned that the project on bats was in one of my dream areas in Madagascar, Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. I had seen this national park in many documentaries, but I knew I would never be able to go to as it was a very long journey and expensive travel.

If the person living near the forest doesn’t decide to cut the trees, then the forest will stay there.

I was the youngest on the team. I didn’t know much about biology, but they were very nice and, soon, I could identity different species of bats. Everyone in Tana [Antananarivo, the capital city] asked me, “Why you would study bats?” These species are neglected. They didn’t know how many species [there are], their biology or ecology. For me it’s good to talk to people about something they don’t know.

After I finished my research, I got my degree, and I became a research assistant. The bat project ended up expanding; we had other people joining the team who were working on chameleons and amphibians. That’s when we started Madagasikara Voakajy in 2005.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing conservation in Madagascar today?

One of the biggest challenges is finding balance between human livelihoods and biodiversity conservation. Much of the richest biodiversity of Madagascar is in remote areas, where people are very poor. They are dependent on natural resources, and they have their traditional ways. They are also poorly educated. And even if there is technology, it’s difficult to adopt and also difficult for technicians to transfer innovations to the community. This always takes time, and by then we have lost a lot of the biodiversity.

Secondly, we have very rich biodiversity but it is restricted to where they are found and restricted in size of the population, making it more difficult for biologists to identity how to best conserve them. We don’t really have facilitates for having species in captivity. And the species themselves are challenging. We are working on frogs that are found in a very small area, for example, and they are dependent on ponds in the forest. There was a project where they were in captivity and they grew very well and we have many now in captivity, but we don’t know where to release them with the degradation that is happening right now.

The third challenge is in the policy of the country. Madagascar has been politically unstable for the past 30 years and things are changing a lot. Every time we change the government, the objectives change, the management changes. There is no continuity between the different governments. This is making it more difficult for groups like us who want to establish protected areas that are permanent.

How are modern challenges such as climate change affecting your conservation efforts and biodiversity?

Climate change, as a concept, is hard to explain in Madagascar; it’s like talking about something that is very subjective. Last year it should have started raining in October, for example, but it didn’t, and we had only two weeks of rain. So people know it’s getting dry. But the other aspect, that the ice is melting or sea level is rising and how it is related to human activity, is difficult to explain.

We talk to people in villages about the law the government has passed to prohibit burning. People are relying on traditions and the traditional way to grow rice is slash and burn agriculture. So people say: “We know it’s getting dry, but we need rice, it’s our food. So if the government is not bringing us rice, we have to burn.” So these are difficult things we have to discuss with the community. Because we are working in rural areas we have to talk about practical things that are easy to understand and discuss as well. The more we can talk with them, the more engaged they will be. We talk more about species loss. We talk about how the important trees like the baobab, for example, could disappear if things continue to be dry and what the impacts could be on humans.


(Photo: Madagasikara Voakajy)

What is the guiding philosophy for conservation of your group? Your group undertakes conservation efforts with community participation. What does that look like?

I strongly believe in engaging local communities. Once, I was doing an interview on bush meat hunting. We are people from the city, educated in university, and we are talking to the communities saying that the population of lemurs was decreasing because of deforestation. One old man stood up and said: “You think they are decreasing. But I tell you that in this forest they are not decreasing, because we have protected them in this community.” He was the elder in the village and was very respected as a traditional leader. And he said: “If we didn’t protect the forest then probably all the lemurs would have disappeared. You can’t come and tell us it is decreasing because you are seeing this in other places.” And it was true. You could hear the Indri.

So I think we can have all the theory and knowledge we want to have, but conservation is the decision of people who are living near the forest. If the person living near the forest doesn’t decide to cut the trees, then the forest will stay there. If they decide to not hunt all the lemurs, they will stay there. I do believe in a community approach.

What does it mean to be a woman doing conservation work in Madagascar? How did you step into your own leadership?

Well, I think there is difference between being a woman in conservation and just being a women leading in Madagascar, and where you are — whether in a big city or rural area. It’s not unusual to have women lead conservation organizations. But in rural areas, generally traditional leaders in Madagascar are old men. My team was working with kids to plant baobabs in the western part [of Madagascar], for example. I was coming to visit the project, and my team told them, “The director is coming to visit the project.” They were waiting and expected to see a tall, old man, and they didn’t see him. When the kids went to their classrooms, two parents asked, “Where is the director?” I said, “It’s me.” They didn’t expect me to be the director.

There are colonial and Western roots of conservation, which have led to the displacement of indigenous peoples in Africa to make way for parks. What’s your perspective on this as a local Malagasy woman leading a conservation group?

That happened in Madagascar when protected areas were first created. Many people around the forests complained about how they were displaced and not compensated as promised. Recently, Madagascar has been creating a new set of protected areas, and these were more bottom-up approaches, unlike the first time, when it was a top-down approach. We talked to the community about the government policy, that it wants to expand protected areas, which has the potential of being where they are. But people were open to contribute to protection, just because they already know the area will be degraded. There is more risk for them to not only lose their forests but also their lands. They are more willing to conserve the forests. The fact now is that we need protected areas to conserve and reduce the impact of climate change. Madagascar is also leaning a lot on eco-tourism, which brings a lot of money. We don’t really have a choice. If protected areas didn’t exist, we would have lost everything.

What is the development in your work that gives you the most hope?

What brings me strength is when you talk to parents and kids, and having the community believe that they can actually make a difference. There is one species of baobabs whose population is very small, for example; a recent paper said there were only 99 individuals. There was a man who had a passion to grow these in a nursery, and he told us he could work with us. We had a few hundred individuals but only few survived. This year, he wanted to do it again and tried different treatments. He was very engaged and designed all the methods and had almost 100 percent success in germination. This gives me a lot of hope.

What’s has been the highlight of your conservation work?

It’s not so much the research, but afterwards when you have all your data and you go to the communities and share [the findings] with the children and adults. You have to make it easy and fun, which can be challenging for scientists.



The Conservation in the Age of Climate Change Project is an effort to explore how conservation organizations around the world are responding to rising seas, droughts, extreme weather events, and other threats posed by global warming.