29 April 2012

New sapphire rush underfoot - this time in sensitive rainforest

An article in the Telegraph sheds light on a rush to extract sapphires from the rainforest of Eastern Madagascar where I work.

This follows in the wake of substantial gold mining in the area in recent years. The mining has increasingly become a problem in the absence of state enforcement and as local management groups are fighting to gain control over their forests. When I was there last July, I frequently heard the refrain that the law protects what's above the soil but not what's under it.
Artisanal gold-mining pits are rather small and though they may extend in a network over a square kilometer or more, the damage is far more localized than much larger open pit, organized sapphire mining. Photo © Sara Tolliver 2011
Many local people were turning to mining to make a living because they didn't see any other alternatives. It is perceived as a way out of poverty despite the fact that many toil severely without finding enough gold to make it worth their while.

24 April 2012

Sowing justice in the most fertile soils of California’s East Bay

How did you celebrate Earth Day? Did you actively reclaim the last five acres of the most fertile soils in your metropolitan area to utilize it for an agro-ecological demonstration farm for and by the people in the face of a state-corporate partnership to develop it to be able to sell luxury food to the wealthy? No? Well these folks did.

Rallyers marched through North Berkeley and Albany energizing the community around farming and food soveriegnty

I think a lot about food security in Madagascar. About the role of hunting in peoples’ livelihoods; about the different forms that sustainable intensification of rice and other crops can take in order to diminish the necessity to cut the forest for hillside rice; about the benefits the forest provides in terms of soil fertility, water retention, flood mitigation and a safety net to provide resources in the lean months.

But what about here at home? The talk i'm hearing is less around food security and more about food sovereignty. Much of the large tracts of agricultural land in the U.S. has been sucked up by corporate agri-business to plant mono-crops to feed industrial food systems that American consumers are then dependent on for subsistence. Food sovereignty is the idea that we need not be yoked to this system for our right to food, that we can democratically govern our own food systems. A working definition might be the ability of a community to control where its food comes from. Farmer's markets, small family farms, farmland protection, and Community supported agriculture (CSAs) are all essential elements of food sovereignty. Growing Power, out in Milwaukee, WI is showing us one way that communities, can come together to utilize small urban plots to intensively grow quality food where before little was present, and how effective this can be in. The occupy movement is engendering a more radically democratic vision for what food sovereignty can mean. It will be exciting to watch, participate in and learn from this emerging experiment. Raj Patel does a great job making this link over on his blog

Inspired by the Occupy movement, which has built widespread moral support for providing with those who were previously denied – the 99%, East Bay activists held an Earth Day rally and marched to the Gill Tract, in Albany, a piece of experimental farming land owned by UC Berkeley, who has been planning development activities on the land to fill budget shortfalls.  The rhetoric at the rally and march, as well as the organizational structure of the fledgling farm are straight out of Occupy – food for the people, daily community meetings, decentralized management. They are showing us that democracy extends to all our systems and people can take back that which is so primary in our lives: food and the cultural and ecological systems that we derive it from.

The activists are asking the University to protect the land under a permanent agricultural easement. At only 5 acres, if the farm is operated as a CSA it could only support about 250 families, but it could serve thousands as an educational hub for how to run a democratic farm, and millions as a symbol of democracy in action and the principles of food sovereignty.

First acre cleared and planted - at least 4 more to go!

Go to the movements website to see whats happening out at the Gill tract and for opportunities to get involved and support the effort. You can also find them on twitter at @occupyfarm and #occupythefarm. Better yet, head on down and get your hands in the dirt. They have only planted about 1 acre so far and could definitely use more hands.

Info and literature tables are present,  as well as food
and medical stations

Whether Madagascar or the USA, we all have a right to food and should create and maintain the sustainable agro-ecological systems that provide it. In Madagascar, food sovereignty is almost a given since it is mostly subsistence farmers disconnected from the global market, yet food security remains a major concern. Both here and there, though, visions trend toward the same solutions: diverse, democratic institutions to maintain social and ecological resilience amidst rapid global changes.

09 April 2012

How should we prioritize conservation action globally?

Warning: technical material ahead...

