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Recognizing the vital role of communities through their environmental knowledge and traditional practices is a priority for environmental management in Madagascar

This principle 22 of the Rio Agenda 21, 1992 is still relevant in Madagascar given the fact that today, it is recognized that efforts to implement sustainable management of renewable natural resources and biodiversity without real consideration in the concept and implementation of traditional practices, identity, culture and interests of communities, carried out in Madagascar for several decades have not only partially stopped the loss of biodiversity and deforestation. The latest estimate of annual deforestation is around 100,000 ha per year while many initiatives to protect natural resources have been implemented around forest areas.
Is it because initiatives have been imposed on local communities as alternative and innovative ideas? Or is it because, as Joseph Ki-Zerbo said, "You don't develop, you develop"? Does the external knowledge and expertise imposed on communities deserve to be adapted to the realities and contexts of the field and should be explored in all its dimensions and in a holistic way? And is giving legitimacy to the communities of the idea and/or concept and its implementation the key to success in sustainable natural resource management?
The practices of the last decades have shown that few initiatives have been implemented at the request of local communities and have really considered their needs and strategies. This way of working is dictated by the context of funding needs, which seems to give the power of negotiation to those who have the financial means and decision-making powers. This situation weakens the local actors, including the communities, in the choice and prioritization of actions. In this logic, initiatives have been presented as having been developed in a "participatory" manner with "consultations" at all levels, but in reality the real concerns of the communities have rarely been considered in the final concept and in the way of implementation on the ground.
For example, the initiative to manufacture and use perennial steel Filanjana instead of wood for evacuating the sick as a way to improve living conditions in a remote forest area in the central east of Madagascar was only partially adopted because very few of the community members who used them. For the majority of the members of these communities, the Filanjana are individually associated with the sick people transported and, after each transport, they are systematically destroyed to erase forever all the curses linked to the cases of the evacuated patients. It is also a questionable success for the case of a school built in a village to improve the schooling rate in a locality in the recession crop zones around the forest areas of western Madagascar. The school is only used during the rainy season because students leave the village seasonally to follow their parents to the recession crop areas during the dry season. Teaching is done on the ground and around the trees during the dry season.
The State has taken initiatives in recent years to strengthen and improve the legal and technical framework for the recognition of the vital role of communities in the management of the environment in Madagascar, such as the framework regulating access and benefit sharing arising from the use of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, and that of community management of renewable natural resources.
Although it is not a legal requirement, technical and financial partners are increasingly demanding that FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent) be carried out before any initiatives are undertaken. This FPIC process ensures that local communities are free to give or withhold their consent to any initiative and can be informed of the details.
To truly recognize the vital role of communities because of their knowledge of the environment and their traditional practices therefore requires effective local partnership, reduces the possibilities of external initiatives without consent imposed on local communities, and strengthens the legitimacy of local communities over the idea of initiatives and its implementation. In short, we all say we want to improve the living conditions of local communities, but are we doing it right? for whom - really?
By Dr. Appolinaire Razafimahatratra, specialist in community management of renewable natural resources