Five Questions with Professor Solofo Rakotondraompiana, Remote Sensing and Environmental Geophysics Laboratory, Institute & Observatory of Geophysics, University of Antananarivo.
Q. The natural environment of Madagascar is under threat. How does your research help?
Madagascar represents about 5% of all global biodiversity with, for example, 12,000 species of plants, 96% of which are endemic and 160 species of mammals with an endemicity rate of 88%. But, its natural resources and environment are threatened due to human activities. Our research helps to introduce a new approach – known as natural capital accounting – to help park managers and other national decision makers regularly include an accounting of natural capital, in our national accounts. The work we have done is a test to show the usefulness of the method. Our work also coincides with a global movement, with impetus from the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD), to integrate the accounting of natural capital with national accounts.
Q. Natural capital accounting isn’t a new concept. Was it ever tried before in Madagascar?
With funding from the World Bank, Madagascar participated in the WAVES program,which stands for Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services, from 2013-2016. That process resulted in 'Water' accounts and also 'Woods' accounts. But these two accounts do not cover all aspects of natural capital. The approach we are using in our research program is quite different from that adopted by WAVES. It is oriented to renewable natural resources and ecosystems. It maps all observed changes in ecosystems. It compares soil occupation maps via historical satellite imagery. The method produces a synthetic view of the evolution of all ecosystems and their state of health.
Q. Why did you choose to study Antrema? Can the method be scaled-up?
The new protected area of Antrema was used as a test site. Dry forests, mangroves and savannah, as well as propithecus lemurs, locally known as Sifaka, represent the ecosystems in this area. But what really characterizes this area is the fact that the local people, because of their history and their culture, are very sensitive to the conservation of biodiversity. This protected area is managed by the University of Antananarivo, where our research team is located. This greatly facilitated access to the site and to the data. However, this method can easily be used over a wider area. In fact, it was initially designed to be applied at national scale, but it was adapted it to be applied to Antrema as part of the test. Today, our team is applying ecosystem accounting to a somewhat larger administrative region known as Boeny, to provide regional decision-makers with an environmental management tool. In collaboration with the ministry in charge of environment in Madagascar, we hope it will be possible to scale up and apply this method to the whole country.
Q. What did your study reveal?
Our study revealed that the ecosystemic accounting of natural capital makes it possible to show the temporal and spatial dynamics of the various facets of the ecosystem. It takes into account not only the biotic system, but the whole environment. The technique showed that ecosystem accounts give a precise view of the trajectory of the ecosystem. This is a very useful tool for the managers of the protected area because it provides hard evidence of the changes in the ecosystem. We found, for instance, that back in 2004, villages in Antrema accounted for 10 hectares of land. But this expanded rapidly to 34 hectares in just ten years. And, 27% of raphia palm trees were cut down and transformed into meadows for houses and rice fields.
Q. What did you learn? Was the research process as important as the product?
Research is never easy, I think. You always have a lot of new things to learn, to adapt. We had the opportunity to work with persons who are among the most involved in the issue of ecosystem accounting, anywhere in the world. This allowed us to move forward fairly quickly. We would like to thank them again for their very effective contributions. We also thank GDN who funded our research work, and facilitated various contacts.
Our work could not have taken place without a multidisciplinary team. Working together as a team with several specialties is always recommended, but even more so when it comes to ecosystem accounting. This is what we would also recommend to other research teams who wish to engage in ecosystem accounting. The ecosystem has several aspects, so the participation of various specialists is needed. In addition, research teams also have the duty to transmit knowledge to decision-makers and to citizens, which requires additional skills.
In conversation with Madhuri Dass, Head of Communications, Global Development Network, December 2016.