How can biodiversity be protected in the context of extreme poverty? Is it possible to slow down the rapid growth of a country's human population? Are there any initiatives that have successfully demonstrated the integration of solving human development challenges and protecting nature? If so, are grassroots, community-based efforts in these domains more or less impactful than those of the larger international organizations? These were some of the questions that prompted my fourth visit to Madagascar.

On my first three visits, I was on assignment for the world’s largest nature conservation organization, called WWF. My role was helping to establish a young volunteers program that places participants, drawn from around the world, at remote WWF project sites for several months. They live with villagers and work with WWF field staff on a gamut of nature conservation initiatives. Many of these initiatives address human impacts on the forest, but solving poverty is not the core mission of WWF. Through this experience I was brought into contact with several grassroots nature conservation organizations, some of which were having tremendous success, as well as setbacks, in working with local communities.

However, I always had the feeling that some of the root causes of the loss of biodiversity were not being taken into account. One of these is extreme poverty. The average person in Madagascar lives on less than two US dollars per day. In some places it is less that $1.25 per day, which is among the lowest in the world. Most people have a subsistence agrarian way of life (i.e. growing enough food to feed their families). Some barely participate in the cash economy.

Another root cause of biodiversity lost in Madagascar is the country's high rate of population growth. In the late 1960s there were about 6 million people in Madagascar; today there are more than 24 million. It's not unusual to see families with six or more children. The Malagasy (people of Madagascar) who live in rural areas typically clear forests to expand their agricultural activities and/or to get wood to fuel their cooking. As the population has expanded, the forests have shrunk. Most of the biodiversity is contained within the forests and herein lies the challenge.

The Silky Sifaka is critically-endangered species of lemur, and one of more than 100 species of lemur found in Madagascar.

Madagascar — a living record of ecological antiquity.

Madagascar — a living record of ecological antiquity.

In the view of many scientists and nature conservationists, Madagascar is the single highest priority country in the world for protecting biodiversity. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world as well as the oldest island on Earth. Its natural wonders have evolved there in isolation since it broke free from the African continent about 165 million years ago, and then separated from India over 80 million years ago. Astonishingly, about 90% of Madagascar's thousands of plant and animal species are endemic (found nowhere else on the planet). However, what's especially important (and not commonly known) is that incidence of endemism in Madagascar is not limited to the taxonomic level of species but is in fact unparalleled in the world at the deeper taxonomic levels of genus and family. In other words, there is deep heredity of the "tree of life" — and a living record of ecological antiquity — found amongst the plants and animals existing today in Madagascar. This is why, from a biodiversity conservation perspective, Madagascar is probably singular in its importance.

During my fourth (this one self-funded) visit to Madagascar, I convened a group of people from non-profit organizations and aid agencies that were working on nature conservation or some aspect of human development (primary education, sanitation, economic development, maternal health, etc). We did a road trip together through the southern highlands region to visit a number of communities that hosted various projects that aim to tackle one or more of these challenges. There were several interesting projects visited and some excellent discussions within the group.

Members of Ny Tanintsika

The most rewarding part of the trip for me happened at the end when we spent a day with an organization called Ny Tanintsika, which translates to Our World. They are a regional non-profit organization operating in the southern highlands and they have a methodology of integrating a range of diverse projects with the goal of both protecting nature and advancing the well being of the Malagasy. Each of their initiatives is connected to the others in a way that strengthens each one and forms a cohesive whole. It was a tangible example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Schoolteacher with counselling session invitation card.

I was introduced to a woman who, in addition to being a schoolteacher, also spends part of her time counselling young couples in the surrounding villages on family planning options (i.e. various types of contraception). As it turns out, most couples want to have fewer children because supporting huge families is a burden. Yet many people in remote parts of Madagascar have never heard about contraception, and fewer have access to contraceptive products. Ny Tanintsika provides the birth control products for a very modest fee and trains women like the schoolteacher in conducting family planning consultations with couples. The schoolteacher told me that more than half of the women of childbearing age that she had counselled in the previous five years had taken up some form of contraception and were benefiting from having smaller families.

In the same village, another Ny Tanintsika project is a cash generating activity that involves women spending a few hours a week away from their agriculture activities weaving baskets and hats from a long grass that grows near their homes. Ny Tanintsika then sells these products on the women’s behalf in the capital city. The women who have had fewer children are the ones with the extra time to partake in this micro enterprise, proving an initial benefit of the family planning program.

Some of the funds earned from the sale of the hats and baskets were used to purchase mosquito bed nets for the village. Malaria is prevalent in the region. Sometimes it kills people but more often it makes people very ill for several weeks. In a subsistence agricultural economy like Madagascar’s, an adult sick with Malaria, or staying at home looking after a loved one who has contracted it, has significant food security consequences because the ill and their caretakers are taken away from attending to their crops. Mosquito nets placed over beds are very effective at preventing people from contracting Malaria because people are most likely to be bitten by mosquitoes while they sleep. Those families with mosquito bed nets are healthier and more productive. In this way, the micro enterprise of making hats and baskets has provided very real health and economic benefits to the community.

Montane forest found above a village in Madagascar's southern highlands.

The villages in this region are located just below montane forests that provide a very important forest corridor between two large national parks. It’s constantly threatened and keeping the corridor intact is a priority for Ny Tanintsika. This forest corridor is now being promoted as a nature hiking destination for eco tourists. Ny Tanintsika assisted the villagers in building a rustic visitor cabin beside their village. If a small group of visitors spends just one night a month at the cabin, the income generated for the village is significant — in fact it would amount to the most cash the village had earned that month.

The village can use those funds to purchase better farm tools, supplies for their school, more mosquito bed nets, etc. Developing the visitor cabin has demonstrated the tangible value to the community of preventing the nearby primary forests from being destroyed. An ancillary benefit for the community of protecting the forests is ensuring that the surface water they use to drink and cook with — which is derived from streams originating in the mountain forests — remains clean. In other parts of Madagascar where the forests have been destroyed (resulting in streams polluted with silt) villagers must dig wells in order to obtain potable water. Ny Tanintsika has also mobilized villagers around a reforestation program in the region, which includes community-run nurseries growing endemic tree species.

The experience of the Ny Tanintsika projects taught me how a thought out suite of interventions has the potential to create an upward spiral of human development and nature conservation successes. The story I’m telling here is a simplified version of what is really happening. After all, I only visited this place for one day. There is nuance and complexity that I would like to study further. The work of Ny Tanintsika remains largely unknown, even among those who are interested in Madagascar. There would be great value in a thorough investigation of this organization’s work, especially if it would encourage the lessons it has learned to be adopted in other parts of Madagascar and perhaps beyond.

 Find out more about Ny Tanintsika through their sister organization, Feedback Madagascar.

To learn more about Madagascar, see my two-page description of this otherworldly country here.

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