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Building Madagascar’s Conservation Brain Trust

Posted on May 3, 2018

A series of programs aimed at boosting early career Malagasy scientists is now bearing fruit as local researchers take on leadership roles in conservation.

Building Madagascar’s Conservation Brain Trust / Mongabay, October 25, 2017

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — Nothing says patience quite like tromping around wet woods in the middle of the night to collar bats and track them back to their daytime roosts. And creativity certainly played a role in a recent study tracking the bushmeat trade by scouring urban dumps for tortoise shells.Julie Hanta Razafimanahaka was a co-author of each of those efforts. But ask her what it takes to become a field biologist in Madagascar and you’ll get a different answer altogether.“Well,” Razafimanahaka said, “you have to be very lucky: that’s the first thing.” And it helps to be friendly too. “That doesn’t mean there’s no chance, it means you really have to talk with many people,” she added — especially researchers with foreign passports.Razafimanahaka got involved in the research project that led to her masters’ thesis not because she was particularly interested in bats, she recalled, but because she was able to finagle a meeting with a Welsh researcher doing fieldwork in her favorite part of Madagascar — the castle-like limestone formations of Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.Nearly fifteen years later, she can trace the arc of her career back to that first meeting. The fieldwork in Tsingy de Bemaraha was part of a series of projects run by scholars at the University of Aberdeen with backing from the British government aimed at building up the CVs and skill sets of a new generation of Malagasy biologists to work on bat conservation.

Yet when the fieldwork wrapped up in 2004, Razafimanahaka recalled, she and her peers found themselves out of work and feeling like the research they’d been part of was unlikely to yield much benefit for Madagascar. Today, Razafimanahaka runs an NGO called Madagasikara Voakajy, founded in 2005. For her, it’s a chance to follow through on the conservation recommendations that are often featured in academic papers on Madagascar but seldom heeded.

Voakajy now works at seven small sites across Madagascar that the group helped to attain protected status. “There were researchers who worked there before,” Razafimanahaka said of Voakajy’s sites. “And I think this applies almost everywhere in Madagascar. Researchers from overseas would come and do research — generally they won’t come back to tell you what they found. The difference in the protected areas where we’ve been working is we did research, and we came back, and talked with people about what we found. And discussed with them what should be done next. And now we are doing these those things,” she said. “I think that makes a big difference.”

In recent years, a growing chorus of conservationists has pushed for more Malagasy leadership in local research, arguing that the work of Malagasy scientists is most likely to take root in conservation policy and practice over the long-term. Despite Razafimanahaka’s early frustrations, Voakajy’s creation is itself an indication that foreign partnerships can have lasting impact. Early international collaborations like the one that helped spawn Voakajy also launched the careers of a cohort of Malagasy scientists. Gradually, researchers like Razafimanahaka are stepping out of the shadows of their better-funded counterparts from overseas. How much farther the next generation will go, though, depends on how much can be done to shore up Madagascar’s higher education system.


Foreign dominance


Foreigners have been instrumental in the creation and management of Madagascar’s protected areas and in defining the country’s conservation priorities, from the first field studies conducted by missionaries and colonial researchers as early as the 16th century to the American biologists who helped garner support for the country’s National Environmental Action Plan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Their influence is also evident in the stark imbalance of scientific literature on Madagascar. According to a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, out of nearly 4,000 publications on biodiversity between 1960 and 2015, more than 90 percent had lead authors based at institutions outside Madagascar.

“Malagasy universities can barely compete by international standards,” the authors write, “with national research institutions receiving so little funding that they have no choice but to engage in international research projects that are led and driven by institutions mainly in Europe and the USA…This situation will impact Madagascar’s development for years to come, profoundly influencing the quality of education.”

Lucienne Wilmé, a French co-author of that study who has lived in Madagascar for 30 years, said foreign dominance has limited the ability of biodiversity research to generate debate and influence Malagasy society more broadly. In the U.S. and Europe, what begins as a journal article often spins off into press coverage or policy proposals, said Wilmé, who also edits the journal Madagascar Conservation & Development.

“So from a scientific publication, you might actually do a lot more,” she said. “But that’s not really happening here because the lead authors are abroad. We really need to have these local universities, Malagasy institutions, publishing more, and also exchanging a lot more, explaining in their own words — including in Malagasy. But most of the science is actually lost in translation.”


