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Keywords:

  • Biodiversity offset;
  • extinction;
  • fragmentation;
  • restoration;
  • Rio Tinto

We thank Watson et al. (2010) for the opportunity to elaborate on mining and ecosystem management in Madagascar's threatened littoral forests. We strongly agree that any mining activities envisaged in this unique ecosystem should be urgently reassessed. The original article (Virah-Sawmy 2009), however, did not aim at elaborating a policy toward mining; rather it was written to inform such a policy of the ecological importance of Madagascar's littoral forest.

The original article stresses the exceptional biodiversity value of this forest and the importance of naturally occurring fragments that have acted “… as refuges under stressful environmental conditions,” which are therefore potentially valuable for conservation during future climate change. Clearly, the priority has to be reducing pressure on this unique ecosystem, and we stress the “… paramount importance to integrate the littoral forest and other ancient fragments within a network of protected areas.”

In illmenite-rich forest at St. Luce and Petriky where no exploitation permits exist at present, decisions on potential future mining activities need indeed to take carefully into account recent scientific findings. They also need to reevaluate objectively misconceived ideas of fragmentation and extinction. However, legal permits have been granted and mining is already under way in a third site—Mandena. Here, the priority has to be on mitigating the immediate impact of mining and attenuate its lasting effects. The article neither explicitly scrutinizes Rio Tinto's conservation strategy, but nor does it endorse it, as implied by Watson et al. (2010). To the contrary, the company's approach can be called into question in at least two ways: (1) The calculation of its own net environmental impact is based on the flawed assumption of a near-total forest loss on its mining sites in the absence of mining activities. In fact, considerable evidence exists to suggest that prospecting activities undertaken by the company since the 1990s, including road construction, encouraged conversion of the remaining forest; (2) Much of the “offset” activities implemented by the company in the humid forest farther inland at Tsitongambarika (Rio Tinto 2008) might be worthwhile conservation activities, but they represent “out-of-kind” offsets and do not compensate for the loss of unique littoral forest.

Furthermore, on-site ecological restoration should receive higher attention in Mandena where mining is underway. Restoration and regeneration of the littoral forest is clearly possible based on the historical findings presented in the original article, which show that this ecosystem can expand following climatic impacts such as sea-level rise. Although the article does not explicitly spell out these preconditions, another paper (Virah-Sawmy et al. 2009) shows that these factors are likely to include sufficient areas of remaining intact forest in the vicinity, appropriate soil hydrological conditions, and presence of keystone species such as Morella spp., which are thought to facilitate the recovery process.

Conservation of threatened habitat in a desperately poor country like Madagascar needs to be negotiated in a complex framework of national development and environmental objectives. If conservation science is to engage meaningfully with these real-world development processes, it is important, if painful, to go beyond simplistic calls for a “cessation of mining activity.” Conservation scientists should certainly work toward declaring certain zones as off-limit to exploitation; however, they also need to lend their insights and expertise toward managing activities and impacts that are seen as unavoidable for economic development by other stakeholders to be heard and have an impact.

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