Q&A with Dr Harison Rabarison (Madagascar), 1992 laureate of MAB Young Scientists Award

Dr Harison Rabarison received the MAB Young Scientists Award in 1992 for his postgraduate project at the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar, entitled ‘Contribution to the study of some aspects of vegetation and flora outside the Lapiezé limestone plateau in the Tsingy of Bemaraha’. In 1993, he pursued his studies with a PhD on the phyto-ecology or phyto-sociology of the main types of tropical plant formations in the Tsingy of Bemaraha in Madagascar.
An expert in plant ecology and biology, Dr Rabarison is the vice-president of the Plant Specialists Group of Madagascar (GSPM), mandated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and a member of the ‘Flora’ scientific task force.
During his career as a researcher, Dr Rabarison was the focal point of research partnerships on forests and biodiversity at the University of Antananarivo and the director of the Institute of Civilizations, Art and Archaeology Museum of the University of Antananarivo, in collaboration with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.
Today, Dr Rabarison teaches at the Department of Plant Biology and Ecology at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Antananarivo. As head of the RENIALA Association, he is committed to supporting the faculty’s young researchers working on environmental expertise and ecological assessment of Madagascar’s diverse ecosystems.
If the sustainability of biodiversity and natural resources is no longer de facto guaranteed, it is up to our society to consider them as a unique heritage and a common good. From then on, we begin to consider them as sources of 'well-being', 'fulfilment' and 'peace'.
Dr Harison Rabarison

How did you first get to know about the MAB Programme? 

While I was a student at university, we used to debate with fellow students and lecturers, including Dr Noëline Raondry, our botany and ecology professor at the time. We used to discuss scientific articles on conservation, biodiversity issues and the responsibility of humanity. It was during a discussion among colleagues that I learnt about the MAB Programme, biosphere reserves and its programmes of activities. The same goes for UNESCO, which I understood at the time was an international institution that enabled exchanges in the scientific community and could support young researchers interested in studying natural sciences, human sciences or socio-cultural studies. 

From 1987 to 1989, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) helped finance and manage the Mananara-Nord Biosphere Reserve, located in the north-east of Madagascar. But from 1989 onwards, UNDP joined forces with the technical and financial support of UNESCO to become the UNDPUNESCO programme, which together managed three sites, namely Mananara-Nord, Ankarafantsika, to the west, and the Tsingy of Bemaraha World Heritage site, in the mid-west.  

In the same year, Dr Noëline Raondry, Prof. Rolland Albignac and the late Dr Guy Suzon Hamadiarivo Ramangason, all of whom were teacher-researchers, got involved in the coordination and the management of the conservation activities of these three sites. 

They were the ones who shared information about the MAB Programme in my faculty and in particular the award for young scientists. Nine students were shortlisted and I was one of two who were selected for a postgraduate study project on the Tsingy of Bemaraha. That is how I began working on the site. A few years later, a MAB Young Scientists Award was launched in Madagascar under the tutorship of Prof. Charlotte Rajeriarison for the preparation of research, including a PhD in ecology on the Tsingy of Bemaraha World Heritage Site. I submitted my application and was then selected. I got the chance to continue working on my PhD for three more years under the supervision of Prof. Charlotte Rajeriarison and Dr Edmond Roger of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Antananarivo. 

Let’s hear more about the Tsingy of Bemaraha, which incidentally are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a young scientist, why did you work on this site? 

Apart from my own passion for nature, the site is really exceptionally remarkable and there was a lot to do in terms of research. 

The Tsingy or Karst of Bemaraha are located in the mid-western part of Madagascar. The area is very remote and the scientific information mentioned in the literature is old and limited. Most of the research dates back to the era of French phyto-geographers and foresters during the colonisation period in Madagascar, such as Humbert, Cours d'Arne, Perrier de la Bâthie, Louvel and Leandri, between 1900 and 1965. 

What motivated me at the time was the idea of updating scientific data to improve the strategy and action plans for the conservation and development of the site. I wanted to be part of its good management and my PhD would be the opportunity to highlight the unique characteristics of this World Heritage Site. 

In practice, how did you use the MAB grant? 

The MAB grant was essential for the PhD. I used it to pay for travel expenses, meaning the return flights between Antananarivo and Antsalova, from where I went on by car to the Tsingy of Bemaraha and then by cart to access the site. The grant helped finance the field expeditions, meaning equipment, food supplies and the local services of porters and guides. 

The grant also covered university fees, printing of illustrations and documents and office supplies. Finally, it was also my first source of income. I received a lump-sum grant every three months during the two years of fieldwork and then for the submission of preliminary, intermediate and final scientific reports. 

You have dedicated your early career to plant biology and ecology. How has your work evolved during the 1990s and the generalisation of the environmental question? 

