Seen and Heard: Leaping Lemurs and Conservation Policy in Madagascar

Denna Berg

I was intrigued by Got Anthropology?, a new speakers series at the University of Toronto designed to connect Toronto communities to current anthropological research, last week after seeing speaker Travis Steffen’s ultra-cool job title: “Explorer-in-Residence.” Steffen, an anthropologist turned conservationist, studies lemur populations in the remote regions of Madagascar. His main area of research is analyzing which fragmented forests would prove most beneficial for the lemur population if officially protected.

Madagascar is an interesting venue for conservational studies for many reasons. The country has been geographically isolated for over 70 million years, making the its biodiversity a rare ecological feature. Lemurs are one of many species in Madagascar that are only found on the island, and scientists continue to discover new animals in the region.

Madagascar was a French colony until a violent revolution in 1947. In 1960, Madagascar became an independent state, and military leaders seized power in the 1970s. Like other recent independent nations in the region, the leaders adopted socialist policies with the goal of creating a utopian society. However, the country faced a post-independence economic decline, and by 1982 the International Monetary Fund imposed a Structural Adjustment Program in an attempt to foster economic growth within the country.  In 2009, years of political unease resulted in a coup d’etat, with Andry Rajoelina taking power over President Ravalomanana.

Madagascar’s current socioeconomic situation is demonstrated through devastating statistics. The World Bank estimated that in 2013 approximately 92% of the country’s population lived on less than $2 US a day. Since the coup in 2009, the amount of children who are not enrolled in school has increased, malnutrition is increasingly rampant, and numerous healthcare centers have been shut down.

In his talk, Steffen described how the social conditions in Madagascar are hard to ignore. He discussed how one of the largest concerns of Malagasy people are meeting basic sanitary needs, including access to latrines and clean water. The lack of hand washing also increases risk for a number of illnesses for Malagasy communities. Steffen outlined how throughout his research period in Madagascar he realized how simple it was for him and his research crew (many of whom call Madagascar their home) to assist in improving the living conditions for Malagasies. By providing basic tools and plans on how and where to build latrines, he saw communities improve their own health.

Steffen also described how the current political uproar has resulted in devastating impacts on the policy approaches towards protecting Madagascar’s biodiversity and conservation initiatives. Because of the political turmoil, pervious government support and the policies put in place to protect conservation efforts have been forgotten. For example, deforestation in the Masoala National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has drastically increased since 2009. Masoala Natural Park is one of the richest hotspots of biodiversity in the world. It’s also one of the best legally protected forest regions in the country. Steffen stated that since the coup, many international organizations have pulled out the funding that ensures protection for this area. Today, Masoala’s deforestation rates are higher than some of the Madagascar forests that have no legal protection.

Deforestation is the result of the lucrative and illegal logging industry in Madagascar, which exports rosewood and ebony for the luxury market in China.  The extraction of timber has become a huge problem since the park management system collapsed due to lack of funds and governmental support. It is important to note that those partaking in the $100 million timber industry are generally not poor subsistence Malagasy residents, but rather commercial traffickers.

Another threat to the Madagascar forests is farming practices. In order to avoid poverty, many citizens have to clear cut trees for rice paddies, plantations, and pastures. This is the cause of much of the forest fragmentation that Steffen examines during his research abroad.

The deteriorating conservation initiatives in Madagascar illustrate an example of policy and governance failure. Steffen argued that the current political climate in the area has scared away international support for conservation efforts and has put other matters on the Malagasy peoples’ critical political agenda.

There is hope, however, for the region.  Over the years, ecotourism has made Madagascar a choice destination for people around the world. As a result, locals have been putting pressure on the government to protect the industry through forest conservation. This policy approach will help to address the financial issues of the country while allowing the economy to grow sustainably. Conservation groups have also stepped up to put pressure on the government to reinstate conservation efforts.

Steffen concluded the talk by addressing his own personal pursuits to help with these pressing issues. He is a guide for custom travel agency Kensington Tours, and is taking a group of guests on a 15 day adventure in 2014. For Steffen, this is a way for him to help address the current poverty in the area by ensuring that the community has access to fair wages and economic growth. He also founded “Lambas for Lemurs,” which seeks to inform the local people of Madagascar about the current dangers faced by lemurs and the options available to protect this species. This organization also encourages sustainable living and outlines ways that conservation can assist in improving ecotourism in the country.

To learn more about Steffen’s work in Madagascar check out his website, and be sure to attend future Got Anthropology? events, which are scheduled to happen on the second-last Wednesday of select months.

Denna Berg is a Master of Public Policy Candidate for 2015 at the University of Toronto and a passionate environmentalist. With a degree in Environmental Policy and Procedures, she hopes to become an active advocate for the environmental movement in Canada. Her current projects include: consulting for Sierra Youth Coalition’s Campus Food Systems Project, working as a freelance writer on environmental issues, and actively partaking in the University of Toronto Environmental Action Group. 

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