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Managing community-based conservation in Bobaomby, Madagascar

Élysé Rabearivola Nomenjanahary, Hortensia Rasoanandrasana et Andrew Walsh


Les projets de protection de l’environnement et de développement, qui impliquent la participation des acteurs locaux dans les prises de décision concernant la gestion durable de leurs propres écosystèmes, sont devenus monnaie courante à Madagascar ces dernières décennies ; tout comme les retours académiques mettant en doute la possibilité que ces politiques participatives de protection de l’environnement (community-based conservation, CBC) conduisent réellement aux scénarios gagnant-gagnant qu’elles prétendent offrir aux communautés et aux écosystèmes malgaches.
Cet article, coécrit par des auteurs aux points de vue différents, porte sur l’histoire des échanges qui se sont avérés cruciaux dans la mise en place et le maintien d’un des projets de CBC dans le nord de Madagascar. Il s’intéresse en particulier à la valeur des relations interpersonnelles déployées entre les membres de la communauté et les partenaires externes.

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Hortensia and Élysé thank the Rufford Foundation, Tany Meva, Fonds Malgache de la Formation Professionnelle, and FANAINGA for past and ongoing support of the activities described here, and are grateful for the input of the many people who have offered guidance and support over the years, including Professor Vaohita Barthelemi, Louis-Philippe d’Arvisenet, Joshua Cinner, and Ian Colquhoun. We also thank Joselita Rahantarisoa, Frédéric Sambison, and Marie Joelle Razafindrasoa for their continuing dedication to the work of BNC. Very special thanks to Randrianiaina Luciano and the members of KOFAMA who joined us in Bobaomby in 2018 for their collegiality and support. Finally, we are most grateful to the people of Bobaomby who have generously hosted us over the years, with special thanks to Marcelin Jaofeno (Babany chauffeur), Alcine Tsilailay (Mamany Mamary), Sylvain Jaomalaza, Jean Maurice (Lava), and Romeo Camardine (Jaomena). Additional support for Andrew’s participation in the research on which this article is based was supplied by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Thanks also to Ed Eastaugh for producing the map that appears here.

  • 1 See, for example, Ostrom, 1990; Bollier,2014; Leyronas and Legroux, 2019.
  • 2 See, for example, Blanc-Pamard and Fauroux, 2004; Blanc-Pamard, 2012; Pollini et al., 2014.

1Attempts at achieving “community-based conservation” (henceforth CBC) through projects that prescribe the participation of local stakeholders in decision-making around the sustainable management of their own ecosystems have become commonplace in Madagascar since the 1990s. Mirroring broader trends of thinking about and planning for the effective and ethical governing of commons in a world of profound inequalities,1 this development has been widely welcomed. As Scales notes, any effort at making conservation interventions more responsive to the needs of Malagasy people, and therefore “less ‘top-down’ [than they have been in the past] seems unquestionably a ‘good thing’ ” (2014a: 350). That noted, not all agree on what to make of the resulting rapid spread of so-called “community-based” approaches to the dilemma of “[protecting] biodiversity [while] at the same time […] delivering economic growth and creating alternative livelihoods that place less pressure on ecosystems” (ibid.: 342). Advocates see the ascendancy of CBC approaches as a much-needed move away from conservation models that prioritize the protection of biodiversity over the wellbeing of those who live in its midst, envisioning CBC as something of a “panacea for addressing today’s conservation goals”, offering “win-win solutions” for people and endangered environments alike (Reibelt and Nowack, 2015: 3). Critical observers, meanwhile, see something more nebulous at work in CBC’s rise, objecting not to the idea that Malagasy people ought to have a say in the management of their own ecosystems, but rather to how CBC has been envisioned, represented, and often celebrated by those who seem to benefit most from its idealization. Numerous case studies suggest that adopting CBC approaches is no guarantee of enabling the spontaneous, bottom-up, democratic participation and engagement of Malagasy villagers in conservation processes that advocates hope for.2

2Put more simply, while advocates of CBC tend to emphasize the promise of a simple and indisputably good idea, critics tend to call out the ambiguities, inequalities, and complexities that come with trying to realize this promise in practice. So it is not surprising that attending only to what advocates or critics have to say about CBC can inspire very different reactions. Reading reports posted on the websites of the Rufford Foundation, Tany Meva, Fanamby, and other organizations that channel international support into CBC projects in Madagascar is likely to leave one feeling optimistic. Reading the findings of social scientific research on efforts at achieving CBC in Madagascar is more likely to inspire pessimism.

