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Remembering conservation visionary Leon Rajaobelina

© CI/photo by Kevin Connor

Leon Rajaobelina, the longtime head of the Conservation International Madagascar program and a prominent leader in that country, passed away January 11.

Rajaobelina’s contributions to Conservation International, its missions and its partners were many. As the leader of Conservation International Madagascar for more than 20 years, he drove the creation and preservation of conservation projects in critical areas across the country, helping ecosystems and communities alike.

In 2003, Rajaobelina was instrumental in convincing President Ravalomanana to publicly commit to tripling the size of Madagascar’s protected areas, and in 2014, he convinced President Rajaonarimampianina to recommit to those targets. In 2005, he spearheaded the Madagascar Foundation for Protected Areas and Biodiversity, serving as chairman until 2011. In addition, he co-chaired the Steering Committee of the Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services Initiative.

His long and distinguished career included work in the public and financial sectors in Madagascar and internationally. Before he joined Conservation International, Rajaobelina served as alternate executive director of the International Monetary Fund, governor of the Central Bank of Madagascar, Madagascar’s minister of finance and its ambassador to the United States. He also acted as Special Advisor to the president of Madagascar, working to advance the nation’s development strategy with international donors and others.

In a tribute to Rajaobelina, Conservation International’s Chairman of the Board and former CEO, Peter Seligmann, and former president, Russell Mittermeier, shared the impact he had on them and their work. “Leon was a remarkably thoughtful and wise leader. He was a visionary, seeing from the early days the direct link between human well-being and the ability and willingness of a nation to protect nature. And, he was a financial wizard, leading national and global efforts to define the economic value that nature brings to nations, and the economic peril that the destruction of nature causes to people and to countries.

“Leon understood the Conservation International idea of ‘head in the sky and feet in the mud.’ In Madagascar, where the contrast of biodiversity wealth and economic poverty is as stark as any place on earth, Leon persistently and successfully convinced sequential Malagasy heads of state that the path to economic advancement was actually a path of biodiversity protection and conservation. At the same time, Leon built a world-class team to strengthen local conservation efforts with an emphasis on the benefits to local communities of building exceptional ecotourism opportunities.”

Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at Conservation International.