Poverty – a major barrier to marine conservation in Madagascar

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In Nosy Hara Marine Park, environmental sustainability is heavily threatened as a direct result of pressures arising from the poverty of the local community and a lack of tangible benefits from the protected area for local inhabitants.  In particular, recent socioeconomic research and the community itself have identified maternal healthcare, access to drinking water, primary education and alternative, sustainable livelihood development as the most pressing needs.

Madagascar is one of the poorest nations in the world: its human development index ranks 138 out of 172 countries; per-capita income was estimated at $260 in 1998, which ranks the country 193 out of 210 countries (World Bank, 2000), and poverty is notably higher in rural areas where 75% of the population lives (World Bank, 2007). Further, rural women are considered to be the most poor, and more than 40% never attend school (INSTAT, 2005). Underlying the challenges of development in Madagascar is the environment. Overutilization of natural resources, along with high population growth rates, are making the Malagasy poor even poorer.

In northern Madagascar, adequate healthcare, schooling and viable sustainable livelihoods are wanting, and new, innovative approaches to service delivery are needed. Because rural communities rely heavily on natural resources, those delivery mechanisms need to be environmentally, as well as financially, sustainable to be successful over the long-term. Building on proven entrepreneurial and performance-based approaches to poverty alleviation, our innovative approach provides livelihood improvement and economic development opportunities while simultaneously providing incentives for environmental sustainability that are explicitly linked to those opportunities.

While falling short of midway target levels, Madagascar’s efforts toward MDGs have been notable, including an emphasis on the country’s natural resources and unique biodiversity, along with strong support from the President. The Madagascar Action Plan (MAP) is consistent with the MDGs, and includes a strong focus on “cherishing the environment”, “rural development”, and “health care improvement” (UN, 2006).In 2006 only seven authorised microfinance institutions were operational in Madagascar (MAP 2006), and no microfinance institutions are easily accessible to the communities that we propose to work with. With lower rates of representation in rural areas, this program hopes to pilot an innovative model of microfinance more suited to rural areas where environmental goods represent the primary source of livelihoods. Our pilot programs will contribute to the Madagascar Action Plan (commitment 4) by improving access to affordable rural financing. In addition, the pilot model will contribute to improving local-level environmental education, environmental stewardship, and ultimately increase land under protection consistent with commitment 7 of the Madagascar Action Plan.

We are working within Nosy Hara Marine Park, which was inaugurated as a National Park by the Malagasy government in 2004 and constitutes critical coral reef habitat and offshore islands which provide a haven for endangered marine species including dugong, dolphin, shark, whale and sea turtle and many species of fish; as well as several thousand people who depend almost exclusively on the area’s natural resources.  However, extensive difficulties have been encountered in the integration of local communities in the Park management decision-making and activities and recent surveys have shown that people are, in general, ambivalent towards its very purpose and existence. Baseline evaluations have shown that almost all of the local population feels that the protected area has brought them no benefits, and many even believe that the park has resulted in increased levels of poverty, by restricting their traditional fishing activities.  Socioeconomic research conducted by C3 during 2012 has shown that the most pressing community needs include: maternal healthcare, access to clean drinking water, primary education and development of alternative, non-extractive sources of income.  These priorities have also been independently identified by the Project Steering Committee, established in early 2013. Access to drinking water in particular has been recognized as a key factor in poverty alleviation and has been noted on multiple occasions by the Project Steering Committee.  In order to successfully achieve the long-term objectives of environmental sustainability of the Parks’s natural resources, it is clear that the far more urgent, basic humanitarian needs of the local community must be addressed simultaneously.

Past efforts addressing the dual goals of poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability suggest the failure of most programs often stems from a gross oversimplification of poverty, environmental management, and the strategies needed to address both. Presently, development and conservation initiatives are mostly treated as separate entities. In practice many conservation initiatives ignore livelihood options or lack the ability to be self-financing (e.g. buyers of environmental goods are sparse), particularly in extremely rural settings. And on the other hand, investment into communities through microfinance instruments can contribute to environmental degradation. Given the impressive success of microfinance institutions in poverty alleviation over the past two decades, the Environmental Stewardship model is a promising approach for linking sustainable development to natural resource conservation, as well as allowing the targeting of other individuals previously unable to engage.

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