Of Conservation, Conflict, and Conscience

By Marina Blanco, DLC-SAVA Conservation Coordinator

Published in Lemur News: The Newsletter of the Madagascar Section of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group. Volume 21, 2018. Marina’s original article and photographs can be viewed HERE.

Our research expedition to COMATSA turned out to be, at times, a journalistic rather than a scientific endeavor. Our team comprised experienced Malagasy researchers and young students, most of whom have worked in other research sites in Madagascar. This is to say that we were, in principle, prepared to cope with the logistical challenges of surveying remote areas.

From earlier experiences, I have witnessed how research teams arriving to relatively isolated areas are received with welcoming words and enthusiasm, partly because expeditions are a source of curious inquiry, but partly because it is an opportunity, for all sides, to tell stories and create new ones. Although research teams bring a level of academic knowledge to the field, they always need the support and expertise of local partners to bring about the scientific operation. Without the guides who know how to navigate the trails, who tell stories about the forest and everything within, who communicate anecdotes and valuable experiences, the expedition cannot be a successful one. Many times, local participants help via finding and identifying plants and animals, and can provide critical ecological information by virtue of their careful observations. It is a sort of symbiotic enterprise that makes research missions so much more than the sum of the parts, i.e., the sum of data points or samples.

We had planned to conduct biological surveys at two sites in the forest of Antsahafito (Anjiabe), about 25 km west of the Doany commune in Madagascar’s SAVA region. We were following on the steps of a research team who had already surveyed the sites in 2011. The forest of Anjiabe falls within the boundaries of COMATSA (forest corridor between Marojejy-Anjanaharibe Sud-Tsaratanana), an impressive area comprising more than 300,000 ha. The establishment of COMATSA as a protected area was a joint collaborative effort between the Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forests of Madagascar, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Global Environment Facility/United Nations Development Program (GEF/UNDP) and additional funding sources such as the Symphasis Foundation and Zurïch Canton. WWF still has the critical managing role, taking the responsibility both to bridge the gap between the needs and requirements of the government and local communities, and to help reinforce contractual agreements.

During the mission that I will describe below, we experienced situations that challenged my preconceived ideas about forest conservation. As I continue to reflect on some of the actions (or lack thereof) in response to specific problems we encountered, I find inspiration in the large number of people who seek collective wellbeing, despite injustice.

A new era of protection

Since my first trip to Madagascar over a decade ago, I became familiar with a few National parks in Madagascar. For most of those years, I didn’t know about the great number of protected areas that fell into different categories, allowing controlled management of natural resources by local communities. This relatively new system of protection (named SAPM: Système des Aires Protégées de Madagascar) began to be implemented in 2005, after the 2003 World’s Park Congress held in Durban (South Africa), where the then President of Madagascar voiced his commitment to triple the amount of national protected area coverage (Virah-Sawmy et al., 2014). This ambitious plan had to rely, to a great extent, on the willingness by the government and local communities to create a plan for controlled extraction of natural resources in previously unregulated forests. Most of the newly protected areas, like COMATSA, belong to categories V and VI under the IUCN system, which means that local communities play a key role in protecting, managing, and utilizing those forests (Virah-Sawmy et al., 2014).

I later learned that a community-based forest management (CFM) system, relying on the GELOSE (gestion locale sécurisée) law had been put in place in Madagascar since 1996 and was later updated in 2001 (World Bank Group, 2015). This strategy aimed to transfer the management of natural resources to local communities or COBAs/VOIs (Communauté de Base/“grassroots communities”) which are comprised of members with a variety of backgrounds but seeking common interests: e.g., participating in a variety of activities including reforestation, use of efficient agricultural techniques, alternative sustainable practices, among others. Discussions about resource management between government, local authorities, and community at large, are generally organized and assisted by members of environmental NGOs or other organizations (e.g., WWF) which help raise awareness about environmental crises, their sources and potential mitigation practices.

Community-managed protected areas are generally designed with a “hard core” of forest that is off limits to human use and that is surrounded by a series of “controlled use zones.” Each part of the protected area is administered by a different COBA, each with its own management committee, that all work together through federations or unions (Gerety, 2017). The transfer of management of natural resources (TGRN), with all the rules and guidelines, is crystalized in a comprehensive document, which local associations use and obey when exerting their managing power. It is quite clear that the involvement of village communities, who remain the first beneficiaries of these natural habitats, is crucial for the protection of these forests, as the forest service cannot cover the management of these resources on their own (World Bank Group, 2015).

