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Friday, 18th December 2020

What part do fish play in Project Mahampy?

By Emma Irving

Women from the Sainte Luce community harvesting mahampy reeds (Lepironia mucronata) from the mahampy swamps for weaving.

What could freshwater fish possibly have to do with weaving? In rural Madagascar, weaving is one of the few livelihood opportunities available to women and enables them to bring a small but essential additional income to their households. In Sainte Luce, where SEED Madagascar works with rural communities, the mahampy reed (Lepironia mucronata) is harvested from nearby wetlands to make items like mats, baskets, and hats through a labour intensive and culturally significant process. SEED’s Project Mahampy is seeking to increase the viability and sustainability of this vital livelihood for the women of Sainte Luce by empowering them to increase their profits from weaving through capacity building, the creation of a weaver’s association, and improving access to markets.

Mahampy weaving all hinges on the continued and ready supply of mahampy reeds, however. So, when SEED started to hear reports of women having to walk further afield to harvest suitable reeds, we began to wonder, how healthy are the mahampy wetlands of Sainte Luce? When visiting Sainte Luce, it is apparent that freshwater habitats are an important part of the landscape, from forest streams to wide rivers, and mahampy swamps to estuary channels. However, this dynamic and varied ecosystem has not been previously studied in the area, and therefore its health is unknown.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon for wetland habitats, despite the range of benefits that they provide to humans, wetlands remain a globally understudied and under-conserved ecosystem. Consequently, in Madagascar where very few protected areas encompass wetlands, this ecosystem is being lost at a faster rate than forest habitats1. Numerous human activities that threaten wetlands are taking place near Sainte Luce, including deforestation, overfishing, resource extraction, and mining. Therefore, SEED Madagascar has decided that it is time to take action and investigate this unsung ecosystem before it is too late, with Project Fia (fish in Malagasy), playing a vital role.

Ptychochromis grandidieri, an example of a Malagasy endemic cichlid species which we may find during freshwater fish surveys.3

That’s right, this is where the fish come into it! To understand the impact of human pressures on an ecosystem, we need to understand its current state and how this is changing over time. Freshwater fish communities are extremely sensitive to changes in their environment and so they provide a good indication of its quality2. A healthy wetland ecosystem should be supporting a high diversity of native fish species across its variety of habitats, which in-turn play an essential role in maintaining its health by cycling nutrients throughout it. As freshwater fish have not been assessed in Sainte Luce before, our objective is to extensively sample the varied habitats that comprise the wetlands of Sainte Luce and collect a baseline species inventory for the area. Continuing this data collection over time will enable us to compare fish diversity and key habitat characteristics to assess the health of local fish communities and the freshwater ecosystem overall.

Project Fia will include several mahampy swamp sites in its assessment, some that are frequently harvested for mahampy reeds by the local community, and others that are not. Combined with the additional ecological and biodiversity data being collected from these Mahampy swamps, we may be able to determine if and how the essential livelihood of mahampy weaving is impacting the natural systems which support it. This demonstrates how SEED works across projects to understand the whole context, as this is essential for implementing effective and sustainable solutions. Through Project Fia and related mahampy wetland research, we will build an evidence base to inform mahampy reed swamp monitoring and sustainable wetland management practices to safeguard this vital resource for both people and nature in the future.



References

  1. Bamford, A. J., Razafindrajao, F., Young, R.P., & Hilton, G.M. (2017). Profound and pervasive degradation of Madagascar’s freshwater wetlands and links with biodiversity. PLoS One, 12.
  2. Whitfield, A., & Elliott, M. (2005). Fishes as indicators of environmental and ecological changes within estuaries: A review of progress and some suggestions for the future. Journal of Fish Biology, 61, 229 – 250.
  3. Ref: Practical Fish Keeping. (2020). A beginner's guide to Madagascan cichlids. Retrieved 17 December 2020, from https://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/features/a-beginners-guide-to-madagascan-cichlids/