3In this article, we offer an account of CBC in Madagascar that is unusual, not because of the projects we describe or the contexts in which they have been established, but because it is the product of more than a decade of collaborations and discussions among three co-authors: two (Rasoanandrasana Hortensia and Rabearivola Nomenjanahary Élysé, henceforth Hortensia and Élysé) who have generally approached CBC with the optimism of advocates, and a third (Andrew Walsh, henceforth Andrew) who has more commonly assumed the pessimism of CBC’s critically-minded social scientific observers. Rather than jump between separate accounts of our experiences with CBC (many of which have been shared), we have approached the writing of this text as we have the collaborations that have inspired it, that is, with a shared appreciation of the promise of CBC as an alternative to the “top-down” approaches it has supplanted, and a shared willingness to confront and discuss the complexities involved in trying to realize any part of this promise.

  • 3 See, for example, Walsh, 2005, 2012, 2013.

4We co-authors bring separate interests and motivations to the shared work of this article and to the collaborations on which it is based, and in no way do we mean to suggest that what we share nullifies what sets us apart. Indeed, it bears noting that what we jointly present here marks a departure from what we have previously written in relation to CBC. While Hortensia and Élysé have regularly invoked the promise of CBC in the proposals, presentations, reports, and agreements necessary to their work as co-founders of an NGO (of which more below), Andrew has been writing and presenting on conservation trends in Madagascar, CBC included, with the goal of revealing the obstacles to achieving the promise of purportedly simple good ideas.3

  • 4 As Olivier de Sardan (2014: 212) puts it: “La parole officielle, celle des réunions, celle des renc (...)

5Some might imagine that our different positions vis-à-vis the work of CBC precludes the possibility of settling on a consistent and reliable voice for the account that follows. Observers have noted a tendency for people whose livelihoods depend on the ongoing work of CBC to produce selective, even “illusory”, accounts of the projects they have envisioned in proposals (Blanc-Pamard and Fauroux, 2004: 9), exemplifying global patterns of public discourse that characterize any number of “local” projects that depend for their existence on meeting the priorities and expectations of international funders. As Olivier de Sardan puts it in describing the “double language” of international aid, frank assessments of local projects are rare, usually drowned out by the “wooden-language” (langue de bois) or doublespeak of reports, meetings, workshops, and other public pronouncements that fuel “the machinery of aid” (2014: 212). As Olivier de Sardan suggests, such public discourse is more than just inexact: it not to be believed, dedicated as it is to communicating the fictions of the international aid industry’s optimists and opportunists “as if” (comme si) they were true.4 The warning is clear. The public pronouncements of those caught up in the grind of local projects ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Better to attend to the public pronouncements of critical scholars and observers who dedicate themselves to revealing what is hidden and reproduced by so many compelling “as if” stories.

6We recognize the irony of acknowledging Olivier de Sardan’s warning in an article co-produced by differently positioned authors whom some readers, depending on their own positions, might imagine to be more or less trustworthy. To this we can only respond that while it is undeniable that, as leaders of a Malagasy NGO that receives support from international and Malagasy organizations that advocate the ideals of CBC, Hortensia and Élysé have little to gain by wading into the pessimism of CBC’s critics, it is also true that they understand better than anyone the complexities and contradictions that come with establishing and running a CBC project. For them, co-authoring this article presents a welcome opportunity to share what they have learned with an audience they might not normally reach. For Andrew, meanwhile, collaborating in the projects on which this article is based has provided a welcome alternative to the disengaged pessimism that flows so easily from case studies of CBC’s apparent failings, and co-authoring an account of these collaborations brings the opportunity to break the habit of telling “as if” stories of his own about conservation efforts in Madagascar, “as if” the ambiguities and failings of these efforts were the only things worth recounting. As Osterhoudt (2021) notes in arguing for what she terms “bright-spot ethnography”, focusing solely on “what is going badly” in the contexts in which we work yields incomplete critiques. To fill out the picture we must also consider “what is going well.”

7Our account begins with an overview of the various projects on which we have collaborated since 2010, contextualizing them as we go, to give a sense of the different forms that CBC can take in Madagascar. Next, we recount a co-conceived experiment in CBC knowledge sharing carried out in 2018, focusing on a revealing exchange between a “local stakeholder” in the community in which Hortensia and Élysé have been working, and a well-meaning Malagasy visitor in their midst. At first blush, this exchange might lead some to anticipate the pessimism that so many studies of CBC inspire. When considered in light of the context and history of relations that have shaped the project, however, we argue that it might just as well be taken as cause for optimism, or at least a sign of what is going well in one CBC project.

A decade of collaborations

8To introduce the ongoing work to which this article refers, we recount the series of projects that brought us together, beginning with Hortensia and Élysé’s first-ever trip, in 2009, to Bobaomby, a large landmass at the northern tip of Madagascar. As students of Conservation and Tourism at Université d’Antsiranana (in Madagascar’s northernmost city of Antsiranana), Hortensia and Élysé had seen Bobaomby from across the Bay of Antsiranana for many years, but it was only when Professor Vaohita Barthelemi, teaching a course on ecotourism, took them on a field trip there that they were able to visit.

