Village nearby Makira Natural Park in Northeast Madagascar. The photo shows the complex matrix of land uses upon which local communities rely, such as irrigated and shifting cultivation fields for growing rice, and agroforests for clove and vanilla production, against a background of old-growth tropical rainforest.

Photo credit: Jorge C. Llopis.

By Jorge Llopis, Clara Diebold, Flurina Schneider, Paul Harimalala, O. Ravaka Andriamihaja, Peter Messerli, and Julie Zähringer.

This Plain Language Summary is published ahead of the article discussed; check back soon for a link to the full paper.

Northeast Madagascar is a unique place in many respects. The region boasts a biological diversity almost unparalleled in the world, mostly within old-growth rainforests. At the same time, local people rely almost exclusively on the region’s agricultural and ecological systems for their livelihoods and well-being. There are two overall sets of livelihoods in the area. On the one hand, subsistence rice production, carried out in a shifting cultivation system and in an irrigated paddy system, which besides assuring local food security, is central in supporting socio-cultural life for local people. Given that shifting cultivation requires clearing old-growth, the prevalence of this agricultural system is a major concern for forest conservation. On the other hand, commercial agriculture, concretely of clove and vanilla, main income source for local communities, which are exported to the global market and for which the region is among the most important producing areas in the world.

Our study delved into the implications that protected areas for forest conservation and a recent price spike for clove, and especially vanilla, have had for the well-being of people in four villages in northeast Madagascar. We explored these dynamics by looking at how the multiple dimensions of well-being (e.g. material, subjective and relational) relate to each other, and what is the significance of natural resources for local populations beyond material values.

Our results were mixed. Most people viewed the protected areas positively, as they contributed to conserving the natural environment upon which people rely. However, those relying on shifting cultivation and forest products held a more negative perception of the conservation schemes, as they were no longer able to clear forest for agriculture, which in turn had implications for food security.

In parallel, the spike in vanilla and clove prices was allowing those engaged in their production to improve material well-being aspects, such as housing conditions, or to send children to school. However, for people not producing cash crops, the inflation of basic goods related to the price spike was putting mounting pressure on the household economy. Further, solidarity among community members was being undermined as social relations become increasingly mediated by money, while the security situation was also deteriorating, due to the increasing incidence of vanilla thefts.

Our findings illustrate the complexity of human well-being, and its intertwined relation to the natural environment. They also stressed that conservation impacts are unevenly distributed, as well as the benefits stemming from increased prices of agricultural commodities. For conservation and development interventions to be effective and just, their design and implementation should incorporate the needs and views of those households more at risk of losing out.