* Read a CI statement on the political events that recently occured in Madagascar. *
Standing in the Malagasy forest where he was born, Claude Rakotoarivelo ruefully observes the changes.
“When I was a little boy, I walked in this forest, and 100 meters from my house you could hear the indris calling and hear birds singing,” he says. “Now you have to walk one hour from my house to see the forest. So I began in conservation.”
IN PHOTOS: Discover Andasibe, Madagascar
A slight man with an infectious grin and an unflagging work ethic, Rakotoarivelo is trying to turn back the clock in Andasibe.
As local coordinator for an ambitious reforestation project, he is part of a coalition of partners – including Conservation International (CI) – whose goal is to restore the spectacular forest in central Madagascar, preserve the habitat of flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth and provide sustainable livelihoods for the families that depend on the forest for their living.
Andasibe is a former logging village, a three-hour drive east of the capital Antananarivo, and the access point for a 12,810-hectare park encompassing the Reserve Speciale d’Analamazaotra, known by its French name, Perinet, and the larger Parc National d’Andasibe-Mantadia.
The gorgeous forest is home to, among other endemics, the amazing indri (Indri indri), the largest living lemur, sometimes described as looking like a four-year-old child in a panda suit and equipped with an eerie territorial cry that is part aria and part air raid siren.
The Legacy of Slash-and-Burn Agriculture
Logging and slash-and-burn agricultural practices by local residents have decimated the pristine forest in Madagascar, the island nation where 90 percent of the native tree cover has been lost. Loss of habitat drives extinction.
The work that CI and its partners are doing is designed to preserve what is left, reforest what has been lost and ultimately earn carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol and expand the budding ecotourism that draws visitors to see the indri, the diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema), the eastern avahi (Avahi laniger) and many other species that are endemic to Madagascar and found nowhere else in the world.
IN DEPTH: Learn more about how CI is working with communities to develop successful ecotourism opportunities.
Added pressure comes from Andasibe’s location midway between Antananarivo, the capital, and the port city of Toamasina, both large consumers of charcoal and wood.
“It’s very difficult to change the habits – the local community is used to tavy (slash and burn agriculture) and fire for cultivation – even though they know it causes erosion,” said Jeannicq Randrianarisoa, CI’s sustainable financing coordinator. “That is the role of traditional leaders – the tangalamena – who can influence their clans and communities.”
Andasibe is really a model for CI’s new mission of promoting human well-being by preserving and managing nature’s assets.
“This is really part of the whole new approach by CI to demonstrate that biodiversity conservation can benefit human well-being, and I think that the Andasibe region, with its projects, is one of the best examples we have,” says CI President Russ Mittermeier, whose most recent visit was in January.
“If we don’t have local people benefiting from conservation projects, ultimately we’re not going to succeed,” adds Mittermeier. “It can be a win-win. We can conserve these wonderful animals and at the same time make a major contribution to improving the quality of life for local people.
“The number one priority has to be protection of natural forests – and it’s also the cheapest alternative, by far,” Mittermeier concludes.
He says that if reforestation is done with native species, however, and if natural forests adjoin it, animals that may have been driven away “can re-colonize as the reforested areas grow back.”
READ MORE: Growing Opportunity: Communities Find Incentives in Protecting Local Environments
Rakotoarivelo says he can already see the difference the project is making.
"I'm like the people who live here, we used the forest the same way, for slash and burn agriculture," he admits. "But when I see the wrong destruction, I change my mind. I have the mind of a conservationist."
"I'm just like the others, but my mind changed a little bit," he says. And now he has helped change the minds of many others.
Read Part Two: Bringing the Forest Back to Life – and Life Back to the Forest