Lessons for developing countries in expansion of Madagascar’s protected area network

Photo by Jouise Jasper.


Developing countries worldwide are expanding their protected area networks, and a recent paper that examines how Madagascar greatly expanded its own protected area system over the past decade and a half may have valuable lessons for how they should proceed.

The government of Madagascar committed to tripling its protected area system at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa in 2003. By 2016, protected area coverage in the country had actually quadrupled, from 1.7 to 7.1 million hectares. Whereas most protected areas (PAs) established in Madagascar prior to 2003 were managed solely by the Malagasy government, post-2003 PAs adopted a variety of new management and governance systems.

The aggressive growth of Madagascar’s PA system and the diversity of approaches employed make for a particularly poignant case study, according to Charlie Gardner, a researcher with the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the UK’s University of Kent and the lead author of a recent paper published in the journal Biological Conservation that looks at what other developed countries can take away from Madagascar’s experience.

“Madagascar is a fascinating place to study protected areas (which are our most important conservation strategy, covering 15% of the planet’s land surface) because i) it is one of the world’s top conservation priorities due to unparalleled levels of endemism, ii) it is one of the poorest countries on Earth, with a 70% rural population that often depend heavily on natural resources, and iii) since 2003 it has been busy expanding its protected area system at a rate possibly unmatched by any other country,” Gardner told Mongabay in an email.

Initially, protected areas not just in Madagascar but around the world were conceived as places governed solely by state agencies where all extractive uses of natural resources were forbidden. But, Gardner says, creating new protected areas in Madagascar using this “strict” model would have required imposing huge social costs on the poorest classes of Madagascar society, as it would have denied them access to natural resources on which they depend for their livelihoods.

“Thus the [Malagasy] government and its NGO partners developed new models of ‘multiple-use’ protected areas that would aim to simultaneously conserve biodiversity and promote poverty alleviation and development,” Gardner said. “Most of the new protected areas that have been established also have new models of governance, being run in collaborative systems by NGOs and associations of local communities.”

The habiats of many of Madagascar’s unique species, such as the long-tailed ground roller (Uratelornis chimaera), were previously completely unprotected. Now this species is conserved in two new protected areas. Photo by Jouise Jasper.

Though much research has focused on where to site PAs and their efficacy as a conservation intervention, we still know comparatively little about the realities of PA governance and management as it currently happens on the ground, according to Gardner and his co-authors, all of whom are Malagasy or long-term residents of Madagascar and work for a variety of NGOs that directly contribute to the establishment and management of PAs.

“This knowledge gap is a particular concern given that recent decades have seen the rapid evolution of both protected area theory and practice, and a progressive global transition from centrally-governed, strict PAs managed for conservation, research and recreation to more complex institutions managed for multiple conservation and human development objectives through shared-governance structures,” they write.

Gardner and co-authors note that some 40 percent of PAs across the globe are already managed for multiple uses, and that 25 percent of sub-Saharan PAs are administered by non-governmental institutions. The researchers hope that the successes achieved and the challenges identified via their examination of Madagascar’s efforts to expand its PA system might help inform how global protected area coverage continues to expand.

“An improved understanding of contemporary PA management is critical to inform policy, orient research agendas and generate best practice, and thus ensure that PAs are effectively managed in line with requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD),” they write. “This is particularly pressing as CBD signatories are expected to extend their PA portfolios to cover 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020.”

In the paper, Gardner and team examine how the policies and practices under which Madagascar’s protected areas are governed have evolved since 2003. The objectives of PAs have shifted, for example, from prioritizing conservation, research, and recreation to also seeking the preservation of cultural heritage and the promotion of sustainable natural resource use as a means of allowing for economic development and poverty alleviation.

Meanwhile, the new governance structures employed in post-2003 PAs place greater emphasis on working with all parties affected by the establishment of a PA in order to implement strategies for mitigating impacts to local livelihoods as well as compensating locals for lost opportunity costs that result from restricted access to the newly protected area.

Several challenges facing the future of PA management and governance are also identified in the paper. For instance, while it’s widely accepted that local communities must have a role in decision-making, “the effective level of local community participation in decision-making
may vary between sites,” the authors write.

Madagascar’s rural populations are extremely poor and rely heavily on natural resources. Much of the work of protected area managers revolves around improving livelihoods (such as farming), so as to reduce people’s dependence on destructive practices such as shifting cultivation and charcoal production. Photo by Louise Jasper.

Another of the more pressing issues is funding, Gardner told Mongabay. He and his co-authors found that 13 Malagasy PAs are currently without active management and can thus be considered “paper parks,” or areas that are protected on paper only. Another 29 are what the researchers call “orphan” sites, meaning they were selected and promoted by an NGO, but, due to the withdrawal of funding or the shifting priorities of an international donor, never received official protected status.

“Establishing PAs is a long-term process but funding is typically available only as short-term projects,” Gardner said. “Many PAs have therefore adopted an entrepreneurial management style in order to diversify revenue streams and reduce dependence on traditional donors and their ever-changing preferences.”

A number of new protected areas are managed by community groups in conjunction with small teams of NGO staff, all of whom are operating on limited budgets and capacity.

“Since these sites may be surrounded by 20,000 or more incredibly poor households that have almost no option but to encroach on the PA with their shifting cultivation or charcoal production, it is clear that the available resources are hopelessly mismatched to the scale of the problem,” Gardner added. “If the world wants to protect lemurs and help Madagascar save its wondrous biodiversity, then it is going to have to pay for it (and a lot more than it is currently doing).”

Other challenges discussed in the paper include the limited resources most developing countries have at their disposal for surveillance and law enforcement in PAs, and the site-specific task of balancing extractive resource uses with conservation goals, especially given that some resource use by local communities is generally necessary in order to mitigate the impact on local livelihoods.

By improving how we manage PAs, Gardner contends, we can improve their benefits for people and the environment. “While [protected areas] do tend to reduce deforestation compared to unprotected areas, they are still far from 100% effective — they are still losing forests,” he said.

“But actually if we want to increase their effectiveness then measuring their impact quantitatively isn’t the most interesting or important question — we instead need to know why they are not as effective as we’d like. Only by understanding why can we adjust our strategies and become more effective. However there is very little such research — we hope that the issues raised in our paper will provide a useful starting point for researchers looking to investigate this critically important question.”

The critically endangered golden-crowned sifaka (Propithecus tattersalli) is another species whose habitat was completely unprotected, but the Loky-Manambato protected area has now been established to protect it. Photo by Louise Jasper.
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