Although, in theory, it makes sense that local communities become stewards and managers of the land they live in and know, challenges to success are not unexpected. In protected areas across the world, deficiencies in program monitoring and evaluation have been identified as critical weaknesses when it comes to assessing the success of protected areas (Dudley et al., 2004). Moreover to be effective, the local enforcement effort needs to be backed by a broader environment of good and appropriate governance that ensures that penalties are enforced (Dudley et al., 2004). In other words, if a deviation or fault is detected, how is it ensured that appropriate measures will be taken? What are appropriate measures?

Although the spirit of the agreement is consensual, it is not unreasonable to come up with multiple scenarios in which challenges may occur: e.g., authorities for any given association may not equally represent the interests of all individuals in a particular area and this may cause frictions within communities; even if association members agree to honor the contracts and stipulations, some may change their mind, and others may take advantage of a position of authority to carry our illegal activities.

Sadly, a recent analysis of community forest management and its impact on conservation in Madagascar indicates that, when deforestation and “wellbeing” measurements are considered, no significant effect is detected in those areas under CFM compared to non-CFM (World Bank Group, 2015). Unequal power relationships between participants and problems in enforcing contracts are listed as possible contributors undermining the program’s success.

COMATSA mission, an example

My inclination to share this experience is to promote the dialogue and listen to other perspectives. Given the heterogeneity in habitat and ethnic composition that is characteristic of Madagascar, successful practices, and means to reinforce policies may vary across regions. It is even possible to speculate that successful stories may depend on the charisma, commitment, and honor of the local authorities (e.g., COBAs) in charge of enforcing forest management.

Our mission started in Sambava, on the northeast coast of Madagascar where the DLC-SAVA Conservation office is located. From there, we drove ~4 h to Ambavala (Andapa district) and hiked for ~7 h to Doany, where we spent the night. We continued on foot early the following morning, and arrived a few hours later to the small village of Andranomilolo II (Mahasoa), our suggested final destination. There, we only encountered a few people in town, because most of the villagers had left for seasonal festivities. The porters who had come all the way from Ambavala gathered together, and dropped the 600 kg+ of food and equipment on the ground and went home. We unsuccessfully tried to find assistance in Andranomilolo II, so some of us went back to the closest town, Andranomilolo I, only 20 min backtracking the trail in search of new porters and guides. We met with a few people, including local authorities, to whom we showed our research documents. We were promised help and assistants the following day, so we returned to Andranomilolo II, where we were going to camp for the night.

The following morning our team decided to separate. Three of us would proceed ahead, leaving first thing in the morning to reach Anjiabe, where we would conduct a brief prospective search and wait for guides and porters, by the main road between Andranomilolo and Antsohihy to the west. The rest of the team would wait for help coming from Andranomilolo I and join us later the same day. That help never came and, after waiting a respectable amount of time, the team members that stayed behind returned to Andranomilolo I to find out what had happened. The person in charge of arranging the assistants was nowhere to be found. Eventually the team had to walk back to Doany (~4 h hike) to find porters to take our belongings from Andranomilolo all the way to Anjiabe.

At first, we were all surprised by the overall hesitation from the local villagers when we attempted to recruit local volunteers for our expedition in Andranomilolo I. Some of us, waiting in an improvised rest area close to Anjiabe, were not aware of the struggles the rest of the team was facing trying to recruit enough personnel. We were stranded for a couple of days without communication. When we all finally met, and managed to find enough people to move forward into the forest (several of the porters had to work multiple shifts), we were able to observe, first hand, the damage that has been recently done in the protected area.

I should straight away confess my naïveté with regards to all causes of deforestation. I have witnessed many times the challenges faced by people in space-constrained land, growing crops in the valleys and lower slopes while maintaining forest fragments in the top hills, as a potential reservoir, but also a buffer from erosion and desiccation. I came to embrace the idea shared by so many conservation organizations, of providing alternative subsistence practices to replace/minimize tavy (slash and burn) as it creates unsustainable conditions in areas with limited exploitable land; the dilemma of cutting the forest to grow food. Tavy is rooted in Malagasy culture, as it is across traditional agricultural systems in many areas of the world. It can prove sustainable under controlled conditions, depending on several factors, such as soil quality, fertilization techniques, and human reproductive rates, to name a few. The point I want to make here is that the idea that we are contrasting deforestation with subsistence agriculture, can be, in some cases, misleading.

