Magazine article Geographical

Playing the Long Game: In Order to Protect the Future for Madagascar's Biodiversity, One Archaeologist Insists That We Have to Look Far into the Past

Magazine article Geographical

Playing the Long Game: In Order to Protect the Future for Madagascar's Biodiversity, One Archaeologist Insists That We Have to Look Far into the Past

Article excerpt

In the long grass beyond the last hut, slabs of greyish-white shark meat dry on wooden racks in the sun. The village lacks electricity, has a single freshwater pump and is inaccessible by road. Like many others along the west coast of Madagascar, it looks to the sea for its food, income and transport. Malagasy villages tend to specialise when it comes to marine resources, and this one's speciality is shark.

Unfortunately, sharks are threatened in the Indian Ocean, as are other marine inhabitants of Madagascar's wide continental shelf. The country's government, along with international conservation bodies, would like to wean its inhabitants away from practices that are likely to deplete their numbers still further, but their efforts to do so have met with limited success in recent decades.

Archaeologist and anthropologist Kristina Douglass thinks she knows one reason why: 'The conservationists I work with are very much data-driven, but their data span the last ten years,' she says. 'To me, as an archaeologist, that's a blip.'

As a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, Douglass is interested in a longer swathe of Malagasy history--2,000 years, to be precise. Mapping subsistence patterns over that time frame affords a better understanding of which ones have deep roots in time and which don't. It sheds light on the factors that prompt people to change behaviour, as well as the practices they are unlikely to give up because their survival has depended on them in the past.

'Conservationists ignore the archaeological record at their peril,' she says, 'but if they take it into account, their efforts are far more likely to succeed.'

Madagascar is a case in point, since a recent change in conservation strategy has produced the first signs of recovery in marine ecosystems.


The island of Madagascar is often touted as a unique laboratory of evolution, because of its isolation, size (its surface area exceeds that of France and the Benelux countries combined) and the variability of its climate and terrain. These conditions created exceptional biodiversity, but although it is still regarded as a biodiversity hotspot, that diversity has been shrinking over the last 2,000 years--ever since humans first set foot there, in fact. 'Nobody thinks that's a coincidence,' says Douglass.

Madagascar is also one of the poorest nations on Earth. The political situation has long been fragile, meaning that much-needed reforms have stalled. In 2012, the World Bank judged that 78 per cent of Malagasies--who then numbered 22 million--lived in poverty. More than half of the island's inhabitants live on or near the coast and depend on marine ecosystems for their survival. The population is growing rapidly, and the pressure on those ecosystems has been exacerbated by demand from external markets--particularly in Asia--that cater to an ever-growing middle class hungry for culinary delicacies such as shark fin soup, once reserved for a small elite.

'Because of the demand for shark fins and sea cucumbers, mainly from the Chinese, those resources became completely overfished in the southwest by the 1990s,' says Garth Cripps, a technical advisor for the UK-based charity Blue Ventures that concentrates its conservation efforts in that region.

The southwest is home to people known as Vezo, or 'sea nomads', who traditionally undertook an annual migration. They headed north in wooden canoes (or pirogues) to remote areas of the west coast, or offshore islands, and returned after a couple of months, by which time their original fishing grounds had replenished themselves. 'They had a very light footprint,' says Cripps.

That pattern began to change in the late 1990s, after the Asian seafood markets took off. The Vezo started going further for longer, sailing up to 1,000km north to find rich fishing grounds. …

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