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Balancing poor communities and conservation

Marine conservation Madagascar at the Velondriake marine conservancy.
(Christina Corbett/IRIN)

Madagascar is entering uncharted waters in its bid to implement ambitious projects in partnership with poor local communities that will more than triple existing conservation areas.

The Indian Ocean island is renowned for its unique and abundant terrestrial biodiversity, but its marine environment, which includes extensive coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds, has remained relatively unknown.

In the arid southwest, the fragile coastal marine resources are coming under severe pressure from over-exploitation by people living in the area, who are seen as integral to managing the island's natural resources.

"You simply cannot conserve marine resources successfully without talking to local communities," Volanirina Ramahery, marine project co-ordinator in southwest Madagascar for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), told IRIN.

"People use these resources intensively, their lives depend on them. It is just not possible to conserve without looking at what problems the communities face," she said.

President Marc Ravalomanana has made conservation an important pillar of his Madagascar Action Plan (MAP), an ambitious blueprint for economic and social development in one of the world's poorest countries.

Expanding conservation areas

The plan includes more than tripling the size of Madagascar's protected areas, from 1.7 million hectares to 6 million hectares, with a focus on marine environments and upgrading the protection of marine resources.

''Madagascar's conservation areas have traditionally been in wilderness areas with small human populations. Now, with a push towards creating so many more protected areas, they are increasingly going to be in places where they affect far greater numbers of people  ''

"Madagascar's conservation areas have traditionally been in wilderness regions with small human populations," Charles Gardner, an environmental management consultant based in the southern coastal city of Toliara, told IRIN.

"Now, with a push towards creating so many more protected areas, they are increasingly going to be in places where they affect far greater numbers of people; this calls for a whole new approach to the management of protected areas," he said.

According to the WWF, the concept of community-based natural resource management means that the people who live on the land and depend on its natural resources should manage them.

The benefits of such an approach are clear. "The people who live and work in an area feel it is their territory," Samba Roger, president of the Velondriake protected marine area, told IRIN. "They do not – they cannot – be told by others what to do. Using a top-down approach just creates problems; it is better to start from the bottom and work upwards."

Stretching across 800 square kilometres of coastal and marine habitats, Velondriake is the south's first community-managed protected marine area. It is
based in the commune of Befandefa, which is supported by the residents of 23 villages and managed by a committee of representatives and elders selected from these villages.

In 2005, Madagascar's first seasonal ban on octopus fishing was introduced in Velondriake, allowing population numbers to recover from overfishing. This project proved so successful that the government has introduced a similar system nationwide.

WWF's work in Madagascar has traditionally focused on terrestrial conservation, but several new marine projects in the southwest are beginning to take shape. While recognising that the support of local communities is key to ensuring the success of these initiatives, gaining their understanding is not always easy.

"No two communities have the same level of understanding," said Ramahery. "Some villages are aware that resource degradation is a serious problem and they want to solve it, but in some areas this is not the case. We can guide and give advice, but it's not our role to impose marine parks or ban fishing in an area."

Alternative livelihoods

Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding alternative livelihoods for resource-dependent fishermen. Madagascar has over 5,000 kilometres of coastline, and an estimated 60 percent of the population live along it, most of whom catch fish for a living. Most of the people on the southwest coast belong to the Vezo ethnic group, which means 'to struggle with the sea'.

"There are many problems here, but first we need to help reduce fishing," Roger said. "But to do that people need other work; they need other jobs so they don't need to fish." Sustainable sea cucumber aquaculture initiatives are being developed to provide communities in Velondriake with alternative sources of income.

In the Baie de Ranobe, a popular tourist destination 40km north of Toliara, local villagers are becoming involved in tourism. Communities in Ifaty and Mangily manage Fimihara, an association that has created a marine reserve in which all fishing is banned, which charges tourists and diving businesses an entrance fee to visit the site. Seasonal bans on octopus fishing have also been implemented.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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