Making conservation work in Madagascar
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:
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.
OTHER SUSTAINABLE FOREST PRODUCTS
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.
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Threats to Madagascar's environment | Saving Madagascar's environment | Rehabilitating ecosystems in Madagascar | What happened to Madagascar's megafauna | Conservation plan for Madagascar | Funding conservation initiatives in Madagascar
Ecotourism hints | Being an ethical traveler
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