9This was their first time approaching Madagascar’s familiar landscapes in the manner of the ecotourists they were learning about in their studies—sleeping in tents, waking to birdsong, hiking on trails, taking pictures of distinctive biodiversity, and so on. It was also their first time engaging with the region’s population in the manner of students and researchers, critically considering the dilemmas facing the 300 or so inhabitants of Anjiabe and Ampombofofo, the two rural communities they visited. It was an inspiring trip. With the encouragement of their professor, they left Bobaomby with the dream of one day returning and establishing a community-based ecotourism project there.

10The following year, in 2010, Hortensia was one of eight Université d’Antsiranana students who participated alongside eight Canadian students in a research project that Andrew and a team of Malagasy, French, Canadian and American colleagues had developed around topics well-suited to her and Élysé’s burgeoning interests. This research proposed to document and analyze the complexities of CBC in Madagascar, taking as a case study a project based in the community of Antsaravibe (in the Ankarana region, approximately 120 km south of Antsiranana) that had been established by a local community association called KOFAMA (Koperativa Fikambanana Ankarabe Mitsinjo Arivo). Following the playbook of so many CBC ventures of the time (Scales, 2014b), and with the support and guidance of several American Peace Corps volunteers, KOFAMA had established a campsite at which it planned to host, feed and guide paying foreigners. As prevailing logic had it, in addition to creating waged work for cooks and guides and generating funds for local development projects, this project would encourage local people to take an interest in conserving the local biodiversity that foreign visitors come to see.

11KOFAMA’s campsite seemed perfect for a project like this, located at the foot of one of the spectacular cave-riddled limestone massifs for which the Ankarana region has become internationally famous thanks to guidebooks and nature documentaries. The site could offer few of the amenities of a nearby luxury eco-lodge, but if it could attract even a fraction of the thousands of foreigners visiting nearby Ankarana National Park every year, it seemed sure to succeed. That KOFAMA’s membership had previously worked with a Peace Corps volunteer to plan and carry out other projects (including a community library and a regional radio station) seemed cause for more confidence.

  • 5 For more on this research and the specific issues it addressed, see Patterson, 2011; Hunter, 2011; (...)

12As it happened, members of our research team were among the campsite’s earliest visitors in 2010; a political crisis the previous year had kept other clients away. Only a few members of our team stayed at the campsite full-time, however, working with staff-in-training to document the presence and movements of local lemur populations. Others, Andrew and Hortensia included, stayed in the community of Antsaravibe, conducting surveys and interviews with residents of the region. Still others on our team focused on the foreign tourists that the project hoped to attract, undertaking surveys, interviews and participant observation at the main entrance to Ankarana National Park, 50 km away. In the end, our research achieved what we had anticipated by revealing issues that needed addressing for the sake of the project’s sustainability.5

13We finalized our report and delivered recommendations to KOFAMA’s leaders in mid-2011, but by then the project had lost momentum. Madagascar’s ongoing political crisis continued to affect the country’s tourist industry, and by the time Andrew returned in 2013, he found the campsite abandoned and overgrown, its mudwalled kitchen crumbling and its shiny aluminum solar cookers (intended for the carbon-neutral cooking of visitors’ meals) mostly hidden by tall grass. The scene was discouraging and certainly in keeping with the pattern of failed promise highlighted by critics of CBC. Speaking at a conference in Canada later that year, Andrew showed images of the overgrown campground, crumbling kitchen and unused solar cooker to an audience of critically minded environmental anthropologists, lamenting the demise of the project and highlighting the limitations of CBC projects that propose to negotiate the uncertainties of global tourism. Andrew’s conclusion came as no surprise to his audience: CBC projects commonly defy the expectations of those who idealize them and therefore expect the most of them.

14Hortensia and Élysé were not dismayed. In fact, while completing a term with Andrew at the University of Western Ontario in Canada in 2013, Hortensia built on what she had learned from this research to develop a funding proposal for the Rufford Foundation, a UK-based NGO that provides support to small conservation projects around the world. This application was approved, allowing her and Élysé to return to Bobaomby with a team of former (Malagasy) classmates from l’Université d’Antsiranana, so that they might carry out preliminary research on the feasibility of ecotourism in the region and consult with residents on the prospect of establishing a community-based project. This visit involved public gatherings with anyone willing to attend, as well as more focused meetings with the elected district president (president ny fokontany) and local traditional authorities descended from community founders (zafintany). As we will shortly explain further, this first funded visit marked more than just the start of their work in Bobaomby—it established the relationships that have sustained this work.