The raw ingredients of research


The University of Antananarivo’s hilltop campus is dominated by mid-century brick and concrete buildings that look across the city’s sprawl to the burned out palace built in 1842 for one of Madagascar’s most famous monarchs, Queen Ranavalona I.

The university was founded in 1961 within months of Madagascar’s independence from France, and it remains the country’s premiere institution of higher learning. Today, a handful of Madagascar’s provincial cities have universities of their own, along with satellite campuses in smaller cities. But more than half the country’s college students still go to school at the flagship.

Herpetologist Fanomezana Ratsoavina teaches in a small lab at the Department of Animal Biology here, with cardboard boxes of beakers stacked on the tile counters and textbooks on microbiology and molecular systematics astride a wooden file cabinet.

Ratsoavina’s own trajectory through graduate school gives a sense of both recent progress in Madagascar’s research community and the structural barriers that stand in the way of climbing the scientific ladder from Antananarivo.

As a master’s student in the early 2000s, she recalled scouring the university’s library for any literature that touched on her field — the evolutionary history of reptiles and amphibians — and despairing that the university offered no courses in philogeny, required for the graduate work she wanted to do. One of her classmates recounted writing his master’s thesis in longhand at home, then waiting to type it up on a campus desktop shared by a half-dozen students.

“The internet has changed so much,” Ratsoavina said. Now, she said, “we just google things.”

Googling, though, has its limits. Ratsoavina said she would not have been able to complete her thesis without the help of colleagues in Omaha, Nebraska, who helped her secure a grant to do lab work there, using equipment to analyze DNA that did not exist in Madagascar.

Like Julie Razafimanahaka’s trip to the Tsingy de Bemaraha, Ratsoavina’s relationships with foreign institutions began with a stint as a research assistant for scholars from overseas. “We are happy to have rules to say, if you’re a foreigner, and you want to do some research in Madagascar, you always have to have some master’s students accompany you during your research,” Ratsoavina explained. “You don’t have a research permit if you don’t have a Malagasy student or field assistant with you.”

That provision, which has been in place for decades, has been the start of many a scientific career in Madagascar. At the same time, Ratsoavina said, most Malagasy researchers, whether they’re starting out or already well into their careers, don’t have funding to do fieldwork any other way. As a result, they are often left without much say in the research questions they pursue.

“When you have the money, and you want to publish the data, you want to be the first author,” Ratsoavina said. “Foreign people, they have money to support their studies, so we just kind of let it go,” she said, referring to the recognition and influence that can come from securing funding and leading a publication.

All 30 professors who responded to a 2009 survey of Malagasy researchers by the Sweden-based International Foundation for Science said they relied on a second job to make ends meet. The same group, spanning a wide range of fields, had annual research budgets ranging from $250 to $13,000 (with one exception, who had $37,000), the bulk of it provided by foreign governments and institutions.

Money isn’t the only daunting gap. Madagascar is an island that speaks a different language from most of its neighbors, and one that is expensive both to get to and to leave. The country’s isolation compounds the challenge graduate students face as they try to build up a professional portfolio through contributions to conferences or collaborative work with other institutions.

Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a primatologist who got his PhD at Stony Brook University in New York and teaches the University of Antananarivo, said the latter university has never had a strong research focus. “Most of the faculty here within the university are teachers, very few of them do research,” he said. There is little available data on the the proportion of so-called research faculty (“chercheurs-professeurs”) at Madagascar’s public institutions who actually conduct research, or the amount of time they spend on it; in the 1980s, a government white paper put the figure at just under 10 percent.

Across the board, researchers Mongabay spoke to noted that science departments at Malagasy universities are a long way from the rigor of the institutions in the U.S., Germany, and the UK that have driven biodiversity research in Madagascar.

“I had the chance to spend a year in the UK doing an MSc,” said Julie Razafimanahaka of Voakajy. “And I think there’s a big difference between what you learn here and what you learn there. What you learn here, at least when I was in the university, was not enough,” she said.

“But it’s getting better.”


A product of history


Frank Hawkins, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), made his first trips to Madagascar in the 1980s, just as the socialist president Didier Ratsiraka was beginning to soften the reclusive stance that had been a hallmark of the early years of his regime. “It’s important to recognize that Madagascar only opened up to the West in about 1985,” he said. “So the first ten years or so that I was present in Madagascar, there was tremendous interest in Madagascar, but nobody in the Malagasy academic community had had much contact with science based on biodiversity,” he said.

