Making conservation work in Madagascar

Designating an area as a park does not mean local people will have their immediate needs satisfied. A park does not alleviate their hunger or satiate their requirements for shelter and other necessities. Conservation in Madagascar must address the needs of local people, and efforts must focus on poverty alleviation and economic development as well as protecting wildlife and ecosystems. Conservation cannot come at the expense of local people; local people must be made both partners and beneficiaries in conservation, and not enemies of it. In seeking a "solution" to the environmental problems of Madagascar—whether it be through agroforestry, extractive reserves, ecotourism, or another strategy—the ultimate fate of its ecosystems rests in the hands of local people. While some would argue these wildlands can be "saved" by restricting economic growth, it is necessary to realize parks and reserves will not persist, let alone be successful, unless local communities are persuaded that it is in their material interest to conserve.

Masoala—The Eye of the Forest: A New Strategy for Rainforest Conservation in Madagascar, a book on conservation in the biologically rich rainforest of the Masoala Peninsula, reiterates these points:

    "Everyone who lives on the Masoala peninsula lives directly from the use of natural resources. Almost no one at Masoala has the option, let alone the means, to become a lawyer, doctor, journalist, pilot, bus-driver, secretary, mechanic, or librarian, let alone to aspire to a leisurely retirement. Average life expectancy in Madagascar is about 56 years. Everyone's survival strategy is therefore centered in one way or another around natural-resource use. In such a context, if villagers find themselves with a little extra money in their pockets, the best investment they can possibly make is to plow the money back into clearing more land for rice or cash-crop production. As a result, while economic development and poverty alleviation are vital to help rural communities out of their dependence on survival strategies based exclusively on natural-resource use, programs that aim simply to increase incomes often end up accelerating environmental degradation. Poverty reduction programs at site like Masoala therefore need to be planned and implemented in coordination with natural-resources managers to make sure than environmental factors are taken into consideration and that economic development is ecologically sustainable."
Success in conserving wildlands in Madagascar will require reconciling the inevitable conflicts between short-term needs of local people and the long-term nature of the benefits that conservation can generate on a sustainable ongoing basis. The following sections will look at specific ideas that may address some of the underlying and direct causes of environmental degradation in Madagascar.


Subsistence agriculture is a way of life in Madagascar. Tavy may have evolved as the most efficient agricultural strategy for given environments in Madagascar but as currently practiced—with fallow periods too brief to allow sufficient regrowth of vegetation—it is not a viable cultivation technique. A better approach to addressing the needs of poor Malagasy farmers may be improving and intensifying currently existing agricultural projects and promoting alternative cultivation techniques—notably permaculture as "savoka" gardens.

Savoka gardens are planted on fallow tavy plots and are planned as "a carefully selected succession of trees and plants on the fallow land that re-enriches the soil at the same time as producing a steady stream of food crops and other useful products." For example, the use of wild ginger (longoza) adds phosphorus to soils while leguminous plants can fix nitrogen that is lost with traditional rice cultivation. The addition of perennials—crops which continue to produce for a number of years like citrus, manioc, vanilla, banana, mango, pepper, cacao, coffee, and rubber—can help restore nutrients to degraded soils and remain productive for decades while generating a diversified income and/or diet. A bonus of such agroforestry techniques is that they maintain forest systems, soils, and biological diversity at a far higher level than do conventional agricultural techniques. As long as such fields are adjacent to secondary and old-growth forest, many species will continue to thrive.

Unfortunately, success with such regimes has proved elusive thus far. Tavy and the devotion to rice is so established as a cultural practice that it has been very difficult to interest the Malagasy in alternative crops that might improve soil fertility and increase crop yields. Successful implementation of savoka gardens will probably hinge on integrating rice cultivation with these new techniques, in addition to improving access to markets and creating credit facilities for poor farmers in order both to save their earnings and allow them to borrow in times of need. Micro-credit facilities can provide significant economic benefits to local people and the local economy.


Improved forms of agriculture are among several means that can provide tangible returns to rural Malagasy living in and around forests. Sustainable development through harvesting of the forests' renewable products has the potential for generating income for local people without destroying their resource base.

According to
Masoala—The Eye of the Forest A New Strategy for Rainforest Conservation in Madagascar, more than 290 plant species on the Masoala peninsula alone "are used by local people: as fuel wood, as wood for construction, for medicinal purposes, carving, and other purposes." Such forest products have a great deal of potential in both local and international markets. For example, two chemicals, vincristine and vinblastine, derived from the rosy periwinkle of southern Madagascar, generated more than US$160 million per year in their heyday . Rainforest plants have already provided tangible evidence of their potential to address all sorts of medical problems, from childhood leukemia to hangovers. Seventy percent of the plants identified by the U.S. National Cancer Institute as having anti-cancer characteristics are found only in the tropical rainforest. Rainforest plants have been estimated to be responsible for 25 percent of the drugs used by Western medicine.

Vanilla has long been a lucrative, but eco-friendly crop for many farmers in northeastern Madagascar since it grows best under the shade of canopy trees. But, according to Masoala—The Eye of the Forest A New Strategy for Rainforest Conservation in Madagascar, "a new variety [of vanilla] introduced recently as part of an EU-funded economic support program is sun-tolerant" and therefore better suited as a plantation crop. This new form may drive small producers out of business and contribute further to deforestation.

The key to making sustainable forests products an economic reality for local Malagasy is access to markets.


Ecotourism may be the best hope for Madagascar to improve the standard of living for its people and indeed ecotourism is growing in the country: according to the Bradt guide around 50 percent of visitors to Madagascar now visit a protected area when they come to the country (up from 20 percent in 1995). Responsibly managed ecotourism can generate substantial amounts of revenue and employ large numbers of local people without causing significant environmental damage. And because ecotourists pay to see a country's natural beauty it gives local people a direct incentive to conserve the environment around them. Ecotourism can help assign value to an ecosystem, and most ecotourists are willing to pay directly for preservation in the form of park entrance fees and the hiring of local guides.

In Madagascar local communities benefit directly from ecotourism through their 50 percent share of park entrance fees (park entry fees are divided equally between ANGAP and local communities), sales of handicrafts and "tourist items," and employment as porters, wildlife guides, park rangers, and workers in the service force of hotels, restaurants, and lodges. The guide-training programs (ANGAP has a three-year program for new guides) help the local community as a whole through the education of its members. With an education and an understanding of multiple languages, children in the community will have better opportunities in the future.

To be sustainable, ecotourism requires careful planning and strict guidelines; short-term development can doom ecosystems and communities just as unsustainable logging does. Too many people, inadequate facilities, and poor park management can spell the end for the "eco" in ecotourism. Ecotourism, when carried out in a sustainable fashion, can benefit local people, the economy, and the environment. Ecotourism should not be restricted to legally protected areas, but also be promoted in natural areas that lack protection. The presence of tourists, when properly managed, can protect an area from certain over-exploitive activities.

<< Previous | Next >>

Conservation index