Making WAVES in Madagascar: Putting Nature into the Equation

As part of the World Bank’s WAVES (Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services) initiative, CI is currently conducting a pilot study in Madagascar promoting sustainable development through the assessment and protection of “ecosystem services,” which provide essential — yet often under-appreciated — benefits for people. CI scientist Miroslav Honzák reflects on his initial trip to Madagascar that helped lead to the expanded study.

Men extracting sand from a river in Madagascar. (© CI/Photo by Miroslav Honzak)

After more than 36 hours of travel from Washington, D.C., we finally landed in Madagascar on September 7, 2008. My colleague, Nalini Rao, and I were a little tired, but very excited. We would be leading a workshop on ecosystem services in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, and then visiting Ranomafana National Park, one of the test sites for our project funded by the National Science Foundation.

The overarching goal of our work is to improve environmental management through a new approach to conservation. Researchers around the world have found evidence that protected areas don’t always prevent deforestation, and the costs borne by some local communities from the establishment of protected areas can be quite high. That’s where a new conservation policy tool called Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) comes in, encouraging local communities to stop environmentally harmful practices in exchange for monetary or in-kind benefits. Resources for conservation are often scarce, and PES could provide an important source of financing to improve park management and compensate local communities.

Maintaining rice paddies in Madagascar. (© CI/Photo by Miroslav Honzak)

Together with colleagues at CI and our partners at the Basque Centre for Climate Change, University of Vermont and Earth Economics, I work on developing the Artificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services (ARIES) technology, a tool that uses maps to show the connections between the regions that provide ecosystem services (such as freshwater supply) and the regions that benefit from these provisions (like communities reliant on this water supply). It also identifies ecosystem service “sinks”: areas where the resource benefits are being lost, such as in a polluted waterway.

Madagascar is a perfect place to test this concept. CI has been working in the country for more than two decades, with activities ranging from building latrines to planting trees. In a 2003 effort to halt forest and biodiversity loss and ensure the continued provision of environmental services, the Malagasy government pledged to increase the protected areas system from 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) to 6 million hectares (14.8 million acres), or from 3 percent to 10 percent of the country’s surface.

Milne-Edwards' sifaka in Madagascar. (© CI/Photo by Miroslav Honzak)

Although one of the world’s poorest countries, Madagascar is blessed with amazing biodiversity, popularized by the 2005 animated movie “Madagascar.” More than 100 species of lemur — over 40 of which were found just in the last decade — live here, ranging from the tiny pygmy mouse lemur (Microcebus myoxinus) that easily fits into an empty ostrich eggshell to the mysterious aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), which is the largest nocturnal primate.

In our study, we used data on spatial distribution of mammals, birds and amphibians to represent the “value” of biodiversity, given that most tourism in Madagascar is directed at viewing these three taxa. We therefore assumed that a person’s willingness to pay would be highest for these species.

Nature’s Benefits in Practice

The ARIES workshop was successfully executed thanks to support from our local CI office and USAID financial help. Without this help we would not have been able to talk to local researchers and stakeholders about different aspects of our research. A number of important issues related to local perception about ecosystem services became clear during the workshop. For example, who outside of the community would know that forests are a good hiding place for zebu cattle?

Women washing clothes in a river in Madagascar. (© CI/Photo by Miroslav Honzak)

Nalini and I were pleased with the outcomes of the workshop; however, in order to test our research theories, we needed a practical experience. After consulting the targeting ecosystem maps published in our paper, we decided to rent a car and drive to a place showing the highest density of species: Ranomafana National Park.

Our journey through the countryside was fascinating. Leaving Antananarivo, we observed ecosystem services in practice: hundreds of women doing laundry in a local river (provision of clean surface water for domestic use), acres and acres of rice paddies (provision of fresh water for growing food), men making bricks of clay extracted from their rice fields (provision of building material), women and children selling charcoal (provision of firewood) — not to mention Nalini and I, keen to take advantage of the tourism benefits provided by the region and see its amazing wildlife for ourselves.

Through the storm and hail we arrived at the edge of Ranomafana National Park, where we were given a tour of Centre ValBio Research Station by Dr. Patricia Wright — the executive director of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York and a legend of lemur research. In the late 1980s it was she who spearheaded an integrated conservation and development project that led to the 1991 establishment of Ranomafana National Park.

Nalini and Miroslav in Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar. Their guide, Dauphin, is on the left. © CI/Photo by Miroslav Honzak)

The next morning, Nalini and I woke up early; outside our huts it was pouring hard. With cameras tacked under our raincoats we met our guide, Dauphin Randrianambinina. Soon we were scaling up and sliding down the steep ravines. It paid off when we found a bundle of Endangered golden bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur aureus) huddling together to keep warm, as well as a group of charismatic Milne-Edwards’ sifakas (Propithecus edwardsi). Crossing waterfalls on the way back, we saw many interesting amphibians and birds out and about despite the rain. It was truly a magnificent experience; whenever I think back on that day, I start to daydream.

The Next Steps For Our Study

In the next stage of our research, CI and our partners, under the leadership of my colleague Rosimeiry Portela, are working with the World Bank-led WAVES partnership to deploy ARIES as the principal tool to perform a biophysical assessment and valuation of selected ecosystem services in Madagascar’s Ankeniheny-Zahamena forestry corridor. Preliminary results will be presented at the country’s national WAVES workshop, and a synthesis of the work will be prepared for the WAVES flagship report presented at the Rio+20 meeting in June.

It is encouraging to me that despite Madagascar’s ongoing political crisis, the conservation of the country’s most important ecosystem services and biodiversity is continuing for the benefit of local communities and, indeed, the world. We will report on our progress as things develop.

Miroslav Honzák is a senior technical advisor in CI’s Science and Knowledge division. Download the 2009 paper he co-authored on ecosystem services in Madagascar (PDF – 796.26 KB).


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