National Geographic Honors Garden Researcher for Conservation Work in Madagascar

Jeannie Raharimampionona has dedicated her life to conserving the flora of her native Madagascar. With more than half of plant species facing extinction in Madagascar, some may find the never-ending work to save them to be too daunting. But Raharimampionona can’t imagine doing anything else.

“Sometimes I think of each plant species as a gorgeous, fascinating and unique work of art in an art museum that is on fire. I am one of the curators and it is my job and privilege to try to save these treasures from the flames and take it somewhere safe. Who wouldn’t do that?”

Jeannie Raharimampionona

Recently, the National Geographic Society recognized Raharimampionona for her conservation work in Madagascar by honoring her with the 2020 Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation. The prestigious NGS Buffet Award celebrates unsung conservation heroes working in the field. Only two awards are given each year: one for achievement in Latin America, and one for achievement in Africa.

Raharimampionona accepted the award and delivered an acceptance speech at the 2020 award ceremony, held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Raharimampionona was shocked to hear she was receiving the award — she had to read the message several times to make sure it was real — but Madagascar Curator Chris Birkinshaw thinks it an apt recognition of her commitment to conservation.

“Jeannie has tasked herself with doing whatever she can do to conserve the Malagasy flora — a flora that she loves dearly,” Birkinshaw wrote in his nomination.

A native of Highland Madagascar, Raharimampionona joined the Garden’s Madagascar program in 1999. The Garden was the first institution to push young Malagasy people into botany careers in Madagascar, she explains. As she and her peers spent more time in the forests studying plants, it quickly became clear how devastating deforestation was to the country’s native flora. At the time, only large NGOs were working on conservation and Malagasy people weren’t part of that work. She — and her peers — decided to change that. 

Using Tropicos and other tools, Raharimampionona’s team identified 80 priority areas for plant conservation. This was a shift from the first series of protected sites in Madagascar that focused on fauna, and in particular lemurs, without considering flora. 

Just as they were finishing their analysis, the Madagascar government committed to widely expand the country’s protected area system at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa. The government put out a call for scientists to provide data showing where additional protected areas should be located.

“We jumped on this opportunity,” Raharimampionona says. And, for the first time, botanical importance was considered in identifying protected areas in Madagascar.

Then came the next major challenge — funding and setting up protected sites in the 80 identified areas. The Garden financed 12 of the sites, comprising 64,000 hectares, and Raharimampionona worked to build a team from the ground up to manage those sites. 

It was essential to her, and to the Garden, to have Malagasy staff manage those areas. The first protected areas in Madagascar were created by the French during the early colonial period, Raharimampionona explains, and were chosen simply for beauty, with tourism as the end goal. It was time for Malagasy people to choose the priorities.

“It’s very logical,” she says. “As Malagasy, we should have that responsibility for our natural heritage.”

That’s also why it’s also important to have a community-based conservation approach, Raharimampionona adds, rather than having an outside group come in and begin a conservation project without talking to the local community.

“The best way to protect the forest is to involve people living around the protected area. Nothing can be done without their engagement and adoption of the project…it’s about building trust.”

Jeannie Raharimampionona

To start the process, a university-educated staff member is sent to each protected site and asked to organize a team of local people. That can be difficult in rural areas where levels of education may be lower and some job requirements, like writing reports and managing training, require specific skills. To cope with that, Raharimampionona’s team provides training on basic financial systems, management, communication, and other key topics.

Raharimampionona’s team has now grown to include more than 100 people. “She knows the name of everyone,” Birkinshaw says. “She knows their strengths and weaknesses, and, through her own example, she nurtures an ethos of hard work, synergy and total commitment.”

Raharimampionona sees working with that next generation, who she says seem more invested in the environment than previous generations, as essential to Madagascar’s future. 

“I hope as they get older, they are able to maintain this commitment,” Raharimampionona says. “If they can, then the future is bright indeed and not only can the decline of nature be slowed, but it can even be reversed.”

The Buffet Award, which comes with a one-time $25,000 award, will allow Raharimampionona to continue to expand the program. Her long-term goals for the program include setting up conservation sites at more of the 80 of the identified areas for plant protection, help the Garden spawn a number of national conservation NGOs, and even seeing the community-based conservation approach becoming a model that could be used worldwide.

“That would be a remarkable legacy for the organization.”

Catherine Martine
Public Information Officer

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