Connecting human and ecosystem health in rural Madagascar

By Kate Thompson, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad Fellow”

There’s something primordial about mangrove forests, especially at high tide. We slip soundlessly from the sodden, loamy banks and into the labyrinth of twisted trees. The whisper of water lapping against the pirogue seems so refreshing— so novel— it’s as if I haven’t been to the ocean’s edge in years rather than one very dusty week. I feel, here, in the misty exhalation of the early morning, I can finally breathe.

Mangroves and salt marsh. Photo: Kate Thompson

I’m currently living in the dry forests of western Madagascar, in a village on the outskirts of Kirindy Mitea National Park. My team and I are here to learn about the challenges and concerns of the people who live alongside protected areas. Well – more specifically I’m here to examine the role that natural resources play in the health and livelihood of locals; my translators are here because my Tenigasy is pretty darn rusty. This is my dissertation work, and for the foreseeable future, this is our home.

Photo: Kate Thompson

The community in which we work depends on the mangroves, the sea, and the dry, deciduous forests that surround them. The health of the forests and the villages are interwoven. Within the past twenty years, Madagascar has lost a lot of its forest. “From 2001 to 2017, Madagascar lost 3.27 million hectacres of tree cover, equivalent to a 19% decrease since 20001.” This rate is alarming, considering that by some estimates Madagascar has lost 80-90% of its original forest cover2.

Yet, people need wood for building their boats and homes. In this arid environment, harvested vegetation doesn’t regrow quickly. The community where we work believes the shrinking forests are the main cause of the growing dry seasons. According to some of the elders, each year from 2015 on has had less rain than the year before it. Watching the tides ebb in and transform the landscape into an inland sea, it’s easy to forget how scare a resource water is here. And what a solemn chain of consequences flow from its absence.

Incoming tide on the salt flats. Photo: Kate Thompson

As of 2017, Madagascar ranks 114/117 in measures of general food security; this means the county scores poorly compared to the rest of the world on the affordability, availability and quality of food3. Recent climatic events have made the need for accurate data on diet and resource consumption a high priority. Because of an El-Niño-related drought in the southern region of the country, national maize production for 2016 decreased to a total 316,000 tons, down 4% compared with the harvest in 2015 and 19% below the average for annual production. Cassava production, estimated at 2.6 million tons, decreased by 16% versus the recent five-year average4. The resulting famine impacted over 840,000 people last year5. It is nearly certain that these crises will alter how people use natural resources, including wild plants and animals.

Our village used to grow corn and rice, harvest honey and haul in more fish. They rely heavily on marine resources – a broad spectrum of crabs, crevettes, salt-water fish and snails, the latter of which I’m not quite brave enough to try. Now both forest and marine resources are scarcer. Current crop yields aren’t yielding enough to feed families or their livestock. The people turn to the forests as another means of income, and those forests in turn become smaller. We think environmental change will increase the reliance on forests as a safety net, specifically in rural areas. As forests are reduced, it is essential to understand how the remaining woodlands support local health and nutrition.

Over the next few months, we’ll use a blend of individual interviews, group discussions, and good-old fashioned dumpster diving (more on that later), to understand how the health of ecosystems and local people are interconnected. My project will provide essential information to public health and conservation organizations that design programs to support the nutrition of rural communities in the face of habitat change and loss. Just like the tangle of mangrove roots and branches that we navigate through on our way to the market, I’ve learned so far that human needs and conservation concerns tend to be woven tightly together.


  1. Madagascar | Global Forest Watch.
  2. McConnell, W. & Kull, C. Deforestation in Madagascar: debates over the island’s forest cover and challenges of measuring forest change. in Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar (ed. Ivan R.Scales) 67–104 (Routledge-Earthscan, 2014).
  3. The Economist Intelligence Unit. Global Food Security Index. Glob. Food Secur. Index (2017).
  4. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Crop losses in southern Madagascar mean severe hunger likely to persist into 2017. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2016). Available at: (Accessed: 19th February 2017)
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Projected Acute Food Insecurity Situation In The Grand Sud Of Madagascar. (2016).

Leave a Reply