15Additional funding from the Rufford Foundation enabled Hortensia and Élysé to live for extended periods in Anjiabe over the ensuing years, giving them and their team the time needed to complete an overview of the region’s biodiversity, conduct an extensive household survey of local residents (focusing especially on the prospect of ecotourism in the region), implement an environmental education program with the local primary school, and build a campsite on land provided by the community. As mandated by the ideals of CBC, these activities were undertaken with the participation and approval of local stakeholders. In response to a standard question on a Rufford Foundation report template, Hortensia and Élysé described in detail “the involvement of local communities and how they have benefitted from the project”, highlighting local participation in, among other things: the surveying of local biodiversity, mapping hiking trails, monitoring lemur populations, basic English and French language classes (focusing especially on lessons relevant to eventual work with foreign ecotourists), and the process of determining the placement of the project’s campsite.

16Over this same period, Hortensia and Élysé worked with authorities in Antsiranana to formalize their status as an NGO (called Bobaomby Nature Conservation, henceforth BNC) with a clearly defined set of goals: to engage in continuous monitoring of the region’s ecosystems, to engage local communities through an environmental education program, and to participate (with local residents) in the protection of target species of fauna and flora including lemurs, sea turtles, bats, an endangered frog (Mantella viridis), baobabs (Andasonia suarensis and Andasonia madagascarensis), and a large mangrove forest. BNC was able to formalize a collaboration agreement with the rural commune and with Anjiabe’s existing environmental management association (VOI Mitia), with which they now help to manage 6,779 hectares of land, and they have since helped to host invited visits by the Director of Regional Development, representatives of the Ministry of the Environment, Regional Directors of Tourism, Culture, and Education, and several of Antsiranana’s tour operators. Individually, Hortensia and Élysé also sought support and training for their own professional development through national and international programs that target young Malagasy people. They participated in workshops and programs on leadership, conflict resolution, and sustainable tourism, and completed Mandela Washington Fellowships that brought each of them, in turn, to the United States for campus-based programs in which they joined other “young African leaders” ( to hone their leadership and project management skills.

17In recounting our experiences thus far, we are conscious of having invoked the relatively pessimistic vision of CBC’s critics and the relatively optimistic perspectives of CBC’s advocates in turn, referring first to the apparent dissolution of one project and then to the apparent successes of another. Readers anticipating the unusual account of CBC promised in the introduction might feel cheated. Do we not have anything but familiar ‘as if’ stories to tell? We do.

18It turns out that Andrew was wrong about KOFAMA. In early 2017, he was contacted on Facebook by Randrianiaina Luciano, KOFAMA’s dynamic new president, who explained his intention to revive the association and its CBC project. Later that year, Andrew returned to KOFAMA’s campsite near Antsaravibe to find a new management team in place and a new two-room bungalow under construction. Maybe there was cause for optimism after all? In addition to sometimes defying the expectations of those who expect the most of them, it seems that CBC projects can also defy the expectations of those who have come to expect the least of them.

19It was not long before Luciano connected with Hortensia on Facebook, allowing KOFAMA and BNC to publicly share news and resources related to their common interests. Observing these exchanges from afar, Andrew proposed that the two projects take their sharing a step further by visiting the sites of one another’s projects. And so it was that over ten days in July 2018, contingents from KOFAMA and BNC travelled first to BNC’s campsite in Bobaomby and then to KOFAMA’s campsite in Ankarana. Hortensia and Élysé saw this exchange as an opportunity to highlight BNC’s approach, and to learn from what KOFAMA was doing. For Andrew, meanwhile, tagging along on both visits offered the chance to consider the promise, practice and problems of CBC by comparing seemingly similar projects that were, in fact, very different.

20A full account of all we did and learned over the course of these two visits is beyond the scope of this article. What matters most for our purposes here is what became perfectly clear by the end of the exchange: KOFAMA and BNC have been managing the work of CBC in ways that only make sense in light of the (sometimes difficult-to-discern) relationships among stakeholders implicated in their projects. In the next section we illustrate this simple point by contextualizing an awkward exchange that took place on our very first evening together at BNC’s campsite. The conclusion we are heading for is simple: just as CBC projects in Madagascar can defy the high expectations of optimists or low expectations of pessimists, when considered individually they are bound to defy outsiders’ expectations about how they ought to look, operate, or succeed.

Making sense of an awkward exchange

21We travelled to Bobaomby by sailboat, leaving Antsiranana just after sunrise when the winds that sweep across the bay are most manageable. Hortensia had called ahead to ask that someone from our destination—Anjiabe—meet us at the beach with a wagon. We might have carried our own stuff, but paying local young men for help with transporting materials to BNC’s campsite has become a regular (and now expected) thing.

22Our first day in Anjiabe was spent settling in, setting up tents, and, for KOFAMA’s delegation, adapting. Although KOFAMA’s members were no strangers to rural life, they were “visitors” (vahiny) to Anjiabe. So on our first evening, we gathered around the base of a large mango tree so that Hortensia could introduce them to their hosts, and in turn, their hosts could offer them a welcome and some guidance.

