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Facilitating a neutral debate on the sustainable future of the Ampasindava landscape

21 July 2017

Social tension has reigned on the Ampasindava peninsula in North West Madagascar since the government announced its economic development plans to allow extraction of rare earth metals. It seemed almost impossible to bring together local stakeholders, including farmers, tourism operators, government officials and representatives from a mining company to ensure that the development of the region does not go at the expense of the natural ecosystems that underpin local economies. An introductory workshop on Strategic Environmental Assessment, facilitated by the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment, unlocked the stalemate.

While the Malagasy government sees the exploration of the region’s rare earth metals as a great economic opportunity, operators in the marine tourism sector consider it a threat to their own business. The local population depends mainly on farming and fisheries and fears that toxic waste from mining activities will affect their health and livelihoods by polluting their water and agricultural soils.

The planned mining project is located in a forest area that is the source of three major rivers and flanks a protected area. Jeannie Raharimampionona, head of the conservation department of Missouri Botanical Gardens Madagascar, which manages the protected area, voices her concerns. “Local communities that lose their access to land because of the mining concession are likely to venture into the protected area to find new agricultural lands. This poses a threat to the rich biodiversity of the area.” Another concern is the influx of migrant workers that comes with mining activities. “We expect an increased demand for -and pressure on- wood and other natural resources.”

Strong policy environment

Though the exploitation of rare earth metals offers economic opportunities for the region, Mrs Raharimampionona stresses it can only deliver net positive impact for society if it is guided by a strong and updated policy environment. “We found that is hard to have transparent communication about this with mining companies or policy makers.”

An introductory workshop on Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), facilitated by the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment, managed to bring the different –often opposing- parties into the same room. “A first,” says Mark van der Wal, senior ecologist and coordinator of IUCN NL’s activities in Madagascar. “Discussions started out pretty emotional,” he continues. “I was afraid we wouldn’t make it to the afternoon, but everyone stayed on and after three days a more neutral debate was being held on possible future steps.”

Mrs Raharimampionona states: “I have learned that SEA can be a powerful tool at landscape level to bring stakeholders with different interests and viewpoints together to speak openly about their differences. It’s also a great way to bring more transparency to the table.”

Sustainable management

The workshop aimed to explore whether the use of Strategic Environmental Assessment – an approach not yet widely applied in Madagascar- would be a good means of achieving sustainable management of the Ampasindava peninsula.

Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is a participative decision support process, aiming to ensure that environmental and possibly other sustainability aspects are considered effectively in policy and planning. Following the workshop, it was decided that a Strategic Environmental Assessment approach is the way forward for the Ampasindava landscape.

Informed decision-making

The process should lead to an objective assessment of the impact of the various private sector activities on regional and national development and the natural environment. “Insight into different land use scenarios should support the decision making on best land options, taking into account Madagascar’s fragile ecologic setting with high poverty rates,” Mark van der Wal explains. “Our Malagasy partner organizations within the program Shared Resources, Joint Solutions (a strategic partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and WWF Netherlands) aim to stimulate the debate on how to achieve long term net societal profit. What is a good development scenario if we look across generations and factor in the environmental costs of specific developments?” By bringing the insights of local communities and civil society into the discussion, we aim to stimulate better informed decision-making that should result in long-term sustainable development of the Ampasindava peninsula.

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More articles by: Mark van der Wal