Sacred forests help conserve Madagascar's biodiversity | WWF

Sacred forests help conserve Madagascar's biodiversity

Posted on 24 June 2003
Spiny forest, southern Madagascar.
© WWF / Martin Harvey
Antananarivo, Madagascar - WWF is celebrating an innovative approach to conservation, with a commitment to conserve the sacred forests of Sakoantovo and Vohimasio in southern Madagascar through modern forest management mechanisms and traditional practices.

The Mahafaly and Tandroy communities of southern Madagascar, local authorities, and the Malagasy government have made a commitment to conserve the sacred forests of Sakoantovo (6,163ha) and Vohimasio (30,170ha), with responsibility for their management transferred to the local population through an agreement between the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Forests, and local communities represented by their traditional leaders.

WWF has recognized these 2 initiatives as a Gift to the Earth, WWF's highest accolade for a globally significant contribution to the protection of the living world.

During the last decade, conservation efforts have progressively opened to more social approaches integrating local control over natural resources and benefits to local communities. Culture and indigenous knowledge are playing an increasingly important role in conservation and resource management approaches.

In Madagascar, this has been translated by the establishment of a legal framework for community-based natural resource management (Gestion Locale Sécurisée and Gestion Contractualisée des Forêts).

To the Mahafaly and Tandroy communities of southern Madagascar, the forest has always held a central position within social and cultural life, inspiring respect through a great number of taboos and norms. Sacred forests, where the remains of royal ancestors lie, are also sources of many medicinal plants and have therefore been zealously protected for centuries. However, they are threathened by overexploitation of forest resources to meet growing human needs.

Handing the control and management of these natural resources to their traditional stewards is therefore necessary to warrant more effective, sustainable conservation. In 2001, a management transfer process for the Sakoantovo sacred forests was initiated. This led to an official contract in April 2003. In Vohimasio, a similar contract in favour of the Ifotaky community will be finalized on 17 June 2003. These contracts are the first ever in southern Madagascar, and will hopefully inspire other communities to conserve the unique biodiversity of the island.

The Sakoantovo forest contains habitat typical of the spiny forest of southwestern Madagascar, with a transitional zone to riparian forest dominated by Tamarindus trees. It is extremely rich in wildlife including healthy populations of 5 species of lemurs. The sacred forest also shelters the tombs of the Mahafaly Maroseranana royal family.

To neighbouring Tandroy communities, the Vohimasio forest is a sacred place inhabited by spirits and protected by several taboos. Vohimasio is adjacent to another sacred forest that has served as a burial ground for several centuries. The forest is an important core area of conservation landscape in a transitional zone from humid forest to spiny forest that harbours several unique flora and fauna species.

Sacred forests cover a total area of 60,000ha in the Spiny Forest ecoregion of Madagascar, one of the biologically richest drylands on Earth and one of WWF's Global ecoregions - a science-based global ranking of the Earth's most biologically outstanding habitats. According to WWF’s assessments, conserving 15 to 25% of each type of habitat in this region would be necessary in order to preserve its natural riches in the long term. Community-based forest management linked with traditional values and practices therefore represents an important means to reach this conservation objective.

Through their Local Management Committees, the communities of Sakoantovo and Vohimasio have committed to sustainably manage these culturally and biologically unique sacred forests. A management plan for each forest will be finalized in 2004. Efforts are underway to gain further legal recognition for the areas as "agreed protected areas" or provincial parks in 2005.

For further information
Voninjatovo Andriamiarisoa
Dry Forest Ecoregion Programme, WWF-Madagascar