23The following partial description of what occurred at this meeting is based on an audio recording and on fieldnotes written by Andrew afterwards.

The meeting begins with the back and forth of older men introducing themselves and being welcomed. Marcellin, a KOFAMA member in his fifties, is especially vocal and playful in representing his fellow visitors, peppering his greeting with proverbs and wordplay demonstrating great comfort with the Malagasy art of public speaking.

Opening formalities give way to a general discussion of the purpose of the visit. All but one of KOFAMA’s representatives are in Bobaomby for the first time. After hearing about the taboos that must be observed while staying here, several visitors remark on how different the trees of this region are from those found around their own communities, not so far away. Marcellin speaks up again, noting his surprise at having not yet seen any acacia trees. He promises that when BNC’s team visits KOFAMA’s base in Ankarana he will give them some acacia seedlings to bring back to Anjiabe.

The only response to this generous offer is unexpectedly harsh.

“What do you want us to do?” says one of Anjiabe’s elders, a man in his seventies. “[Do you want us to] cut down trees so we can plant more trees? We’re tired of [trees]! We lose our chickens in the forest. We’re surrounded by trees… What should we fill the few empty spaces around here with… houses or more forest?… Trees aren’t people’s houses!”

24To Andrew, the elder’s response to Marcellin’s offer to send acacia seedlings to Bobaomby seemed a telling refusal of the very idea of reforestation, effectively questioning the “fetishization of trees” (Scales, 2014a: 344) so common in conservation policy, programs, and discourse in Madagascar. As Scales notes, conservation planners and policy makers often imagine forests as both loci and products of the win-win scenarios that advocates imagine CBC can achieve, providing “habitats for lemurs [while delivering] a wide range of ecosystem services and [creating] new livelihoods for rural households” (ibid.). The appeal of reforestation projects to CBC’s advocates is only reinforced by the fact that tree nurseries are relatively easy to build (and so inexpensive to fund), that trees are easy to plant (and so ideally suited to communal participation), and that planted trees are easy to count (and so are quantifiable markers of success suited to the expectations of auditors). In fact, Marcellin’s own access to acacia seedlings came thanks to his involvement in a reforestation project in his home community in Ankarana, where only a few patches of forest remain amidst a landscape dominated by rice and sugar-cane fields. Before delving into the unexpected response that Marcellin’s offer elicited, however, we should first consider the importance of the context in which this exchange took place.

25Our meeting that evening was just one of dozens that Hortensia and Élysé have called in Bobaomby since 2013 (Andrew has attended four of them). As in the past, informal conversation began well before everyone had arrived, much of it about who was not there. On most of these visits, Hortensia and Élysé take turns staying behind in Antsiranana to care for their son, Jason. This time it was Hortensia who was with us, so it was she who passed on the greetings of her missing husband and reported on the wellbeing of their absent son. In Anjiabe, we should specify, Hortensia and Élysé are known as Mamany Jason (Jason’s mother) and Babany Jason (Jason’s father). Such teknonyms are the names that most use in communities like Anjiabe when referring to people they know well.

26Adapting to Anjiabe’s norms by adopting the use of teknonyms (and other familiar forms of address), bathing outdoors, cutting firewood, shooing chickens away from drying rice, and sometimes ceding control of meetings to older men, does not feel forced to Hortensia and Élysé. It helps that they are both from the region, have spent a lot of time in communities like this one, and are therefore not strangers to these habits. But even more importantly, by the time of this meeting, they had come to know this community—Anjiabe—in particular. Over many stays, for weeks and months at a time, they have adapted to the community’s rhythms. Sometimes this has meant acting just like their neighbours by following unwritten rules around where and when to bathe or draw water, for example. At other times, however, they have chosen to act somewhat unusually, following different footpaths from one day to the next in hope of meeting and talking with as many of Anjiabe’s residents as possible, or buying supplies from all three of the community’s small shops so as not to appear to be playing favourites. The goal has never been to play at being local, but rather to become consummate “visitors” (vahiny)—relative outsiders who sustain a welcome presence and foster deepening relationships through the respectful, responsible behavior expected of them. When choosing from among the many young people in Antsiranana who have expressed an interest in working with BNC, Hortensia and Élysé screen for candidates who are open to the demands of this sort of purposeful integration. Building relationships in this way is difficult, time-consuming work for which not everyone is well-suited.

