I work in one of Madagascar’s largest remaining blocks of intact tropical forest. Located in the northeastern part of the island, Makira Natural Park boasts unique and beautiful wildlife like lemurs that are found only on the huge island. Other unusual species include the Fossa, a short-legged puma-like animal but smaller and in fact, related to the mongoose; and spiny little tenrecs that look like a mixture of hedgehog, shrew, and opossum.
Makira is also home to thousands of families struggling to make a decent and dependable living in the face of a changing climate and increasing demographic pressure. The Betsimisaraka and Tsimihety people who live in and around Makira want to meet their basic needs, provide a nutritionally balanced diet for their families, send their kids to school, access health care when they need it, and protect the forest that defines their cultural identity and sense of self.
“Makira is home to thousands of families struggling to make a decent and dependable living in the face of a changing climate and increasing demographic pressure.”
Within and around this protected area, my organization, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), seeks to conserve the forest and its wildlife in ways that respect and protect the rights of people living with — and at times eating — the region’s amazing, endemic, and endangered species. What sets WCS apart from other conservation and development NGOs is its long-term commitment to the places where it works and the people who live there.
My team and I recently traveled for six days to Tsarabajina, a village on Makira’s western edge. We are both excited and nervous, building trusting relationships takes time — sometimes it is three steps forward and two back. Patience is everything.
Following local custom, we greeted the head of the community and brought news from the neighboring villages, before explaining the purpose of our visit. He listened with his eyes closed and did not speak for a long time. He then called everyone in the community to gather in the shadow of the village tree.
The Tangalamena — a wise and highly respected old person from the village — stood up and declared in a hoarse voice: “First of all, we would like to thank you for coming to visit Tsarabajina. Eloi, your park agent, has informed us of your visit and interest in our diet. All of us eat rice, and often little else. So for us, the occasional lemur hunted with a slingshot is a welcomed meat for its fat and taste.”
Rivo, our guide, emphasized our role, observing, “We care for your food security, your cultural identity, and the wildlife that lives in your forest and in Makira. For us, these three things are more than linked together. They are interdependent. We would like to work with you to secure all three now and for generations to come.”
After long discussions that continued until after the sun set, the community asked that we help them to learn better ways of raising their chickens and train community para-veterinarians to vaccinate the village hens against Newcastle Disease that kills 90 percent of birds some years. The community in turned agreed to stop their rare but unsustainable hunting of lemur and fossa if poultry production increased from our technical assistance.
“I saw more clearly than ever that effective conservation needs a multi-sectoral approach that respects people’s rights and livelihoods, and seeks common solutions to shared problems.”
After a quick “shower” in the river by the light of what seemed an impossibly bright moon, our team gathered in the single-roomed house of our park agent. Everyone was talking about whether we really could help the community increase the sustainable production of chicken. Some asked what would happen if we failed.
It had taken months of active engagement with the community to get this far. Would people stop trusting us and begin hunting lemurs again? Though the team was confident that the improved poultry production system would work, it was good to see them talking through what might happen and how they would respond.
Rivo, looking tired after a very long day, explained that increasing poultry production is just one step among others. It is unrealistic to expect that the production of chickens will halt unsustainable hunting. It is the local families who are shouldering most of the risk by investing their time and resources in poultry production. Rivo smiled, adding, “We cannot put all our eggs in one basket.”
We groaned at his joke but agreed that while we must raise awareness of the benefits of eating chicken, we must also find ways of helping families not interested in raising poultry. And we must support community rangers patrolling the forest to prevent outsiders from stealing their natural resources.
In my tent, I marveled that families might trust us to help them become more food secure and that they might protect lemurs in return. The team hoped for the best and planned for the worst. I saw more clearly than ever that effective conservation needs a multi-sectoral approach that respects people’s rights and livelihoods, and seeks common solutions to shared problems. None of that can happen without trust — the keystone to effective and durable conservation partnerships
Morgane Cournarie is the Site Coordinator for the Sustainable Wildlife Management Programme in Madagascar at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).