Yes, in fact, studying the environment today calls for a multidisciplinary approach because it involves aspects of biology and ecology, but also social and economic issues. Today, we know that scientific knowledge and information must be used as tools for decision-making.

If we aim to improve conservation planning, we cannot ignore the development of socio-cultural and socio-economic activities. 

In short, what has changed since the 1990s is that ecology is everybody's business, not just the business of scientists. Ecology is now a science and a policy. As a science, it should lead to the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystem services. As a policy, it should contribute to the maintenance and improvement of the living conditions of human communities, for future generations, but also for the current generations. 

What are today’s challenges for conservation? 

In my opinion, the different observations we can make today of ecological situations continue to show us that human populations on the planet are all ‘tenants’. The challenge is that these human populations should be responsible albeit simultaneously ‘mouths to feed’ and that we should strive to guarantee their well-being, according to the conservatory vision of resource managers and consumers. 

The scientist in me would say that the conservation challenge is about improving and sharing knowledge, including local know-how and traditional knowledge. This sharing is crucial to inform biodiversity monitoring and project evaluation related to environmental operations. Without this sharing of data and knowledge about the state of the natural world, we remain unaware of potential ecological blunders. As a teacher, I would say that it is at the level of education and culture that the environmental reflex and the conservatory vision must be acquired.

If the sustainability of biodiversity and natural resources is no longer guaranteed, it is up to our society to consider them as a unique heritage and a common good. From then on, they start to be seen as sources of 'well-being', 'fulfilment' and 'peace'. 

However, the crux of the matter remains the economy. It is our responsibility to steer and manage economic development according to a vision of sustainability for biodiversity and natural resources. This seems completely contradictory. But, in my opinion, the implementation of socio-economic and even socio-cultural measures have already helped us better consider alternatives and to implement them. So why not appropriate measures in favour of ecology? 

Ultimately, it is the truly effective and participatory integration of the various actors and stakeholders - especially the local communities, who are the first to care and to benefit from resources and ecosystem services - that will lead to the normalisation of a coherent approach to ecology and socio-economics. I mean the integration, with their consent, of people, of their philosophy, of their knowledge, into the economy and into conservation programmes. This integration will require of us to strengthen our technical capacity if we are to meet the expected objectives of biodiversity conservation. Our technical capacity allows us to understand the adverse effects of deforestation, climate change and environmental degradation. If we do not integrate our knowledge about conservation, we will not understand the impact on the future of biodiversity and on the planet, but also the impact on our well-being and health. 

You have spent a lot of time studying tropical ecosystems in the islands of the Indian Ocean in particular. What do islands teach us about ecology? 

As far as island ecology is concerned, there is what is known as the ‘insular effect’, where biogeographical isolation brings about a very special harmony in flora and fauna given their evolution in isolation over several million years. In addition, ecological barriers, such as rivers, massifs, cliffs, etc., may form a diversity of habitats and centres of endemism. Indeed, on the same island, we can witness the development of several eco-regions and several microclimates. 

These island ecosystems are unique in the sense that their composition is very rich and very integrated at the same time. Their links are very tightly knit. But this diversity is not very competitive in the face of invasive species and climate change. Their capacity for biological adaptation is limited in the face of sudden variations to their initial environmental conditions, where ecological competition and selection are usually not very pronounced. 

What are the specific challenges of islands?  

Following on from what we have been saying, the first challenge specific to islands would be the conservation of those habitats and ecosystems that are ‘native’ or to an extent ‘climactic’. That is, those that have been established in relative stability for several centuries or sometimes even longer, on the scale of millions of years. Given that the island ecosystem is very integrated, that the causal links are very tight, everything can be disrupted very quickly and the ecosystem could potentially completely collapse. This is why the fight against harmful invasive species is so important. 

Secondly, as everywhere, of the health of these island ecosystems depends the quality of their ecosystem services, which support human activities, such as agriculture, livestock, fisheries, forestry, etc. But in the islands, land degradation, habitat loss and fragmentation are directly responsible for the decline of some endemic and endangered species populations. 

How are the countries in the region dealing with this? 

Many measures have been put in place. In the case of Madagascar, the creation of ecodevelopment zones, sustainable production, community rights programmes, transfers of natural resource management, all of these together, have made it possible to create a conservation belt by connecting all the protected areas into a network. 

Some areas have been identified as priority areas for biodiversity conservation (Key Biodiversity Areas, Important Plant Area, Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, Alliance for Zero Extinction, etc.) and specific projects, such as the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) project, provide a framework for the management of threatened degraded habitats harbouring vulnerable flora or fauna taxa according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). For example, the Forest Landscape Ecological Restoration (RPF) programme in Madagascar has directly enabled the restoration of certain endangered species of flora and fauna, such as turtles, orchids or precious woods like palisander, ebony and baobabs. There is also the reforestation and carbon sequestration programme, which coordinates the regional, national, union, community and village levels, in line with the vision of the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative. 