Driven by the agreement set by the signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity to “significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 (Jones et a 2011),” conservation prioritization became a hot topic. In light of recent indications that the rate of biodiversity loss has not declined and pressure on areas of high diversity has increased (Butchart et al. 2010), this continues to be a pressing issue. Here I review a piece from 2006 by Brooks et al. entitled "Global Biodiversity Conservation Priorities" which tries to sort out the most effective way of prioritizing conservation ahead of the 2010 assessment, and apply the lessons to what we see in Madagascar today.

Brooks et al (2006) looked at prioritization schemes set by major conservation NGOs and classified them based on axes of irreplaceability and vulnerability. Irreplaceability is usually indicated by levels of endemism, but can include taxonomic uniqueness  and rarity of habitat types but these are hard to quantify. Richness is not of primary concern because “species richness is driven by common, widespread species; thus, strategies focused on species richness tend to miss exactly those features most in need of conservation (Brooks et al 2010).” Vulnerability is not clearly defined here but is a temporal indicator of threat. The most commonly used indicators are proportional habitat loss and protected area coverage. The authors bemoan the lack of consideration of demographic change, pressure from hunting, governance and institutional weaknesses and (which I found hugely surprising that it wasn't present) cost.

There is also a spatial component to these schemes and they all use overlapping “ecoregions” to define funding rather than a grid-based system. This has substantial effects on prioritization and the authors suggest normalizing these ecoregions because they are biased towards larger ones. Grid-based methods, however, like that used by Kremen et al (2008) to prioritize nationally in Madagascar, should supersede this concern.

By mapping the 9 most common prioritization schemes the authors were able to find high overlap within two groups of strategies, proactive and reactive, but not across them. Both proactive and reactive strategies prioritize high irreplaceability but reactive strategies also prioritize those with high vulnerability because these are the sites where action is most urgently needed while the proactive strategies prioritize low vulnerability because this is where conservation is most easily done(less politically charged and often cheaper).

The authors judge the success of the prioritization based on how much of the flexible funding available for conservation it was able to capture – the wrong measure. Shouldn’t we judge success on conservation outcomes? If we are going to focus on finances we should be looking at cost-effectiveness, which isn't included at all here, rather than funds captured. This data is becoming more readily available and will be a factor of future prioritizations so as that data is incorporated, this is likely to change. There are also political reasons why this is the wrong measure – CI appears to be moving away from the Hot Spot approach (or so says Kareiva, the head of The Nature Conservancy), lauded here for garnering the largest share of the pie, and turning to a people-centered ecosystem service approach to prioritizing funding. If the "success" of these priorities are so transient they are not useful in making future prioritizations. 

Most of Madagascar, especially the highly diverse moist forests, is prioritized by most of the reactive schemes, while the dry deciduous forests of the west are also prioritized under proactive schemes that look for areas of low threat. The overlap here demonstrates the need to more deeply investigate the level of vulnerability of this ecosystem.

Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena (CAZ) illuminates some of the complexity of prioritization. Madagascar itself was identified under the Hot Spot approach by Conservation International, a reactive scheme, but the particular site, an approximately 400,000ha area of contiguous forest, was selected based on irreplaceability and low vulnerability (ie it was an easy area to protect because of low human populations in the forest interior). Now, an ecosystem-service narrative, rather than a biodiversity one drives continued funding and discourse around CAZ. This shows the differences of scale and discourse in prioritization, which aren’t captured by an assessment of global schemes.

While there may be overlap between biodiversity priorities and ecosystem service priorities in terms of carbon and water quality, they by no means must overlap and we need to be clear about what it is that we are prioritizing. As of now, while we are shifting toward a commodity view of how to protect areas, there is far too often a lack of clarity. In fact, we still don’t have a strong understanding of the relationship between biodiversity and specific ecosystem services. This muddiness and ambiguity is yearning for clarity.

Brooks, T. M., Mittermeier, R. A., da Fonseca, G. A. B., Gerlach, J., Hoffmann, M., Lamoreux, J. F., Mittermeier, C. G., et al. (2006). Global Biodiversity Conservation Priorities. Science313(7 July 2006), 58-61.
Butchart, S. H. M., Walpole, M., Collen, B., van Strien, A., Scharlemann, J. P. W., Almond, R. E. a, Baillie, J. E. M., et al. (2010). Global biodiversity: indicators of recent declines. Science (New York, N.Y.)328(5982), 1164-8. doi:10.1126/science.1187512

Jones, J. P. G., Collen, B., Atkinson, G., Baxter, P. W. J., Bubb, P., Illian, J. B., Katzner, T. E., et al. (2011). The why, what, and how of global biodiversity indicators beyond the 2010 target. Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, 25(3), 450-7. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01605.x
Kremen, C., Cameron, A., Moilanen, A., Phillips, S. J., Thomas, C. D., Beentje, H., Dransfield, J., et al. (2008). Aligning Conservation Priorities Across Taxa in Madagascar with High-Resolution Planning Tools. Science, 320(222), 222-226. doi:10.1126/science.1155193

Has anything happened in Madagascar the last 6 months?

