28 July 2023

A stakeholder journey in the Itremo Massif, Madagascar

As a massive collaborative project picks up steam in Madagascar, key dignitaries visit villages at the forefront of modern Malagasy conservation.

A fleet of cars travel down a dirt track in rural Madagascar

9am, 18 May 2023. A convoy of 10 vehicles departs west from the Malagasy district of Ambatofinandrahana, across the stunning montane landscape of Amoron i’Mania. 

For those whose journey began >300km ago in the capital, Antananarivo, it’s been a long road stripped of native tree species. You’d be lucky to see more than a single Malagasy native tree (Tapia - Uapaca bojeri) across this entire distance after years of forest loss.

At the end of this drive, however, lies the Itremo Massif Protected Area – a site managed by Kew on behalf of the Malagasy Environment and Sustainable Development Ministry (MEDD), where Madagascar’s natural wealth in biodiversity can still be found in great quantity. 

A huge landscape shows trees and grassland in Madagascar.
Tapia vegetation in the Amoron I’Mania landscape. Partially leafless due to herbivory by Landibe. © David Rabehevitra, RBG Kew

Seeing the conservation story

This reduction in natural resources is today’s conservation challenge in Madagascar. Land use change and the massive loss of tree cover have transformed most landscapes beyond recognition, leaving protected areas as the only nature-rich zones of the island nation.

The remaining pockets of biodiversity themselves face a tough time. Fire, invasive species, illegal use all take their toll. There’s also a critical task to achieve: the balancing of nature’s needs with those of the people who make their home within and around these natural oases. 

The convoy experiencing this landscape change as they journey to Itremo is no ordinary group. Alongside Kew conservationists, it contains senior officials from across Malagasy national and local governments, village chiefs of the region’s villages (Fokontany), as well as the UK Ambassador to Madagascar. 

Key members of the visiting delegation

  • The Deputy for AIM Region and Madame President of the National Assembly (PAN) Mme Christine Razanamahasoa 

  • The UK Ambassador to Madagascar, His Excellency Mr. David Ashley, 

  • The Secretary General of AIM Region

  • The Regional Director of the MEDD in AIM Region and two colleagues, 

  • The Regional Director of the Ministry of Mines in AIM Region and two colleagues

  • The Regional Director of the Ministry of Youth and Sports for AIM region

  • The Mayor of Itremo Commune

  • The Fokontany (Village) Chiefs of Itremo and Ifasina

Each of them is an important stakeholder for the future of conservation in Madagascar, here to meet communities who live this conservation story on a daily basis and in whom lies the solution to the challenge.

A group of observers stands in an area of managed vegetation where agroforestry is taking place
Feno Rakotoarison presenting a village-based FMH agroforestry plot in Ifasina to Madame PAN), His Excellency Mr. David Ashley and other guests. © Paul Wilkin

Into the village – Ifasina 

The convoy rolls into Ifasina, one of the villages involved in managing the protected area , where they’re greeted with an enthusiastic welcome. 

Ifasina is one of the villages participating in a new conservation project bringing together 6  NGOs – Kew included – to craft a landscape management model for Madagascar’s entire protected area network, based on nine representative sites . To achieve this, the Sustainable Management for Future Generations Project (FMH - Fitantanana Maharitra Holovainjafy , in Malagasy) focuses on community-based conservation. 

The future of people relies on nature, just as the future of nature  is dependent on people. This is especially true in buffer zones, where creating a dialogue with communities and supporting their needs directly benefits their protected area and the natural diversity within.

The tour begins with Feno Rakotoarison, the Itremo Protected Area Manager, and Fidelis Sitrakiniavo, the Agricultural Officer. They introduce the guests to the agroforestry activities taking place here, as well as a popular new microfinance initiative emerging from the early stages of the FMH project: a village savings and loan association. Access to financial resources takes the pressure off biodiversity and hence increases the protected area’s resilience.

The tapia trees that have survived the onslaught outside of protected areas also make up 6% of the forest within Itremo, termed “Tapia vegetation ”. The trees are managed by the people as a resource, as well as serving as a source of the “Landibe” moth larvae that the community uses to produce silk. 

Village leaders discussed the potential for innovations such as development of the nearby hot springs, ideas that can bring improved livelihoods to the people while reducing the pressure on forest resources. 

A group of viewers stand around a villager who is spinning silk using a wheel
Community members in Ifasina demonstrating Landibe-derived silk spinning to Madame PAN), His Excellency Mr. David Ashley and other guests. © David Rabehevitra, RBG Kew

Discussion and Deliberation

Arriving at the next village, Ihazafotsy, Feno demonstrated the next of FMH’s first achievements: a plant nursery set to deliver 35,000 seedlings a year of both native tree species and agroforestry planting materials. This nursery is the foundation on which upcoming initiatives are built. 

The entire convoy crowded into the project’s main office, the most full it had ever been. Over lunch, conversation turns to the models of local development, the surrounding biodiversity, and how it’s used. The goal is to enhance livelihoods by building natural capital, and the capacity to utilise it sustainably. This takes many forms, some that you might not expect. 

A desire to undertake artisanal mining for minerals such as beryl and tryphan within and around the protected area was raised. The decision-making process for the development of activities like this lie wholly with the Malagasy government. Only the people of Madagascar can give a verdict on how best to use Madagascar’s natural resources. 

It’s vital to remember that most who call the Itremo region home live on less than $2 a day, well below the UN poverty line. Solutions must be found that improve this situation, and through our in-country partnerships, Kew is helping to develop these solutions that best support biodiversity too.

Protection of biodiversity has to be done in parallel with lifting communities out of poverty. You cannot help biodiversity without helping people. 

Discussions continued later within Itremo village itself, where the Madame President of the National Assembly engaged the community. A highlight was the support for Kew’s role in biodiversity protection and development in the region, in speeches by both the Madame President and the UK Ambassador. 

Shading constructed from bamboo protects a FMH project plant nursery
The FMH project nursery in Ihazafotsy showing shading constructed from bamboo and the Itremo Massif landscape. © Paul Wilkin, RBG Kew

The road back, the road ahead

A swift meal of rice, zebu meat, and the chrysalis stage of the landibe moths, and it’s over. The convoy departs on the long road back. 

In as little as a few hours, pivotal moments for conservation have taken place. 

We hope that regional political leaders left with knowledge and confidence in Kew’s biodiversity protection activities in the region 

Kew’s project at Itremo have already included the creation of a conservation checklist concerning the region’s threatened taxa, as well as research on livestock management that seeks both livelihood improvement and forest protection through more efficient. With FMH now joining this roster, and stakeholders taking their places, it’s only going to get bigger from here.  

Important dialogues have been created between major stakeholders to explore the next steps of conservation and development, steps that should benefit biodiversity too, with the support from Kew and partners in Madagascar. 

Above all, the support from the communities of the protected area towards this plan for the future has been seen throughout the tour. Without the buy in of the communities themselves, there can be no project, nor will long term conservation here be possible. The future of biodiversity is in human hands.

Discussions taking place between a large group in a Malagasy village
Fidelis Sitrakiniavo explaining village savings and loan association implementation and its potential impact on livelihoods and biodiversity to Madame PAN), His Excellency Mr. David Ashley and other guests. © David Rabehevitra.
A huge landscape shows trees and grassland in Madagascar.

Read more about the new FMH Project in Madagascar

'Fitantanana Maharitra Holovainjafy'

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