27One reason why Hortensia and Élysé are so careful in vetting the outsiders they bring into their work with BNC is because an important outcome of their efforts over the past eight years has been the trust of their hosts. Such trust is built not on a contracted agreement or memo of understanding but on repeated simple acts of reciprocity and consultation. To give a very simple example, photographs taken at meetings like the one just described are not just posted on BNC’s Facebook page as a public demonstration of the organization’s commitment to community-based work. These photos are printed and returned to the people who appear in them, demonstrating attentiveness to what people in the community want, but rarely receive, from visitors passing through their community. Earning trust has also come from offering it. When expressing their thoughts to Andrew about BNC’s presence in their community, several of Anjiabe’s residents mentioned the significance of the simple fact that Hortensia and Élysé leave their tents, mattresses, cooking pots, and other valuables in the care of their neighbours whenever they leave, signaling not only that they will be back but that they trust those to whom they are returning.

  • 6 See, for example, Walsh, 2005.

28That Hortensia and Élysé only came to Anjiabe as adults and have no intention of settling permanently in the community undoubtedly limits the extent of their integration in local life. But their status as relative outsiders also brings certain advantages. In fact, their work in the region has come within memory of another promising project through which, Andrew was told, the urban kin of some longtime residents exploited their connections to the place by attempting to “steal land” on behalf of powerful outsiders. Instead of reckoning affiliation with local people through well-known Malagasy systems of descent-based social organization—which some have identified as an impediment to CBC and other local projects in how they defy assumptions of democratic governance (Blanc-Pamard and Fauroux, 2004)—Hortensia and Élysé have established and fostered affiliation with people in Anjiabe and Ampombofofo through another common (if less well-known) means of relating in Madagascar. Simply put, they have demonstrated commitment to the relations of mutual responsibility by which “visitors” in communities throughout the country become more than outsiders to local hosts,6 affiliating with their hosts in a way that cuts across lines of descent, ethnicity, and status and thus opening pathways for unconventional exchange and new possibilities. To be clear, then, the meeting recounted at the start of this section took place for the same reason that meetings like this always occur when someone from BNC returns to Anjiabe—because it was expected, though not explicitly demanded, by people in the community.

29The distinctiveness of BNC’s approach became clear to Andrew on the day following the meeting described above when, after a hike along the coast, we returned to Anjiabe to find tents pitched beside a 4X4 in the community’s central clearing. The decals on the Land Rover identified these new arrivals as representatives of an international conservation NGO dedicated to collecting seeds for a national biodiversity bank. To the residents of Anjiabe with whom Andrew spoke, however, these newcomers were a mystery. There had been no public meeting or introductions, and over the course of the next two days these strangers interacted almost exclusively with the single guide they had hired to take them seed collecting.

30That newcomers could arrive, set up camp, do their work, and then leave without any interference or questioning is telling. As Hortensia and Élysé have come to understand through experiences with and observations of other larger organizations engaged in conservation interventions in the region, arriving in a logo-covered 4X4 is generally qualification enough for being left alone, if not cautiously avoided. And so logo-covered 4X4s come and go. Hortensia and Élysé, by contrast, do not have the option of packing up and moving on—in fact, they can be sure of a call or a text from friends and adopted family in Anjiabe if they stay away too long.

31Up until 2017, funding for BNC’s work came mostly from the Rufford Foundation. In more recent years, Hortensia and Élysé have secured additional support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund administered by Tany Meva (a conservation foundation based in Madagascar), the Malagasy Fund for Professional Training (Fonds Malgache de Formation Professionnelle), and FANAINGA (a Malagasy NGO dedicated to supporting civil society and sustainable and inclusive development). Each source of funding brings new networks to negotiate and new expectations to meet, but BNC has been managing well, receiving nothing but endorsements and outstanding assessments from evaluators. These successes have not come at the expense of their relationships with people in Bobaomby, however.

32An important feature of BNC’s well-established approach to its work in Bobaomby is that Hortensia, Élysé, and others on their team have no choice but to take their obligations to people in Anjiabe and Ampombofofo as seriously as they do their obligations to those who fund their work. This means that they would never partner with organizations that might ask them to facilitate interventions that are inconsistent with what they know of local concerns, needs, interests, and existing patterns of resource management. Helping more powerful outsiders to implement projects or frame local issues in ways that might deny, defy, or undermine the patterns of community life and expectations that they have learned to negotiate since 2013 would be fundamentally irresponsible, damaging to the trust they have established, and certainly in contravention of an official “collaboration agreement” (formalized and officially registered in May 2021 after eight years of negotiations) with the communities of Anjiabe and Ampombofofo. For their project to be sustainable, in other words, the key relationships around which it has developed must be sustained.

33Obviously, a project that focuses only on the interests of people in the communities in which it is based has little claim to the CBC label. Nor would such a project be eligible for the kinds of funding that BNC has accessed in recent years. And so Hortensia and Élysé have also been attending to conservation imperatives dictated from afar. Significantly, however, the interventions that Hortensia and Élysé have proposed and undertaken along these lines have been responsive rather than prescriptive, a point that brings us back to the awkward exchange with which we began this section.

