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It is just nine in the morning, and the sun is already shining brightly on the village of Antsatsamoroy, which lies within the Velondriake Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA), southwest Madagascar. On this beautiful June day, myself and the team are facilitating a learning exchange for the community about aquaculture. In just a few months, some of them will become sea cucumber farmers in the third farm being built here by the community association who manages the Velondriake LMMA, with support from Blue Ventures.
As Community Liaison Supervisor for the aquaculture programme in southwest Madagascar, part of my role is to engage and support communities in discussions around aquaculture. In Antsatsamoroy, I have been preparing aspiring farmers for the next step in their journey.
Just a few years ago, today’s learning activities wouldn’t have been so well received – although aquaculture has been in place in the area for several years, various challenges along the way have made some community members sceptical of the process, so the idea of having a third farm would have seemed almost impossible. Yet, here we are – myself and Pauline, the Aquaculture Programme Coordinator for southwest Madagascar – spending the day measuring how far we have come in listening, testing, implementing, constantly adapting, overcoming the many obstacles, learning and learning again, along with the community in Antsatsamoroy.
The isolated coastal communities with whom we work are dependent on fishing for their survival. This social and economic vulnerability weighs heavily both on them and on their environment, with a scarcity of marine resources and the impacts of climate change. This is why the introduction of alternative income opportunities other than fishing is necessary for communities to ensure their subsistence and resilience, to rebuild their fisheries, and to remove barriers to participating in the sustainable management of their natural resources.
Community-led aquaculture – here, sea cucumber and seaweed farming – provides an opportunity for communities to earn an income away from fishing. Aquaculture programmes can be structured in various ways, however, to offer sea cucumber and seaweed community farmers the most autonomy, we support them as independent farmers, under a contract with companies. This means that community farmers are real stakeholders in village aquaculture and that the community as a whole, and the LMMA association, are closely linked with the management of aquaculture activities.
At Blue Ventures, we have been developing aquaculture programmes in southwest Madagascar that follow this format since 2009, in collaboration with our commercial partners, IOT and Ocean Farmers. Initially, the aim was to introduce sea cucumber farming, but the introduction of seaweed farming soon followed in the early 2010’s.
2009-2015: Challenging beginnings
The aquaculture programme within Velondriake was off to a good start. Following the success of a pilot project in the village of Tampolove, the first sea cucumber farm was built in the same location with the support of Norges Vel – the Royal Norwegian Society for Development. The sea cucumbers were growing and the first sales took place. During the first three years, our then partner, the Malagasy NGO CITE, provided capacity building in small business management, production management, credit and savings culture and association governance and structure for all of the community farmers in Tampolove, developing their expertise and independence. The project was so promising that Norges Vel committed to accompany Blue Ventures for almost 10 more years.
However, in 2013, the devastating Cyclone Haruna destroyed the infrastructure of the farm. In the following year, the sea cucumbers also faced a virulent epidemic known as Bacterial Ulceration Syndrome which hugely affected production. These two events severely damaged the farm in Tampolove and led to the supply to the pens being suspended; our teams were forced to stop and reflect on what we had learned so far, and what the future might hold.
2016-2017: Learning from our mistakes
After the shocks experienced in the first three years, the aquaculture team and farmers took time to reflect on the format of the project, and quickly identified some technical weaknesses, as well as some aspects that weren’t working for the communities either.
On a technical level, it seemed that the pens were too weak to resist severe tropical weather, and too uneven to sustain regular production. The supply and breeding strategy was also fairly fragile, and the surveillance tower was simply too basic to support the effective work of the night guards, appointed to watch over the pens and deter thieves.
At the village level, the community and its representatives (clan chiefs) were not particularly involved in the management of the project. The work of the farmers was based on unwritten regulations, with no formal commitment to participate in farm safety and marine conservation. The financial system also needed to be improved, as many farmers were unable to regularise their expenses.
2017-2019: A new model
In 2017, after leading the evaluation of the farming model, Tim Klückow, became the National Aquaculture Lead for Blue Ventures and coordinated the building of a new farm in Tampolove. When we joined the project – in April 2017 for me, and in November 2018 for Pauline – a new community-led aquaculture model was being put into action.
The pens were made uniform and reinforced, the supply strategy was streamlined, and a more modern watchtower, equipped with a solar power system to charge batteries for much needed security lights, was built.
