Traditions That Threaten
Evidence suggests the first human encounter with Madagascar's amazing biodiveristy occurred only two thousand years ago. The original settlers probably came by boat from the Polynesian islands or from Africa, bringing with them a farming technique known as "tavy." In tavy, a farmer cuts a portion of the forest and then burns it, planting rice that is irrigated by rainfall alone. After harvesting the rice, the farmer and his family leave the forest fallow, sometimes for up to 20 years. Once the forest has grown back, many nutrients are again stored in the trunks and foliage, and these are released in the next slash and burn cycle of farming, providing fertilizer for the crop. This farming practice works well and does not permanently destroy the forest as long as field sizes are small and farmers leave adequate time for re-growth. However, if farmers return to the fallow fields too quickly, as they do when human population densities increase, the soils become exhausted. And if little forest is left in between fields, then there are no parent trees to provide seeds and seedlings to restore the forest. Eventually large areas of forest are transformed into wastelands, upon which nothing can growneither rice nor forest. On these areas, farmers pasture a few cattle and continue to burn the grasslands each year, to provide "greener grass" for the cattle.
Sadly, much of Madagascar has been destroyed, by the gradual action of small farmers and herdsmen. Human populations have grown long beyond the point at which these activities can be practiced without permanent destruction. As the forest is destroyed, so is the habitat for Madagascar's unique plant and animal species. The loss of habitat due to deforestation is the biggest single threat to Madagascar's wildlife. Although the exact extent of forest loss is not known with certainty, only 10 percent of Madagascar's forests remain. Also, recent estimates suggest that 1-2 percent of Madagascar's remaining forests are destroyed each year, and that a staggering 80-90 percent of Madagascar's land area burns each year.
Although much of the forest destruction may have come about at the hand of the small farmer or herdsman, the causes of environmental degradation are deeply rooted in social, economic, political and historical factors. Madagascar is one of the world's poorest nations, with a per capita income of approximately $240 per year. About 80 percent of the population are subsistence farmers, many of whom depend entirely on "natural capital" to support their way of life. Yet this way of life is time-limited: as the forest is destroyed so tavy must also end. At the moment, however, many farmers continue to practice traditional slash and burn agriculture because it is their culture, and because they know no other way and have no other means to survive.
Rural people depend on the forest in other ways, and in so doing, pose other threats to this tremendously important resource. In the rainforest, nearby dwellers may use several hundred species of plants and animals for food, shelter, firewood, medicines, fiber, resin, construction, household implements and clothing. Sometimes, as in the case of the most sought-after species, over-collection or over-hunting is now leading to depletion and local extinction of precious biological and natural resources. Indeed, the extinction of several large-bodied lemur species and of the elephant bird (a member of the ostrich family that weighed up to half a ton) within the past several thousand years may have been due at least in part to over-hunting by the early human inhabitants of Madagascar.
The Conservation Approach
In the 1980's, the Madagascar government recognized that environmental degradation posed an enormous threat both to its human population and to its biodiversity, recognized by the government as one of the island's greatest treasures. With the help of multi-national donors, government agencies and non-governmental organizations, the Malagasy government forged a document known as the National Environmental Action Plan. This plan called for actions to arrest the cycle of environmental destruction, reduce poverty, develop sustainable management plans for natural resources, and protect biological diversity in parks and reserves.
To conserve biodiversity, the first phase of this plan (1991-1995) emphasized an approach known as "integrated conservation and development." The premise of the integrated conservation and development model is that local people living near parks must themselves benefit from the parks and must be participants in conservation. If local people benefit economically from parks, then they will support parks and practice conservation, rather than continuing to engage in destructive and non-sustainable land use practices. For example, if tourism can bring significant economic benefits to a region, then people will support the establishment and conservation of land that might otherwise have provided them with farming and herding areas. In Madagascar, where poverty dominates, only conservation solutions that include human welfare could ever be viewed as humane or feasible.
An Example: Masoala Peninsula
The Masoala Peninsula is one of Madagascar's last great places. Pushing out like a nose from Madagascar's northeast coast, the peninsula harbors one of the few remaining large areas of lowland rain forest on Madagascar, including habitat for the red-ruffed lemur, known only from Masoala, and for many endemic bird species extremely rare in other parts of the island (for example, the serpent eagle, the red owl, the helmet vanga, the scaly and short-legged ground rollers). Here, diverse and beautiful forests meet white sand beaches, mangroves, fringing coral reef, and oceans and bays provide breeding habitat for humpback whales, dolphins and sea turtles. Coral reefs found around Masoala are some of the most pristine and diverse that Madagascar has to offer. As part of the National Environmental Action Plan, Madagascar's government had decided to establish a park in the area. With more than 3,000 square kilometers to choose from, the big question was how to design the park so as to protect the diverse marine and terrestrial biota and simultaneously provide for the needs of the 45,000 human inhabitants.
From 1993 to 1996, the Malagasy government and a consortium of international organizations (including the Wildlife Conservation Society, CARE International Madagascar, and the Peregrine Fund) developed a plan for the park's design that would balance the needs of wildlife and people. After researching the situation, the group found that the most important areas for biological diversity were those that were also least accessible. These areas were included within the park. The accessible areas were not included in the park, encouraging sustainable development by allowing locals to harvest timber and non-timber forest products. For example, the Masoala Project is now developing a community-based enterprise to grow rain forest butterflies and sell them to butterfly zoos around the world. These areas could then provide non-destructive livelihoods for local people, maintaining the forests around the park as a rich source of natural resources and a buffer to the park. Other benefits to communities would arise through ecotourism in the park.
Since the creation of the park in 1997, the Wildlife Conservation Society and CARE International have continued to work in the area, putting in place the infrastructure for tourism, developing park management plans (based on scientific research), and working with local communities.
Since the beginning of Madagascar's Environmental Action Plan, Madagascar has established eight new protected areas totaling 6,809 square kilometers. The country's new National Association for Protected Area Management has taken over the management of several of the key National Parks for ecotourism (Ranomafana, Isalo, Montagne d'Ambre). As Lisa Dean of CARE International Madagascar said upon the inauguration of the park at Masoala, "The approval of the Masoala National Park represents a huge commitment by the Madagascar government, done against all odds." Indeed, for Masoala and many of its other protected areas, Madagascar can be proud of its often path-breaking efforts to develop a plausible, well-founded approach to "parks for wildlife and for people." Of course, much work remains to ensure that the existing parks and reserves will continue far into the future to provide habitat for Madagascar's fabulous biodiversity, and the resources for a sustainable future for Madagascar's people.
Dr. Claire Kremen, Associate Conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Stanford University Center for Conservation Biology, has worked on conservation issues and studied biological diversity in Madagascar since 1988. Recently, she helped the Malagasy government to establish Madagascar's largest protected area, the Masoala National Park.