As an island, Madagascar has placed due emphasis on expanding its marine protected areas and conserving seascapes. The Exclusive Economic Zone and the Sustainable Coastal Fisheries project have taken into account the conservation of mangroves and their associated habitats, such as coral reefs, seagrass beds, sea pens, etc. 

It is not only conservation measures, there are also educational measures.

Environmental education has made a difference to the living conditions of people living near protected areas.

Education and professional training in biodiversity and the environment have been strengthened for primary and secondary school students, with local job opportunities in sustainable production or conservation. 

The policy framework has also evolved. It is now better at taking into account these issues. The phasing out of funding for certain programmes is encouraging a shift towards renewable energy, hydro, wind and solar power, and away from negative impacts on biodiversity and natural resources, such as logging of mangroves, drainage of wetlands for agriculture, mining near sensitive areas, etc. 

You have worked on several occasions with public institutions, ministries, networks of experts (GSPM, IUCN, Conservation International) and your own association of young scientists (RENIALA). How can scientific work be used for the benefit of the public? 

Everyone benefits and suffers from the impacts of natural resource management or exploitation. But we need to put in place a vision that is consistent with scientific work. When we are in synergy with regulations and good practices, we can make a project succeed in a way that respects people and is sustainable. Thus, scientific work presents opportunities as a framework for public action because it upholds everyone’s interests. 

This is the scientific world I have experienced, where there was a need to succeed together, a thirst for knowledge and cultural exchange. The results of scientific research can be popularised easily if the public interest is taken into consideration. 

From 2017 to 2019, you were director of the Institute of Civilizations, the Museum of Art and Archaeology of the University of Antananarivo - Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. What is the link between environmental conservation and culture, art or even archaeology? 

First of all, this position is one of coordination and strategic decision-making. The institute consists of 12 teacher-researchers and university professors and 35 administrative and financial staff. It particularly requires administrative, technical and somewhat social adaptability. But I got here as a result of my experiences and scientific collaborations in ecology, and that is how these different themes come full circle. 

Biodiversity, natural resources, the environment, all of these ways of naming nature describe the cultural environment of humanity. That is, perceived by humanity. When we look at the history of our relationship with the natural world, our needs, our well-being, our art, we realise that the natural environment and the cultural environment overlap. There is no distinction. 

Through know-how, skill, technique, we have become increasingly civilised outside of the natural world, in new habitats, until today. Until we have created two worlds, nature and culture. But what we call nature does not live outside of culture, it is rather culture that has distinguished itself from nature. 

Today we know that this distinction is arbitrary. Indeed, not all human societies have followed by this distinction. This is what our institute and the museum teach us, and that is the interest in studying our history. But what has changed now is that the modern model of our societies recognises that the conditions of human life result from the interaction with the natural world. Nature is not absent from socio-cultural development or socio-economic development. In short, the natural world and the cultural world are beginning to overlap again in our ideas. 

So, the link is to be found precisely here. As far as conservation is concerned, to answer your question, the conservation of nature takes on a renewed importance when it also means the conservation of our culture. It also works the other way around, that is our work at the institute. We understand better our interdependence with the natural world by understanding where our art and history come from. 

At the 50th anniversary mark, how do you see the role of MAB for the next 50 years? 

It seems to me that the role of the MAB Programme will continue to be very important for the next 50 years. MAB is training and educating young researchers to be responsible, to be drivers and key players in conservation programmes. 

MAB effectively contributes to the improvement of the living conditions of humanity, especially of local communities. MAB's work with local communities is important because we have much to learn from them, much to gain from keeping alive their original culture and ways of life. They are the ones who teach us that nature and culture are one and the same. 

You have been working as a teacher-researcher for more than 20 years, and you have taught many students and PhD candidates. What do you say to the scientists of tomorrow? 

Appreciate learning, training and education because these are the sources of human development and the instruments to support and help others and especially vulnerable people.  

Respect others, their culture and civilisation, as you respect nature, as a source of better living conditions and fulfilment. 

We need to know how to share and disseminate good practices to sustain the continuous improvement of the living conditions of humanity on the planet. 

As a former research scientist who was once able to obtain the MAB Award in Madagascar, doing scientific work to educate yourself and having a university academic degree is fantastic, but it is but a modest step. 

Young scientists, you are considered as missionaries to understand, plan and solve the problems of landscapes, ecosystems, rivers and lakes, oceans and seas, biological components, that is to say the unique habitat that is our planet Earth. 

Good luck and good mission! 


Check out all the activities of the 50th Anniversary of UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme!