Can eco-tourism really help conservation in Madagascar?

How effective is eco-tourism for conservation? In a previous post, I highlighted the Action Plan for Lemurs in Madagascar which was confident that tourism could help conserve lemurs. For policy makers this seems like a magic bullet – an economic activity that does not degrade the environment (except its carbon emissions) whilst giving local people an economic stake in the conservation of an iconic species.

Ring tailed lemur in London Zoo (Photo: A.Kasterine)

Ring tailed lemur in London Zoo (Photo: A.Kasterine)

Writing an editorial in the journal Madagascar Conservation and Development, Ivan Scales offers a reality check, saying that ecotourism cannot compete against forest clearance for swidden agriculture. Scales cites Elinor Ostrum who said that socio-ecological problems are complex and context specific, defying ‘magic bullets’.

He says we need an “alternative paradigm”. It is not clear what this means, but he is very clear that in designing conservation policies, we have to be aware of the power of economic incentives. People do not want to live in poverty and will do whatever they have to to get out of it.

“In terms of benefits for individuals and households, these are largely insufficient to replace activities such as swidden cultivation. A study of the impact of tourism on communities living around Ranomafana National Park found that it directly employed just over 100 people (with less than half coming from the local population of 27,000), indirectly benefited fewer than 100 people, and led to infrastructural improvements in fewer than a dozen of the 160 villages surrounding the park (Peters 1998, 1999). The reality is that tourism (and conservation more generally) has created few employment opportunities, with those available tending to favour more educated individuals with the necessary language skills to deal with tourists (Durbin and Ratrimoarisaona 1996, Walsh 2005). In the Mikea Forest for example, economic benefits accrue to a minority of hotel owners and staff, most of whom come from outside the region (Seddon et al. 2000). Walsh (2005) reminds us that the majority of people living around protected areas in Madagascar do not have the skills or connections necessary to profit from conservation related activities. The challenge for conservation policy is clear. Unless it is able to create livelihood alternatives that at the very least match previous sources of income, consumptive uses such as swidden cultivation will continue, covertly and against the law if necessary”.

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