When Serge Rajaobelina helped found the non-governmental organization (NGO) Fanamby in 1997, modern conservation in Madagascar was relatively new. In the Malagasy language, fanamby means “the challenge” or “the bet,” and the challenge facing Rajaobelina was how to help save the country’s amazing biodiversity while improving the lives of residents of one of the poorest countries on Earth.
“When we started the project the speech we had prepared was we have to protect the forest because it’s the last remaining forest,” Rajaobelina said of a Fanamby project in Anjozorobe. “People were listening, but we were not speaking the same language. We were speaking about conservation and they wanted to hear about development: how to improve health, education, the productivity of the rice, the development of the community.”
Now, Fanamby has grown to encompass six projects in three different regions of the country. Their aim is to develop local competence in sustainable resource management in high biodiversity areas.
The NGO pursues work in areas that are not otherwise legally protected by the government, thus expanding the conservation areas under protection.
READ MORE: In Madagascar, Pioneering a New Model for Conservation.
All their projects are designed to conserve biodiversity and benefit human well-being, whether through a crafts center in Menabe or an ecotourism lodge in Anjozorobe.
Feet in the Mud; A Head for Opportunity
Serge is uniquely positioned to make things happen. He has his feet in the mud and rice paddies of Madagascar, but he has a head in the West, having been schooled in the United States and France.
He is the son of CI regional vice president Leon Rajaobelina, who was Madagascar’s ambassador to the United States in the late 1980s. Serge’s paternal grandfather was a noted Malagasy linguist.
“He’s the perfect cultural mix for getting things done in Madagascar and he has a prestigious last name,” says CI’s Rod Mast.
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In fact, Mast was Serge’s first boss, taking the then 17-year-old on as an intern when Mast was still at WWF. When Mast joined CI in July 1989 he brought Serge along as a paid staffer in the fledgling Madagascar program.
Serge did most of the legwork as CI negotiated a groundbreaking accord in Madagascar that allowed CI to work with any partners in the island nation.
“I was really impressed by Serge’s ability to move within the system; he showed an innate political acumen well beyond his years,” says Mast.
As CI’s presence grew in the country, it required local partners to carry out a lot of the work. After nine years working for CI, Serge founded his own non-governmental organization, taking the name Fanamby from a film about Madagascar produced by CI in the early 1990s.
He is a savvy dealmaker, but also wise in the ways of his country and smart enough to know when to go mora ,mora (slowly, slowly) in negotiating a conservation agreement.
Sustaining Communities through Biodiversity Conservation
When we visited his ecotourism project in Anjozorobe, located in the last remaining highland forest within driving distance of the capital, Antananarivo, Serge proudly showed off the new Saha Forest Lodge, a prime ecotourism destination.
IN-DEPTH: Find out about Madagascar Ecotourism Destinations
“We helped the community acquire the land and build the lodge,” says Serge. “The private sector will manage the property, but they will employ people from the community and use food grown by the community. So it’s more than just training guides or people to receive tourists. It’s providing good tourism facilities that are owned by the community.”
As local residents realize the economic benefits flowing from the beautiful forests and the indris (Indri indri) and other species that dwell there, protecting the area becomes second nature.
“Now we have an investment with the community and they have an investment in the forest and we speak the same language,” Serge says with a smile. “We are giving them the responsibility of managing those resources and conserving them. I’ve seen a change in their mentality, because they know they have to invest in the future.”
READ MORE: Growing Opportunity: Communities Find Incentives in Protecting Local Environments.