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Wednesday, 11th August 2021

Read Ala-bout It!

By Beth Dickens

Two thousand years ago, after an epic journey across the Indian Ocean, Indonesian seafarers, in their dugout wooden canoes, found themselves upon the lush and wild shores of Madagascar. Since those first human feet walked through the sand and those first canoe hulls were pulled up the beach towards the trees bustling with life, a lot has changed. Madagascar has since lost many of its original forests, and continues to suffer from an annual deforestation rate of around 1% (Vieilledent et al., 2018). In particular, the littoral forests of Madagascar were once thought to have formed a continuous band along the east coast, hugging the coastline of white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and greeting the sun each morning. There are now thought to be only 10% remaining (Krishnan et al., 2013), with 2.4% of these in the Sainte Luce Littoral Forest (Consiglio et al., 2006). These forests are home to three species of Critically Endangered lemurs, the Southern Woolly Lemur, the Anosy Mouse Lemur and the Thomas’ Dwarf Lemur. However, fragmentation is inhibiting their movement, genetically isolating subpopulations and therefore threatening their future.

This is where SEED’s Project Ala, (‘forest’ in Malagasy), plays a crucial role. The Ala team has been working with landowners to convert degraded agricultural lands into four corridors and reconnecting littoral forest fragments for the three Critically Endangered lemur species that call it home. Phase I of Project Ala has focussed on four main outcomes: reforestation, research, creating sustainable management strategies, and community outreach. As this first phase has now come to an end, we want to reflect on what the team has achieved and to also celebrate their resilience during such unusual and challenging times.

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Nursery and tree planting community workshop before planting trees in Corridor 3

As with all reforestation projects, Project Ala began in the nursery, and since its humble beginnings, this first outcome has progressed in leaps and bounds. To date, a total of 1,937 Acacia seedlings, along with 5,625 native pioneer seedlings of 21 different species, have been planted in the four corridors, with these tree species carefully selected. Acacia is fast growing, sun tolerant and non-invasive, and the native pioneer species were chosen for their fast-growing qualities, as well as being important for lemurs. The high survival rate of Acacia in particular, has consequently reconnected viable lemur habitat and increased connected forest habitat by 109%. In order to grant these corridors as much protection as possible, a total of 18 km of firebreaks, an area cleared of plants and weeds, has been constructed around both the corridors and the larger forest fragment. In 2019, they successfully protected one of the corridors from a fire; however, as increasing drought events will subsequently cause greater fire risk, SEED is developing further mitigation strategies with the forest management committee to make sure this remains the case.

Throughout the project, the development of the corridors has been monitored monthly by SEED’s Conservation Research Programme, which brings us on to another outcome of the project. Long term data has been collected on the survival and growth rate of the seedlings, from botanical surveys done within the corridors, as well as from faunal surveys of lemurs, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates carried out within the corridors and forest fragments. Monitoring the abundance and distribution of lemurs has built onto our long term 10-year data set, contributing to the global understanding of lemur conservation strategies. During the pandemic, this essential research was only able to continue thanks to the huge efforts of SEED’s national staff.

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Community planting in Corridor 3

However, it is not just reforestation and lemurs that lie at the heart of this project but also, perhaps more essentially, the engagement of the Sainte Luce local community. Both globally and in Madagascar, conservation success stories have proved that greater participation, leadership and community-led decision making are all linked to more sustainable ecological outcomes. Supporting local communities to empower themselves is central to SEED’s ethos and Project Ala is no different. This leads us on to the final two outcomes: the creation of sustainable management strategies and community engagement.

Stakeholder workshops have been a central part of Project Ala. These workshops have built the capacity of local stakeholders and covered topics such as tree nursery systems, seed collection, fire mitigation and deforestation, as well as starting to develop an important, long-term Community Forest Threat Mitigation and Management Strategy. This sustainable, local management plan has encouraged the community to take responsibility and leadership of the corridors, ensuring the long term protection of the Sainte Luce Littoral Forest.

Large scale community events, workshops, meetings and education sessions, have featured throughout Phase I. The local community has learnt about the importance of reforestation and fire threats, regularly joined our reforestation days to gain skills in tree planting, visited the tree nurseries and joined the world in celebration of World Lemur Day - to name a few. Project Ala has also provided alternative income sources for over 300 members of the community as COVID 19, and the consequent loss of traditional incomes, has brought many financial hardships upon Malagasy families.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, youth education. Educating children can not only break the poverty cycle but, by engaging the naturally curious youth of the Sainte Luce community, we can also make a long-term positive impact on the future guardians of this unique forest. The beginning of Project Ala saw the team work alongside SEED’s Conservation Research Programme to run fortnightly education sessions, where we welcomed local children to learn about different aspects of forest and wildlife conservation. However, restrictions meant we quickly had to adapt and the team soon traded the classroom for the tree nursery and books for seedlings, as we invited groups of children to tree nursery workshops. This allowed them to explore the stages and process of growing fruit trees as well as learning to value concepts such as perseverance in relation to planting for the future!

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Measuring seedlings in the corridors, 2020

Having completed Phase I of Project Ala and fostered strong support from the local community and key stakeholders along the way, SEED is well informed on the ongoing challenges in the Sainte Luce area and has a unique opportunity and strong foundation to continue to address them. As of June 2021, we have begun implementing Project Ala Phase II, the second phase of the 10–15-year Ala Programme, where we will consolidate the work of Project Ala Phase I. This next phase will see us work towards our four outcomes of: expanding habitat corridors through reforestation, understanding community resource needs, building sustainable forest management structures and local stakeholders networks, as well as continuing research that promotes adaptive learning within the project. We hope you continue to follow our journey!



References

  1. Vieilledent, G. et al. (2018). Combining global tree cover loss data with historical national forest cover maps to look at six decades of deforestation and forest fragmentation in Madagascar. Biological Conservation, 222, 189-197. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2018.04.008
  2. Krishnan, S. et al. (2013). The study of genetic diversity patterns of Coffea commersoniana, an endangered coffee species from Madagascar: a model for conservation of other littoral forest species. Tree Genetics & Genomes, 9, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11295-012-0545-0
  3. Consiglio, T et al. (2006). Deforestation and plant diversity of Madagascar’s littoral forests. Conservation Biology, 20(6), 1799–1803. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00562.x