34Knowing that he would want to write about the older man’s gruff response to Marcellin’s offer to send acacia seedlings to Bobaomby, Andrew asked Hortensia and Élysé about the exchange a few weeks later. Élysé had not been at the meeting so Hortensia recounted what had happened, supplementing the details recorded in Andrew’s fieldnotes with a key bit of information that neither Andrew nor Marcellin knew at the time. The man who turned Marcellin down so abruptly—the person Andrew identified in his notes as an “older man”—was, in fact, Baba ny Bernard. Élysé laughed as Hortensia recounted Baba ny Bernard’s refusal of the offer of acacia seedlings. Andrew added the transcribed text: “What do you want us to do?” Baba ny Bernard had said. “[Do you want us to] cut down trees so we can plant more trees? We’re tired of [trees]! We’re surrounded by trees… Trees aren’t people’s houses!”

35“That’s how he is,” Élysé explained, speaking with the experience of someone who had often found himself on the awkward end of exchanges with Baba ny Bernard.

36It was not only Baba ny Bernard’s character and position in Anjiabe that Hortensia and Élysé knew better than Andrew and Marcellin. They were also familiar with the legitimate concerns underlying his outburst—concerns shared by others at the meeting who, in keeping with Malagasy norms of public politeness, had stayed silent. Although reforestation efforts may be, as noted previously, a relatively easy way of pursuing and demonstrating the achievement of conservation goals in CBC projects, reforestation is not a priority for people in Anjiabe in the way it has proven to be in Marcellin’s home region. The greatest threat to sustainable development in Anjiabe is not, as conservation planners and policy makers commonly assume, a growing population that threatens the capacity of local ecosystems. As Baba ny Bernard and others see it, the greatest threat to Anjiabe’s future is its ongoing transformation from a place of people’s houses to a place of trees. Anjiabe is already sparsely populated, and the growing uncertainty of once-appealing livelihoods raising cattle and growing rice has led many of its young people to leave for uncertain futures elsewhere—in the city of Antsiranana, for example, or artisanal mining areas further south.

37Hortensia and Élysé would never have proposed to bring acacia seedlings to Anjiabe, or at least not at a public meeting like this one. They may not possess Marcellin’s age, wisdom, or public speaking skills, but they have learned enough about life in Anjiabe to understand how even the mention of reforestation flies in the face of more pressing concerns. This is not to suggest, however, that BNC will never participate in or condone tree-planting ventures in the region. It only means that their support (like the support of the community itself) will necessarily be premised on how well such ventures actually serve local needs, rather than how they manifest outsiders’ perceptions of these needs.

38The only tree planting project that BNC has undertaken in Bobaomby in recent years involved distributing coconut palm seedlings to every household in Anjiabe and Ampombofo, allowing individuals residents of the region to plant and tend to them in their own gardens. The goal was not to encourage people to grow coconuts as an alternative to making charcoal, nor was it meant to provide new sources of construction materials or firewood, nor was it meant to demonstrate community participation in and commitment to conservation. So why did BNC do this? Quite simply, distributing these coconut palm seedlings was the project’s response to what the people interviewed requested most often when asked what BNC might do to address local concerns about resource loss. It was told that most of the region’s coconut palms had been destroyed by disease years earlier, and no effort had ever been made to replace them.

39In subsequent years, BNC has used the same consultative approach to plan an apiculture project that aims to secure better prices for Bobaomby’s honey collectors and to develop plans for environmental education that will support the maintenance and operation of the local primary school. They have also continued to work, slowly and deliberately, on their original plan of developing local infrastructure for ecotourism, going as far as formalizing a revenue sharing agreement that will guarantee local youth work as cooks and guides and ensure that half of all fees will go to local priorities like maintaining the primary school and, eventually, repairing defunct wells. If successful, ecotourism will also bring a steady operating income to BNC and thus reduce its dependence on outside funding. This is a big “if”. It is worth stressing here that, appropriately enough given their approach, BNC is facing the same uncertain future as the communities with which it works.

Looking ahead

40Among the lessons Hortensia and Élysé have learned since first visiting Bobaomby in 2009 is that they are not alone in having seen something special in the region. Other much larger conservation-oriented NGOs have also taken note of Bobaomby as a site of charismatic species and endangered ecosystems, while promoters of Madagascar’s tourist industry are eyeing the region’s spectacular coastlines, pristine beaches, and biodiversity as bounty of another sort. And, to be clear, BNC has unquestionably benefited from sharing interests, insights, and goals with other conservation NGOs active in Bobaomby, and its hopes for community-based ecotourism in Anjiabe will only be bolstered by increasing international tourist traffic. BNC is, in other words, in no position to resist or oppose other, more powerful, outsiders’ conservation or tourism projects. Not that these are positions that the people of Anjiabe and Ampombofofo expect them to take. As Hortensia and Élysé have come to appreciate (having taken the time to ask), residents of these communities are not opposed to conservation interventions or tourism development—only those that threaten their own visions of sustainable development.