Under Ratsiraka, Lucienne Wilmé argued, Madagascar was buffeted by overlapping trends that fundamentally weakened the higher education system. As the government faced increased interest payments on foreign debt, the World Bank imposed a hiring freeze across the civil service. In the case of the University of Antananarivo, no new research faculty were hired for 20 years, from 1986 to 2006, leading to a huge generational gap in the teaching corps, even as student enrollment more than doubled during the same period.

On another front, a political movement known as “malgachisation” successfully pushed to switch the language of instruction in grade schools from French to Malagasy in 1975. The aim was to allow students to become truly bilingual — high school courses were in both languages. But over time, it became clear that the transition had been rushed, leaving incoming university students less and less prepared for coursework in French. “When you enter university and you still don’t master the language in which you’re supposed to study, you waste your time,” Wilmé said.

Ratsimbazafy said Madagascar’s history of isolation and underfunding had weakened the faculty and slowed the university’s transition from a focus on classroom teaching to a more research-based science curriculum. In 2007, the average age of faculty members at Madagascar’s public universities was 56, and more than a third of them didn’t have a doctorate.

“If you’re a teacher, you have to renew your [expertise],” Ratsimbazafy said. “This is a dynamic world: how can you know the new technology and new methods if you are not linked to the world? Researchers in Madagascar don’t have role models,” he said.

“I no longer show to people my Madagascar thesis,” he added, referring to graduate work on lemurs he did at the University of Antananarivo, “because it’s just description: ‘oh, he’s eating, oh, he’s singing.’ We don’t have that pressure to state a hypothesis,” he said.

A handful of initiatives like Voakajy — some stretching back more than twenty years — have gradually whittled away at these shortcomings. From 1991 to 2007, the international NGO World Wide Fund for Nature (aka WWF) ran an initiative called the Ecology Training Program, which supported graduate work in conservation science for 75 Malagasy students. The program eventually spun off into an independent organization, Vahatra, which continues to support research under the direction of the program’s alumni. Another group, the U.S.-based Peregrine Fund, has funded graduate work for nearly two dozen Malagasy ornithologists, including one who now directs its conservation programs across Madagascar.


A new era of Malagasy leadership?


Many of the Malagasy scientists who benefited from the mentorship of an early generation of western field biologists have since become accomplished researchers in their own right, earning the convening power that comes with their work. This year, Jonah Ratsimbazafy will help organize an international symposium on lemurs in Toamasina, on Madagascar’s east coast. It’s the kind of conference, he said, that might well have been held in the U.S. in years past. Ratsimbazafy is also spearheading the creation of a data and research aggregation tool, the Madagascar Lemurs Portal, designed to promote tighter collaboration among scientists and policymakers and to better measure the effectiveness of specific interventions in protected areas.

“It’s been 10 or 15 years that Malagasy scientists have been coming into leadership positions,” observed the IUCN’s Hawkins. “It takes time — it’s not a sort of immediate presence in the international academic community that you might expect.” Hawkins believes the imbalance in publications will change over time too. “Foreigners have an extreme drive to produce publications, because it’s the thing that justifies the grant,” he explained. “Malagasy colleagues are quite assiduous, but it’s a skill that takes a long time to build.”

A generation ago, there were not nearly so many young Malagasy scientists with a skillset that could bridge the demands of academic publishing and the delicate work of implementing conservation programs on the ground. Today, in spite of the obstacles they face, the work of biologists like Razafimanahaka and her peers bodes well for the influence of science in conservation, and for the voice of Malagasy experts in decisions that steer their country’s fate.

“What is the main reason you do research?” asked Herman Rafalinirina, a PhD candidate in primatology at the University of Antananarivo’s Department of Paleontology and Physical Anthropology. “For example, you go to a place in the forest, you analyze the data, and afterwards you publish it. Ok, Why? If you work to be a scientist, you have to be a good acvocate for the local people, you have to tell exactly what is the thing that you found. How many foreigners did that after they published something — to go back to the field to tell to the local people what they found? That is the problem. You convince people, you work to save the lemurs, to do research here, and then [you never come back].”

Malagasy scientists, he said, are more likely to return.