Madagascar – where people are at the heart of conservation matters

Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, has an astounding array of endemic species, found nowhere else. Having separated more than 160 million years ago from the super-continent of Gondwanaland, Madagascar is a perfect example of island evolution on a massive scale. Being a vast landmass, a diverse and unique assemblage of habitats exists from spiny forests and desert through to lush rainforest and open savannah.

Despite the intense focus of international NGOs on terrestrial research, little effort has been made until recently to understand the marine realm. Coastal populations are burgeoning and with an overall population growth rate of over 3%, the current population of 18 million is set to double by 2025. As one of the most economically-disadvantaged nations on earth the impacts of the human population on natural systems is alarming. Due to extensive slash-and-burn and cattle grazing on the infertile soils, many coastal areas of Madagascar are inundated with sediment run off especially during heavy rains and this has led to the name ‘Bleeding Island’ as the sea turns red. Impacts on coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses are yet to be fully understood due to lack of research but with a host of other anthropogenic effects (including overfishing, destructive fishing, pollution and sewage discharge) in combination with natural impacts from cyclones and raised sea surface temperatures there is an urgent need to understand these systems and monitor their status if we are to assure their conservation into the future.

The first people to settle Madagascar were the Austronesians who arrived between the 3rd and 10th centuries and cultivated the highlands with rice. Subsequently, settlers form Africa arrived and populated the coastal regions. Although people have intermarried resulting in blended features, distinctive differences can be noticed between coastal and highland people. There are numerous dialects and cultural differences across different ethnic groups including distinct agricultural, hunting, or fishing practices, music and dance and local taboos or fady.

People are at the heart of conservation matters and therefore working closely with communities, national and local NGOs and government agencies to share findings and brainstorm management options is critical to the sustainability of any research and conservation programme. Building the capacity of local people to understand and monitor marine habitats and species and recognize their economic potential is also essential in promoting an interest in protecting these resources for future generations. There is the potential to further develop and utilize coastal resources though aquaculture, ecotourism, dive tourism and biomedical research for example and this requires close liaison, consultation and skills-building with local people.