At Anjiabe, a large-scale deforestation operation, at different and strategic places within the protected area, had taken place. Some of the deforested land was embedded inside larger forest blocks, hidden from passersby, far away from villagers. In fact, little huts had been built to provide temporary shelters for the personnel in charge of the operation. Other deforested areas, however, were in proximity to the main road used by porters, for everybody to see. There was no denying it. As we tried to make our way to the camping sites, GPS device in hand and climbing fallen trees, we realized that lots of these areas had been prepared for vanilla cultivation. Sporadic plantations were detected on our way as we navigated the narrow trail, areas that were more difficult to spot from a distance, because part of the tall canopy had been maintained to provide shelter to the vanilla orchids. Illegal vanilla plantations are an especially critical issue in the SAVA region. The dramatic increase in the international price of vanilla has changed the socioeconomic dynamics of villages in northern Madagascar. Although prices may drop and cultivations may fail, many people are prompted to clear land and plant vanilla with the hopes of enormous rewards in the near future. Incidentally, land clearing is facilitated by the flooding of efficient wood-cutting materials in the local markets (Andriatahiana, pers.comm.)

As we arrived to Camp 1 we stumbled upon piles of hardwood, neatly arranged in precut planks, ready for shipment. A leftover bucket, charcoal ashes, plastic bits scattered around. Nobody seemed very surprised about it. One of our guides, who had reluctantly joined our team, told some of the team members that he had been verbally threatened by one of the alleged responsible parties to not come with us. That’s why he had disappeared the morning following his promise to join us. People we informally talked to on the road, during rest breaks, alerted us that people wouldn’t want to go to this forest because they knew of the operation. Nobody wanted to be associated with us, so they didn’t have to see, they didn’t have to explain. The apparent lack of enthusiasm by the porters and guides, was rooted in fear of retaliation. Credible rumors grew and got substantiated from many fronts: The illegal logging and large-scale cutting to grow vanilla were operations allegedly conducted by a few people tied to local authorities, who corrupted their power for personal economic benefits.

As we started our biological surveys around Camp 1, we realized the scale of the damage was larger than we had anticipated. The locations of pitfall traps had to be moved because the original sites had been replaced by savoka (secondary vegetation grown after clearing or burning forest) and were severely degraded. Trapping had to be displaced to areas with more forest protection, and transects had to be diverted because we could not find enough canopy cover. On several occasions lemurs were heard but not seen. We all wondered about the fate of Propithecus candidus (silky sifaka), one of the most endangered animals on Earth, who were heard and quickly seen on a few spots, rapidly leaping between forest fragments surrounded by savoka and open areas. Some areas showed fresh charcoal signatures, logs with green foliage, others had been cleared for a while. Ironically, after we returned from the mission and briefly compared our results with those of the former expedition more than 5 years ago, we found out that biodiversity levels, as measured strictly by species numbers, were not decreased; in fact we identified more species in certain groups (e.g., herps). Why? Although many factors may be contributory (e.g., sampling effort or just luck), the take-home message shouldn’t be one of healthy populations inhabiting new savoka-rich environments. I can only think of the fate of those silkies leaping away.

During the mission, as a primatologist, I was rewarded with sightings of my favorite lemurs. As an anthropologist, I was fascinated and concerned about the social dynamics we witnessed among the local assistants, villagers, and others who came across our path during our expedition. In a few days, in this fairly isolated location, we have witnessed the behavior of unsupportive authority figures; officials who voiced their intention to help, but looked the other way when faced with evidence of corruption; forest rangers who had promised to come, but never made it to the forest; assistants who didn’t want to participate in our expedition for fear of retaliation; and assistants who were aware of the situation but came, though asking insistently that we didn’t say anything that could jeopardize their safety or that of their families. We encountered many people willing to talk about this informally, anonymously, but unwilling to do anything to bring this issue up in the open, having an institutionalized discussion.

We were left with this oversimplified image of local people willing to follow the rules with no benefits, and a few alleged authority figures, openly breaking the rules and showing off greed and impunity.

What to do when things do not work

Why would anyone care to make a deal in the first place? Why would anyone want to have restrictions on their natural resources (e.g., planks to build houses)? How can we dream of, and share in, a long-term vision of forest conservation if many people are just fulfilling basic subsistence needs? It is difficult to inspire someone who cannot imagine a future for himself/herself or his/her immediate family. What can be done, when people posting signs to discourage hunting and deforestation are generally responsible and trying to honor their agreement, whereas people carrying out illegal activity know exactly what they are doing and fully understand the illegality of it all?