41It could be that what local stakeholders in Bobaomby will need most in the coming decades are well-established relationships with relatively well-connected outsiders they can trust. They will need people they can not only talk with, but also, when needed, talk back to and make demands of, with the expectation of being heard. They will need outsiders who understand and demonstrably respect their authority as people “responsible for the land” (tompontany) in Bobaomby.

42These are the kinds of stakeholders Hortensia, Élysé, and others who have signed on to work with BNC aspire to be. To Andrew, evidence of this aspiration is clear, apparent not only in public pronouncements, proposals, presentations, and reports, but in ongoing, undocumented efforts that few will ever observe or appreciate: bringing solar chargers, soccer balls, shovels, loaves of bread, and other requested items when returning from the city, or helping neighbours dredge a watering hole for cattle, or contributing (as any community member would) to cover the funeral expenses of an elder and the wages of local teachers, or joining in the festivities of local dances. What does any of this have to do with conservation? In the short term, not much. Thinking longer term, however, and in relation to the all-important matter of sustainability, it seems obvious that such simple demonstrations of responsibility, responsiveness, and ultimately commitment, should be key to any “community-based conservation” project that, in keeping with the ideals of commoning (Leyronas and Legroux, 2019), takes the needs of communities as seriously as the need for conservation. The question remains, however, as to how BNC’s successful engagement with local communities might be accounted for and made legible to observers, given how difficult it is to quantify the distinctive qualities of interpersonal relations. Readers of this article are not the only ones who might be inclined to question the proof of concept suggested in our narrative of slow-moving, deliberate engagement. As Leyronas and Legroux note, global “development [and, we would add, conservation] institutions” that purport to envision a world of locally managed commons are often “poorly suited to complex, non-linear processes that require a time often longer than that of project cycles and whose impacts may be challenging to monitor and evaluate” (2019: 11).

43As we concluded our discussion of the awkward exchange between Marcellin and Baba ny Bernard, Andrew stressed how important it is that Baba ny Bernard and any other potential critics continue to attend BNC’s meetings. A central lesson of critical studies of CBC in Madagascar, and indeed something we learned from earlier research, is that the “communities” implicated in CBC efforts are more heterogeneous than planners and implementers imagine. Making room for heterogeneous voices ought to be a priority in the management of any CBC project. Hortensia and Élysé knew this perfectly well and responded to Andrew’s suggestion by noting that the idea of excluding Baba ny Bernard (or any others) from such meetings had never occurred to them. In fact, Baba ny Bernard had attended most of their meetings over the years, and he has always spoken his mind. The ensuing exchanges were, of course, sometimes awkward. But the fact that such exchanges were enabled, and have come to be expected—even welcome—in the regular course of operations of at least one small CBC project in Madagascar is, we think, a good thing; if others are inclined to agree, it may even be cause for optimism.

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1 See, for example, Ostrom, 1990; Bollier,2014; Leyronas and Legroux, 2019.

2 See, for example, Blanc-Pamard and Fauroux, 2004; Blanc-Pamard, 2012; Pollini et al., 2014.

3 See, for example, Walsh, 2005, 2012, 2013.

4 As Olivier de Sardan (2014: 212) puts it: “La parole officielle, celle des réunions, celle des rencontres organisées par les agences de coopération et les organisations internationales, celle des discours publics, celles des innombrables ateliers et séminaires financés par les PTF, est convenue, stérilisée, censurée, loin des réalités. C’est une ‘langue de bois’ qui fait tourner la machinerie de l’aide et protège la routine des bureaucraties développementistes et étatistes locales. On fait comme si les chiffres des rapports étaient vrais, comme si les activités réalisées l’étaient vraiment, comme si la qualité des services était assurée, comme si la population-cible était enthousiaste, comme si les normes officielles étaient respectées, comme si la privatisation informelle ou le favoritisme n’existaient pas.”

5 For more on this research and the specific issues it addressed, see Patterson, 2011; Hunter, 2011; Colquhoun et al., 2011; Walsh, 2013; Gezon, 2014; and Colquhoun, 2015.

6 See, for example, Walsh, 2005.

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Élysé Rabearivola Nomenjanahary, Hortensia Rasoanandrasana et Andrew Walsh, « Managing community-based conservation in Bobaomby, Madagascar »Ateliers d’anthropologie [En ligne], Varia, mis en ligne le 06 mars 2023, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Élysé Rabearivola Nomenjanahary

Bobaomby Nature Conservation

Hortensia Rasoanandrasana

Bobaomby Nature Conservation

Andrew Walsh

Associate professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Western Ontario

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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