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TOLIARA, 1 August 2008 (IRIN) - Madagascar is entering uncharted waters in its bid to implement ambitious projects in partnership with poor local communities that will more than triple existing conservation areas.

The Indian Ocean island is renowned for its unique and abundant terrestrial biodiversity, but its marine environment, which includes extensive coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds, has remained relatively unknown.

In the arid southwest, the fragile coastal marine resources are coming under severe pressure from over-exploitation by people living in the area, who are seen as integral to managing the island's natural resources.

"You simply cannot conserve marine resources successfully without talking to local communities," Volanirina Ramahery, marine project co-ordinator in southwest Madagascar for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), told IRIN.


"Now, with a push towards creating so many more protected areas, they are increasingly going to be in places where they affect far greater numbers of people; this calls for a whole new approach to the management of protected areas," he said.

According to the WWF, the concept of community-based natural resource management means that the people who live on the land and depend on its natural resources should manage them.

The benefits of such an approach are clear. "The people who live and work in an area feel it is their territory," Samba Roger, president of the Velondriake protected marine area, told IRIN. "They do not - they cannot - be told by others what to do. Using a top-down approach just creates problems; it is better to start from the bottom and work upwards."


 Alternative livelihoods

Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding alternative livelihoods for resource-dependent fishermen. Madagascar has over 5,000 kilometres of coastline, and an estimated 60 percent of the population live along it, most of whom catch fish for a living. Most of the people on the southwest coast belong to the Vezo ethnic group, which means 'to struggle with the sea'.