Empowering local communities in forest management is a crucial step for the effective and efficient protection of biodiversity sites. Conservation organizations have been instrumental in funding alternatives for more sustainable practices, helping to facilitate discussions about issues that matter today and will affect the next generations. Sometimes, trying to find syncretism in environmental practices to provide a balance between traditional and innovative activities that are worth keeping in the long run. But to think of traditional communities as one body, with homogeneous interests, behaviors, and morals may be romantic and unrealistic. The correlation between corruption levels and money is undeniable, and fighting the cycle may be especially challenging for people fighting poverty in the first place. The rationale that forest protection may be inconsistent with the needs of local communities warrants reevaluation in some areas, where the complexities of social inequality, corruption and personal greed may challenge well intentioned conservation programs. As it was mentioned in a recent report, although the areas managed for conservation have increased significantly over the past years in Madagascar, the threats faced by those very areas have not been consequently reduced (Waeber et al., 2016).

And yet, there are people who care. Across Madagascar there are environmental education programmes in place targeting curious and interested youth, bringing awareness of the problems and challenges of the present and future; workshops and training for adults interested in improved techniques and sustainable practices; capacity building, family planning, and subsidized programs to increase productivity. These are necessary, indispensable, for bringing opportunities. Across Madagascar there are public signs and other forms of advertisement discussing the importance of biodiversity and forest protection, condemning destructive and illegal practices. I wonder if it would be also possible to generate programmes that can deal with the corruption and illegal behavior threatening the implementation and success of environmental sustainability. It’s not about sending people to prison, but holding the responsible parties accountable — many times parties with ties to the wealthy and powerful. We all are accustomed to tolerating a background level of corruption, but how much is too much? And how much should we, the biologists, anthropologists, researchers and volunteers involved in conservation research, tolerate before acting?


Special thanks to Manantsoa Andriatahiana, leader of the Northern Highlands landscape for WWF, for logistical support, assistance and meaningful exchanges. I am indebted to members of the research team, leaders Christian J. Randrianantoandro, Mihajamanana Randrianarisoa and Todisoa Rosaly Herivonjinomenjanahary Radovimiandrinifarany, who worked incessantly to make the expedition a success despite the challenges. Thank you to Lanto Andrianandrasana, DLC/SAVA Conservation project manager, who helped from beginning to end of the mission and to Lydia Greene for comments/edits. I am grateful to the Ministère de l’Environnement et des Forêts of the Malagasy government and the University of Antananarivo for permission to conduct this research. The project in Madagascar was facilitated by Madagascar Institute pour la Conservation des Ecosystèmes Tropicaux (MICET). Funding for this mission was provided by the Duke Lemur Center, and a Conservation, Food and Health Foundation grant to Anne Yoder and Charlie Welch. References Dudley, N.; Belokurov, A.; Borodin, O.; Higgins-Zogib, L.; Hock- ings, M.; Lacerda, L.; Stolton, S. 2004. Are protected areas working? An analysis of forest protected areas by WWF. WWF International. Gerety, R.M. 2017. Can community forestry deliver for Mada- gascar’s forests and people? October 2, Conservation in Madagascar; Mongabay Series. Virah-Sawmy, M.; Gardner, C.J.; Ratsifandrihamanana, A.A. 2014. The Durban vision in practice: experiences in participatory governance of Madagascar’s new protected areas. In Scales, I.R. (ed.). Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar. London: Routledge. pp. 216-252. Waeber, P.O.; Wilmé, L.; Mercier, J.-R.; Camara, C.; Lowry, II P.P. 2016. How effective have thirty years of internationally driven conservation and development efforts been in Mada- gascar? PlosONE 11: e0161115. World Bank Group. 2015. Analysis of community forest man- agement (CFM) in Madagascar. #101134.


Dudley, N.; Belokurov, A.; Borodin, O.; Higgins-Zogib, L.; Hock- ings, M.; Lacerda, L.; Stolton, S. 2004. Are protected areas working? An analysis of forest protected areas by WWF. WWF International.

Gerety, R.M. 2017. Can community forestry deliver for Mada- gascar’s forests and people? October 2, Conservation in Madagascar; Mongabay Series.

Virah-Sawmy, M.; Gardner, C.J.; Ratsifandrihamanana, A.A. 2014. The Durban vision in practice: experiences in participatory governance of Madagascar’s new protected areas. In Scales, I.R. (ed.). Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar. London: Routledge. pp. 216-252.

Waeber, P.O.; Wilmé, L.; Mercier, J.-R.; Camara, C.; Lowry, II P.P. 2016. How effective have thirty years of internationally driven conservation and development efforts been in Mada- gascar? PlosONE 11: e0161115.

World Bank Group. 2015. Analysis of community forest man- agement (CFM) in Madagascar. #101134.