People of the Forest The interface of livelihood and conservation in Ambodivohitra, Madagascar.

Andapa: roughly translated from Malagasy to mean “The Kingdom,” the city in the northeast rainforest of Madagascar earned its name when Tsimihety royalty followed the Lokoho River from the eastern seafront west, into the mountains. Encircled by high, thickly forested mountains, the Tsimihety found a flat and fertile expanse of 17,500 hectares, now known as the Andapa Basin.

Supported by rich soil and consistent rainfall, the basin is known as the “rice bowl” of SAVA Region. Rice paddies extend for kilometers while mango and jackfruit trees shade the porches of homes set along dirt roads, vanilla vines grow prolifically behind fences, and white flowers of coffee trees pepper the towns.
From Andapa, the distant peaks of Marojejy National Park tower in the northeast (above), while a view to the southwest mounts Madagascar National Park’s Anjanaharibe-Sud Reserve on the horizon. Both parks are pockets of intact primary forest which house incredible biodiversity, including hold-out populations of severely threatened lemur species. A northwestern stretch of forested mountains called Comatsa connects them; a vital corridor linking the genetic populations of the otherwise isolated national parks.
Ambodivohitra, a village of about 5,000, is one of 67 communities who help protect Comatsa with the assistance of the World Wildlife Fund.

Madagascar is famed for its astounding biodiversity, with 89% of its flora, 93% of its mammals, and all of its amphibians being found nowhere else in the world. But with most rural populations depending on natural resources for work (namely farming, logging, fishing, and rock quarrying) the country struggles with a conflict of interests: high international pressure to conserve as much land as possible, while internal pressure builds to improve livelihoods with a growing population. Here and across the global south, the US's method of "fortress conservation," where absolutely no resource use is tolerated, can't be the only option. So, in the 1990's, conservation NGOs collaborated with federal governments to devise systems of community-based resource management: With the hope of mobilizing local people to protect the island's unique biodiversity, the technique was celebrated as a win-win by conservation organizations and has since taken a number of shapes across Madagascar.

Current VOI president for Ambodivohitra, Rajao, leans against the weathered sign for Marojejy five kilometers outside of town.

For Comatsa, a forest corridor between three massive protected forests in the Andapa basin, transfer of land management to local communities began in the early 2000's under the administration of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. Ambodivohitra is one of WWF's original 42 villages to sign contracts to protect the forest, establishing a land management association meant to diplomatically control their sustainable use of the forest, from land-use permits to reforestation efforts. In this town, VOI (a Malagasy acronym for the association) has incentivized membership by reducing fees for wood harvesting permits, making almost every household participate.

SIT student Marie Crane takes note of this fire and clearing awareness panel, one of 40 funded by WWF and installed by VOIs around Comatsa.

Annual permits to harvest wood or burn land for cultivation are around 3,000 Ariary (about one US dollar) while the fine for harvesting or burning without a permit can range from 300,000 to 500,000 Ar; the average monthly household income being roughly 100,000 Ar. Families are welcome to enter VOI land and collect firewood, as long as they don't cut any living tree. But it takes two to five mature trees--and a permit--to build a new home.

A small logging site near VOI land; loggers abandoned one tree after revealing its hollow center, leaving behind a rum bottle.

A young porter takes a rest from carrying cut timber from the forest into town.

Extended families share a gas-powered table saw for the occasional construction project; here, president Rajao helps straighten a floorboard for his sister's new home.

Around forty of president Rajao's family members celebrate the raising of his sister's new house: When the work is done, the roof frame is consecrated with a bouquet of herbs and water while the women dance, closing with a feast of rice and beans for the family.

Vanilla's current high price has lead to an economic renaissance in the SAVA region: Remote towns like Ambodivohitra are booming, especially in early October when the year's vanilla deals have been struck and farmers are left to spend their profits. Weddings, feasts, parties, and big investments like house building are left until after the vanilla season, when small towns become rife with celebration.

A parade marches through Ambodivohitra as part of a traditional 'turning of the grave' ceremony, a two-day long celebration with community and family members who come from around the country.

But vanilla's high market price takes its toll on the forest. More farmers are growing more vanilla, cutting more forest to do so; and with more money, more trees are being felled for more houses which are being built.

Our biggest threat is principally deforestation, augmented by the high price of vanilla because people want to plant more,” –FENOHORY RAKOTONDRASOA, WWF LANDSCAPE MANAGER
Rajao's neighbor stands in his backyard patch of vanilla; full fields are found outside of town, growing on the mountainsides.

