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Learning Politics to To Preserve the Forests of Tsinjoarivo, Madagascar

   Mitch Irwin with his Colleagues

Mitch Irwin (middle) with his colleagues from
Tsinjoarivo project. (Photo by Mitch Irwin)

Mitch Irwin

Primate conservationists face a myriad of challenges and unpredictable twists of fate. I have academic training in things like censusing, ecology and animal behavior, so the challenges of the human side of conservation are the hardest part of the job. As a PhD student beginning field research in Madagascar ten years ago, I decided to established my own field site in Madagascar, at a poorly-known high-altitude forest site called Tsinjoarivo. It was exciting to start from the ground up, observe new primate species, and have the chance to make a conservation impact in a region that was unprotected. But it was daunting, and progress was excruciatingly slow at times in the early years as I trained guides, got to know the landscape, mapped trails, and studied the lemurs–all partially supported by PCI.

I have tried to combine research efforts with actions to promote local conservation and development. With my two research colleagues at Tsinjoarivo Jean-Luc Raharison and Karen Samonds, I founded an NGO called SADABE ( to formalize these efforts.

  Illegally log trees made into lumber
at Mitch Irwin’s site in Madagascar.
(Photo by Mitch Irwin)
  The diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema)
from Tsinjoarivo, Madagascar
(Photo by Mitch Irwin)

The threats to conservation at Tsinjoarivo were relatively benign during my PhD research (which ended in 2005). Things started to get interesting in 2006, when the Malagasy government awarded a “Management Transfer” contract to a local community association near one of our study areas at Tsinjoarivo. There has been a lot of debate in conservation about whether local communities are better stewards of their natural resources than governments and NGOs, but in this case the results were disappointing. Although the contract spoke of sustainable management, the reality was commercial logging which began in 2007, and the proposed reforestation never happened. I strongly believe that the local community was manipulated by forces from the capital – a few city people who were the motivation for the transfer in the first place, and unfortunately the same people that bought the timber locally for low prices and sold it in the capital at a huge profit. The benefit to the local community in the end was small and fleeting.

PCI’s grant was crucial in funding my emergency trip to Madagascar in late 2007 when I desperately needed more time in-person, on-the-ground, to make a difference. That trip had a lot less lemur time and a lot more office time than my previous trips, but we made some headway: Jean-Luc and I lobbied the government at various levels, and hosted forestry officials to visit the site and observe the damaging processes. In January 2008, the government cancelled the contract. I strongly believe the contract was bad for both humans and biodiversity at Tsinjoarivo, and this experience strengthened my resolve to improve people’s livelihoods in more sustainable ways.  A second unexpected challenge is Madagascar’s current political crisis  which led to a spike in deforestation in more remote areas of Tsinjoarivo, as a small number of local people took advantage of the government’s distraction (for example, the forestry ministry had no money even to buy gas to visit the forest). Again, a PCI grant allowed me to return to Tsinjoarivo in 2009 to arrange for forest monitoring and more lobbying at different levels of government. For now, the deforestation has largely stopped. Has all this lobbying had a positive effect? The answer is undoubtedly yes, but a lot of work remains to be done. Luckily, SADABE is becoming recognized as a major stakeholder at Tsinjoarivo – and this August we are hosting a workshop at Tsinjoarivo involving all levels of government plus businesses and NGOs, to discuss synergistic ways forward in our collective research, conservation and development activities. Without a doubt, both the primatologists and the primates living at Tsinjoarivo owe a lot to PCI’s support.


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