November 21, 2023
Continually recognized as one of the “hottest” of all the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the island of Madagascar has become ground zero for the most intensive market-based conservation interventions on Earth.
Hottest of the Hotspots by Benjamin Neimark details the rollout of market conservation programs, including the finding drugs from nature—or “bioprospecting”—biodiversity offsetting, and the selling of blue carbon credits from mangroves. It documents the tensions that exist at the local level, as many of these programs incorporate populations highly dependent on the same biodiversity now turned into global commodities for purposes of saving it. Proponents of market conservation mobilize groups of ecologically precarious workers, or the local “eco-precariat,” who do the hidden work of collecting and counting species, monitoring and enforcing the vital biodiversity used in everything from drug discovery to carbon sequestration and large mining company offsets.
Providing a voice for those community workers many times left out of environmental policy discussions, this volume proposes critiques that aim to build better conservation interventions with perspectives of the local eco-precariat. Read an excerpt from the book below.
In the late 1980s, the famed biologist Norman Myers published a series of articles that drastically modified the global conservation map. Calling attention to locations with unusually high concentrations of species endemism found nowhere else on Earth, and areas facing exceptional threats of species extinction, Myers argued that these “hotspots” should be accorded the highest priority for protection. Myers’ original article identified 10 hotspots for protection. Two years later, he expanded his list to 18. By the year 2000, it had grown to 25, and by 2004, 34 hotspots had been proposed for special attention. Yet throughout this period of hotspot proliferation – one site in particular – the island of Madagascar, was continually recognized as one of the ‘hottest’ of all the hotspots.
It is easy to see conservationists’ attraction to Madagascar. Split off from the supercontinent Gondwana roughly 160 million years ago, Madagascar is the fourth largest island and the world’s largest oceanic island. Due to its convergent evolutionary history and unique biogeography, it is endowed with some of the most unique flora and fauna in the world. It is not only conservationists who have taken note of the value of Madagascar’s unique biodiversity, however. For years, thousands of plants, amphibians, insects, marine animals and microorganisms have been identified, collected and transported off the island for use in the discovery and development of new drugs, crops, chemicals and biofuels. Plant parts and insects are extracted out of the high, humid forests of the east; succulents are gathered in the western dry-spiny forests; and soft coral sponges are found on the northern reefs. The unique flora and fauna have distinctive biological traits and exceptional chemical properties, highly attractive to make new natural products, including drugs, biofuels and industrial products. It is in this context that they, like Norman Myers, place a special value on Madagascar’s nature.
The systematic search, screening, collecting and commercial development of valuable genetic and biological resources, is sometimes called “bioprospecting”. As the term suggests, bioprospectors, similar to those who search underground for gold or semi-precious stones, are also on an exploration mission – to locate, test, isolate, and extract the distinctive chemical scaffolding concealed under layers of cellular tissue and transformed by years of evolutionary history.