Serge Rajaobelina: Betting on Nature

Conservationist Serge Rajaobelina is combining long-term funding and community engagement to transform Madagascar​’s natural wealth into prosperity for its people.

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With a US$ 3,000 check and a vision to reduce poverty in Madagascar through protecting his country's unique plants and animals, conservationist Serge Rajaobelina launched a nonprofit organization.

The year was 1997. Logging, mining, deforestation, agricultural expansion, population growth and an illicit wildlife trade were threatening to destroy the immense natural wealth of this Texas-sized island off the east coast of Africa. Rajaobelina aptly chose to name his organization Fanamby, the Malagasy word for "challenge" or "bet."

Having worked at Conservation International (CI) for 15 years in its U.S. headquarters and as a founding father of CI's Madagascar field office, Rajaobelina decided to go back home and make a difference.

So CI provided the seed money that has since blossomed into an organization whose 50 staff promote community conservation efforts in five of Madagascar's 22 regions.

Fanamby engages communities in conservation through supporting sustainable agriculture, ecotourism, educational radio programs, and monitoring and patrolling protected areas.

In 2005, Fanamby began working with CI's Global Conservation Fund (GCF) to ensure the long-term funding and sustainability of its efforts in the biodiversity-rich Loky-Manambato Daraina Forest Reserve.

Daraina, a mosaic of forests, rolling hills, coasts and rivers, is home to one of the most threatened and rare primates in the world, the golden-crowned sifaka. Thanks to this charismatic lemur species, Daraina has caught the attention of tourists.

For those who want to see Daraina's lemurs up close, Fanamby has helped the community start a budding ecotourism industry that includes a lodge, trained hospitality staff and forest guides, and an agreement with a private tour operator.

"The Malagasy people are starting to understand that if there are no lemurs, there's no development for people," Rajaobelina said.

GCF is currently creating a US$ 2 million endowment that will help fund Fanamby's work in Daraina far into the future.

GCF's forward-thinking and innovative approach in Daraina and other parts of the world marks a significant development in how environmental projects are funded, according to CI President Russell Mittermeier.​

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​"Many foundations invest in a project for two or three years," Mittermeier said. "Then they get donor fatigue or they think they've done the job and they can leave. If you’re making an investment in any place, especially in the developing world, you've got to be in for the long haul."

This financial stability was especially important to local communities in 2009 when Madagascar underwent a presidential coup and many international donors — including several of Fanamby's — withdrew funding. The results of GCF's uninterrupted support have been nothing short of impressive.

Since 98%​ of the population in the Daraina region are farmers, Fanamby has focused on ensuring that their activities are prosperous without undermining the ecosystems that sustain them.

Fanamby provides training to cashew and vanilla farmers so they increase their yields and become organic and fair-trade certified. Fanamby also offers financial and technical support as well as access to processing and packaging facilities.

Fanamby's business unit, Sahanala, even negotiates on behalf of farmers to obtain beneficial contracts with large international food companies such as General Mills and Ben & Jerry's.

"We cut out the intermediaries," Rajaobelina said, adding that farmers previously took out local loans at exorbitant interest rates and didn't have access to the wider market.

"We brought together local producers and the private sector from overseas. We have seen an increase of 450% income generation for the communities. That money is going back to social activities and the environment."

Without support from Fanamby, GCF, Verde Ventures and other partners investing in healthy ecosystems, farmers would most likely plant rice, cassava or other crops that require clearing the land. Or they might cut down and sell trees or participate in extractive activities that degrade the land and rivers.

The continuing growth of cashew and vanilla production ensures the preservation of Daraina's forests and the people and species that rely on them.

As a complement to Fanamby's work in the fields, forests and factories, it broadcasts a radio station that airs programs on sustainable agriculture, health, conservation and water management.

Through all of Fanamby's various projects to promote conservation and development, Rajaobelina has witnessed a shift in how some Malagasy people view nature.

"The wealth of Madagascar is based on conservation," he said. "If our biodiversity disappears, we won't be able to say to the world, 'We're unique.'"

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