NGOs work to adjust conservation techniques according to community needs and interests, and vanilla is no exception: Routine training sessions are offered in villages to educate about new environmentally and economically beneficial growing methods, like agroforestry for vanilla. Marcel, VOI president from 2005 to 2015 for Ambodivohitra, remembers the early years of his leadership when WWF used to call town-wide meetings to teach new sustainable farming techniques and give the town tools for rice and vegetable growing, sometimes as often as three times a year. Now in the midst of their 10-year contract with WWF, they haven't had a training session since before 2015. "Now when they come," Marcel explains, "they just say 'thank you' and tell the community they're doing a good job at protecting the forest." Marcel sees the NGO's waning involvement negatively: "There’s less protection if there no vazaha [foreigners] come or if WWF don’t visit. People here aren’t afraid of people here. We need WWF.”

Jean-Charles, one of Ambodivohitra's five "forest police," who patrol the forest monthly and accompany community members cutting wood or burning new land in the forest.

But excessive support wouldn't be productive; ideally by this phase NGOs are acting as a support system to a self-governing association.

“We’re reorganizing our influence in the rural communities. We want to lessen our active involvement and encourage independence.” FENOHORY RAKOTONDRASOA, WWF LANDSCAPE MANAGER
A parcel of old cropland the VOI is reforesting with acacia trees.

The VOI system has done great things to protect Comatsa. WWF has successfully orchestrated mass reforestation efforts, planting almost 200,000 trees within five months in 2017, launched education programs through signage and radio campaigns, and the number of VOIs themselves have increased from 42 to 67 in the past three years. According to the Management Effectiveness Tracking Tool (METT) the forest's score rose from 5/102 in 2015 to a score of 75/102 in 2017.

A bulletin board in Ambodivohitra with posters about local reptile species and the dynamics between water quality and forest conservation.

But with all of Comatsa's successes, VOIs are still far from autonomy. Offices raise money from annual memberships fees, selling permits, and giving fines to transgressors; and for eight villages, that was all they needed to self-fund in 2017. In most cases, though, WWF steps in to reimburse patrolmen for their time away from farmwork and support small sustainability projects. Within Ambodivohitra, money raised is spent on projects like mending bridges, fixing schools, and buying medical supplies for the nearest hospital--all of which has been welcomed by the community. But developmental research suggests it may take more than community projects to inspire continued commitment to conservation agendas.

Nearly 100% of Madagascar's reptile and amphibian species aren't found anywhere else in the world, and many are threatened by extinction. Comatsa is habitat for many of these, as well as larger endangered animals like the silky sifaka lemur and the Madagascar red owl.

For Raharson Roger, secretary of Ambodivohitra's VOI for the past 12 years, common advantages aren't enough to make his time spent out of his vanilla and rice fields worth it. "The job isn't difficult," he says, "but we want to get paid." Office members are only compensated for their work when a fine comes in that is large enough to fund a community project and then some, letting the leftovers be split between employees. He explained that currently, townspeople don't "run" for office positions during election years; instead, the community signs individuals up and votes on them, electing them "whether we want the job or not."

I know how important protecting the forest is, but i'm alive, too. –Raharson Roger, VOI Secretary
Tree cover thickens moving up from active fields to partially burned plots to the selectively-logged forest managed by the VOI.

Yet Roger and his coworkers are making strides toward financial independence: In October, the VOI signed a contract with a Swiss development organization called Helvetas, who offered to pay an extra 1,500 Ariary (about $0.50) for every kilo of vanilla sold in town. The raised money will go back to the VOI office and augment their other funds, enabling the community to build larger town projects and sustainability initiatives. Assistance from international organizations like Helvetas is invaluable, but the question of salaries (and higher accountability associated with them) remains unsolved.

Shots from within Comatsa's integral nature reserve: The red marked tree serves as a boundary for the "Ala Fady" or "Taboo Forest" beyond it. A steep and winding road through the protected area is the only way to access some remote villages; products are carried for up to 30 kilometers by porters and the occasional daring tractor. Red strips of cloth hang next to a granite boulder, gifts for a "kalanoro" forest spirit that dwells inside and answers local people's wishes.

Communities like Ambodivohitra lie in the nexus between all conservation ideals and reality: resource use and habitat destruction; nonprofit initiatives and for-profit incentives; nongovernmental organizations and small town administration. And the real rub is that the happy medium between these opposing factors is never uniform; environmental and cultural differences can drastically change what's needed between two neighboring towns, let alone across the global south. But organizations like WWF and Helvetas have spent years developing methods to mobilize these communities, and have since saved thousands of acres of forest while bringing new services to remote areas. Yet the vision of independent, rural conservation hasn't been realized; it may take years more of involved, on the ground work to bring that to reality. And as the threats of climate change and political instability heighten within Madagascar and across the world, pressure to actualize that vision is rising.

A view of Ambodivohitra and it's branch of the Andapa basin from the farmed hills below Comatsa.
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