Estelle Raveloaritiana: reconciling land-use change and biodiversity conservation in Madagascar

Estelle Raveloaritiana is a Malagsy ecologist, currently studying in Germany. Her research aims to discover how land-use change affects plant diversity in Madagascar. Estelle emphasises the importance of considering and consulting local communities when conducting ecological research.

Estelle’s post is part of the BES journal’s Black History Month blog series, which will be taking place throughout October 2020. We want to acknowledge and celebrate the work of Black ecologists and share their stories. You can read all the blogs in the BHM series here.

My name is Estelle Raveloaritiana, I am a PhD student in Plant Science from the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar. Currently, I am carrying out research at the University of Göttingen, Germany. I have my master’s degree in sciences, with a specialty in Plant Ecology and I have a bachelor’s degree in Natural sciences, option Plant Biology and Ecology. I have a very broad interest in the field of sciences, and I am very passionate about anything related to biodiversity and the environment.

My research and relationship with ecology

Currently, I am working on plant biodiversity and ecosystem services within human-modified landscapes in Madagascar. My research aims to find out how land-use change affects plant diversity in Madagascar, with a focus on herbs or non-tree plants. Additionally, I am looking into the importance of prevalent land-use systems for the local community in terms of ecosystems services. With my research and as an ecologist, I would like to preserve biodiversity by taking into account the needs of local people – thus reconciling land-use change and biodiversity conservation. I know this may sound ambitious, but I want to contribute to this vital and topical issue.

Ecology in Madagascar

In terms of research, being an ecologist in Madagascar has a lot of potential. More and more Malagasy researchers tackle the most topical issues in ecology in the country. However, researchers are hindered by lack of funding, as well as power imbalance when collaborating with people or organisations from the global North. In some cases, Malagasy ecologists are even being exploited (if I put it in a very direct way). For instance, their contributions may not be properly recognised in published research if they are only involved in data collection, but are not part of the analysis, paper writing or publishing processes. But of course, this is not always the case and I hope that these harmful practices can be stopped. For our project Diversity Turn, we managed to solve these issues by discussing them openly, finding solutions together and creating a transparent publication policy. And so far, it has worked well. Recently, there has been an improvement from other collaborative projects and the new generation of ecologists make enormous efforts to conduct their research ethically and meet the international standards. But there is still a lot to be done.

Estelle with colleagues in Madagascar.

Within Malagasy culture, being an ecologist is something quite new, at least in my family and the region where I am from. When I explain what I do to non-scientists in my community I get the feeling that people do not fully understand my career, which makes sense because I also didn’t know much about ecology before I entered into the field. With time and engagement, people do start to understand the importance – especially as changes in the environment are becoming obvious to everyone.

Ecology in Germany

Being a minority Black ecologist studying in Germany gave a new perspective in the field. In the beginning, it was not easy, as sometimes there can be prejudices about Black people, especially Africans, in the field of sciences – generally we are being underestimated. Of course, there are situations where things are not always black and white, and it takes time to understand the situation before jumping to a conclusion, because cultures in Madagascar and Germany are very different and people behave and do things in different ways. With time things are easier – it also helps that my colleagues in Germany are used to collaborating with researchers from around the world.  My project colleagues have also been to Madagascar and know the difference in cultures, which helped me to adjust when I came to Germany the first time and find common ground where everyone feels comfortable.

Estelle with colleagues in Germany.

In terms of research, the opportunity to gain new perspectives about ecology has been ground-breaking. In Germany, I benefit from shared knowledge and practical support from other members of the research group. Exchanging ideas through journal club, seminars, student meetings and receiving constructive feedback helps me move forward with my research. These opportunities are very limited in Madagascar. Furthermore, as an ecologist from the country where our fieldwork was conducted, I have greater understanding of the situation and culture, so I can connect our research to the reality in Madagascar by considering the local communities’ point of view. I know what it is like to live depending on the natural resources and that sometimes proposed solutions cannot practically be applied

The future of ecology

I would like to see more people from similar backgrounds to me in the field of ecology. Indigenous people should be more involved in ecological research. I hope to see more research bridging the gap between science and practice. I want to see a change in the communication of academic ecological research by targeting local communities or people who are directly involved in the issues, so that they can better understand the suggested solutions and help facilitate the implementation of results.

If I could go back in time, I would tell myself not to listen to the person who told me that I would never make it this far. I would tell myself that no one can tell me what I can or cannot do, that I have to follow my dream and stop having doubts.

Estelle Raveloaritiana

You can read all the posts in our Black History Month collection here. Please check back throughout October 2020, as we will be publishing more posts throughout the rest of this month!

If you would like to contribute a post yourself, please get in touch.

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