Re-revving the bloggin engine.

Here are a list of links that focus on Madagascar and/or conservation that I was considering reacting more fully to over the last 6 months. Oldest first.

New research agenda for Africa’s dry forests defined at Durban - CIFOR
Back in December, in conjunction with COP17 in Durban, a 1 dy conference was held to discuss dryland forest. Despite covering much of the African continent, this ecosystem has been largely ignored by carbon politics because it is far less densely forested than humid forests. It also happens to support more than half the population of the continent. This piece highlights the take homes from the conference, dryland forest value and some of the challenges.

Madagascar squares up to 'extreme' climate vulnerability - AlertNet
Also at Durban, there was discussion of the vulnerability of Madagascar to climate change. "Maplecroft, an international risk analysis firm, ranks Madagascar third for “extreme” climate risk in the world, behind only Bangladesh and India, Rakotoarisoa said." FOlks are working on rice intensification through low-till processess and flood and drought resistant seeds. THey have also been developing early-warning systems for cyclones, which became very necessary as two major cyclones hit Madagascar in the months after this report.

Madagascar’s Lemurs, Sacred No More - NYTimes
There was a flurry of coverage in the wake of a couple of papers that came out around hunting and taboos in Madagascar. One of the things things that Jenkins et al (2011) noted was that as traditional taboos were changing (due to migration and religious transitions amongst others) that endangered lemurs were becoming more culturally acceptable to hunt. This work was done very close to and found far higher rates of bushmeat consumption than we did.

Caution urged in sale of Madagascar's illegal timber stockpiles - Mongabay
In light of the recent announcement that Gabon is set to burn its ivory stockpiles, this February discussion of how to deal with Madagascar's illegally harvested precious hardwood's gains some poignancy. "Done right, funds from selling timber at auction could go toward forest protection and poverty alleviation efforts. Done wrong, sales of confiscated timber could enrich traffickers, boost demand for Madagascar's rare hardwoods, and spur new logging."
Help Madagascar Silk Weavers Share Their Experiences and Work Towards Sustainability - Hurry Boy It's Waiting There For You
Intrepid blogger and Madagascar RPCV Chris Planicka shares a story about the silk weavers of Madagascar and their (still current) efforts to get the cash they need to build markets in the US for their amazing scarves and hats. This effort is being innovated upon by NGOs in the north of the island in their attempt to find sustainable incomes for folks living next to and within new protected areas. The PCV -partnered project that Chris talks about seems to have better footing to me.

Indonesian 'Eves' colonised Madagascar 1,200 years ago - PhysOrg
A recent study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society determined from genetic analysis that about 30 women (plus men, potentially) settled Madagascar from Indo-Polynesia about 1200 years ago. Women weren't found on trading vessels so the question is open as to how they came to arrive in Madagascar...

Species Hitched Ride to Madagascar on Floating Islands - Live Science
Madagascar has been seperated from the mainland for 80 million years and the species on the isalnd radiated after that time. So how did they get there? By comparing the times and locations that current species on the island would have separated from their nearest neighbors, Karen Samonds from the University of Queensland, Australia says we can conclude that it must have been on large rafts of vegetation floating across the Mozambique channel. "For example," she says, "DNA evidence indicates that just one primate species made it across, probably 40 or 50 million years ago, and that ancestral form gave rise to the 101 descendent species you can find in Madagascar today."

and finally...

Learning on the Road to Nowhere in Madagascar - NYTimes Scientists at Work Blog
An entomologist who has worked for years in Madagascar tries to reach a largely pristine forest in one of the remotest corners of the island during the peak of rainy season. What can go wrong. This exciting post shows how adventurous (and maybe a bit crazy) we have to be to love doing this kind of work.