The governance of the farm also underwent profound changes, with greater accountability and involvement from the community and the Velondriake Association. The farm in Tampolove now has farmer representatives from all 10 clans of the village, and each farmer is required to sign a lease agreement for the pens, which lays out their rights and obligations to the community.
These changes have accompanied a broader restructuring of the aquaculture programme toward stronger community involvement and management. Community management committees have been established, which are responsible for the implementation of rules governing the farms. In doing so, they also have the difficult task of imposing sanctions. New governance methods are regularly updated, often at the request of farmers. A video has been produced featuring the farmers of Tampolove who themselves detail the contents of their lease agreement for the pens.
Finally, on a financial level, a process of consultation and in-depth discussions with community farmers has led to the establishment of a mechanism that guarantees the payment of the farm’s operational costs, while strictly avoiding community indebtedness. This mechanism is now in operation and provides for a portion of sales revenues to be used for essential expenses, such as paying management committee employees or purchasing equipment.
With this new model, which has largely been shaped by a need to generate sustainable alternative livelihoods for vulnerable coastal communities, results are being achieved. In 2019, the Tampolove farm generated more than 130 million ariary (€32,500) in net income for farmers (and was also covering core operating costs). This year, in six months of harvesting, and with the necessary adaptations in the context of the current COVID-19 crisis, the farm has already reached 90 million ariary (€22,700) of net income.
2019-2020: New challenges
Using the same model, Blue Ventures and the Velondriake Association launched the construction of a second farm in the village of Ambolimoky, in the northern part of the LMMA in 2018. The community members, initially reluctant because of past failures they’d seen, were won over by a visit to the Tampolove site. As part of a learning exchange, they were able to see the success of the new sea cucumber farming model in practice, and participate in sea cucumber pen maintenance, as well as in reinforced guarding during the night. Upon returning to their village, they were able to tell their community what they had seen, offering first-hand accounts of what it was like to work on the newly modelled farm; experience which enabled them to begin to discuss plans to establish their own farm.
The supply of pens began in October of the same year, and sales began a year later. We were so excited to see the same success story in Ambolimoky as in Tampolove, but a theft in January 2020 meant that plans for the new farm have been disrupted.
A new phase of reflection is now beginning with our commercial partners towards a single goal: to ensure that the farm in Ambolimoky is up and running by the end of the year.
However to achieve this, a balance must be struck – we need to continue to support the farm while ensuring that the communities are more involved in the project, commensurate with the stakes. Despite the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, the successes of the last few months have shown that this balance is possible.
The process may be precarious at times and require constant work, but the results are there. In Ambolimoky, new management tools have been put in place (including reinforcement of the rules for guarding and replacing farmers, introduction of notebooks for monitoring absences and penalties) and the resumption of regular supply to the pens is being planned with our commercial partners.
So, what does the future hold for community-led aquaculture in southwest Madagascar? It can probably be summed up in four key actions:
Keep learning: A socio-economic analysis of farmers working in the southern part of Velondriake is being prepared. Beyond the production figures and the income generated by aquaculture, it is essential that we learn more about how this income is being used by farmers, and whether the farmers have changed their fishing habits.
Adapt our models: Although solid, the models need to be further adapted over the next few years to ensure their sustainability. With our support and that of our commercial partners, farmers will need to put in place appropriate management mechanisms (especially financial).
Increase the number of farmers: In addition to the third farm currently under construction in the village of Antsatsamoroy, we hope to be able to expand the two existing farms by 2022 in order to significantly increase the number of community members engaged in alternative livelihoods.
Empower community associations: A key to the success of this project is that, in time, community representatives will be able to take over the management of village aquaculture. We are already dedicated to transferring skills to management committee supervisors recruited from within the community and building the capacity of community associations. For example, in each village of the Velondriake LMMA, a representative of the association has been appointed and trained to support and supervise aquaculture. However, this will be a long process that could take several years, so it remains a crucial part of our plans for the future.
We are aware of how far we have come, and even more so of the journey ahead of us. The environment in which we live and work presents unquestionable challenges that we are also addressing, including poverty, illiteracy and insecurity. Yet, our energy does not waver; we know that the resilience of communities and the marine environment that they rely on depends on the success of new economic opportunities, and despite the obstacles we’ve faced along the way, community-led aquaculture remains a shining example of this.
Learn more about our lessons learned at Tampolove’s sea cucumber farm
Find out how aquaculture is boosting the bioeconomy in Zanzibar
Thanks to our funders Norges Vel – The Royal Norwegian Society for Development – for their support over the last ten years with our aquaculture programme.