Biocultural Sustainability in Madagascar (2022-2023)


For millennia, people have subsisted via “traditional” lifestyles, each generation meeting their needs without creating adverse consequences for future generations. In contrast, industrialized nations and globalized supply chains have exhausted natural resources, driving the loss of biological and cultural diversity and diminishing the ecosystem services on which we all depend. The environmental crisis is linked to a global health pandemic, as a billion people worldwide lack adequate access to safe, nutritious food. To achieve the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, it is crucial to understand the mechanisms and processes that maintain diversity of species.

In Madagascar, a global hotspot for both biodiversity and extinction, millions of people depend on local natural resources for their livelihoods. People harvest trees from the forest to build their homes and hunt wildlife. Although those practices may be sustainable to varying degrees, the current rate of forest loss and hunting endanger thousands of species, like the iconic lemurs, while millions of people face challenges of food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty. Therefore, there must be a balance between biodiversity conservation and the livelihoods of local people who depend on the land.

Project Description

This project team will examine the sustainability of the current livelihood strategies of forest frontier communities in Madagascar and develop strategies for transition toward sustainable lifestyles. 

The team will test the hypothesis that the lemur and tree populations surrounding forest frontier communities will be sustained, given current livelihood strategies and natural resource management. Team members will examine the feedbacks among farming and forest use practices, socioeconomics, food insecurity and nutritional health. Collaborating with local landowners and forest managers, researchers at the regional university and the Duke Lemur Center, the team will develop a strategic action plan to diversify livelihood opportunities and preserve forest resources.

Team members will study the field research data from Madagascar using population viability analysis to infer the extinction risk of lemur and tree populations given abundance, demographics and harvest rates. They will participate in peer-to-peer exchange with Malagasy collaborators, with each subgroup presenting their progress on independent projects and receiving feedback from the team.

Anticipated Outputs

Preliminary data and proof of concept for grant submissions; data for theses and dissertations; publications in peer-reviewed journals

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 3 graduate students and 3 undergraduate students. Students with backgrounds in biology, environment, public policy, sociology, cultural and evolutionary anthropology, arts and humanities are encouraged to apply. 

Participants should be motivated, independent thinkers and team players who have experience working in collaborative projects inclusive of other cultures. The transdisciplinary nature of the project will engage students, staff and professionals from different backgrounds to advance holistic research, conservation and development program. Throughout the academic year, students must be prepared to attend and actively participate in hybrid weekly meetings with their peers in Madagascar. 

Graduate students will develop mentoring, professional and research skills, gather data for their theses or dissertations and become coauthors on conference presentations, publications and reports. 

Selected graduate students will have the opportunity to travel to Madagascar to conduct field research (June 1 – July 31, 2022, approximately 8 weeks, 40 hours per week minimum); students should be aware that fieldwork in remote forests of Madagascar is challenging and requires unusual hours.

Undergraduate students will gain experience in research and development with a unique system in Madagascar. All students will have the opportunity to engage with their Malagasy peers, experiencing a unique culture quite different from their own and contributing to real conservation and development work that supports the livelihoods of local communities. Participants will also learn Malagasy language skills. 

Camille DeSisto will serve as project manager.

See the related Story+ project for Summer 2022; there is a separate application process for students who are interested in this optional component.


Summer 2022 – Spring 2023

  • Summer 2022 (optional): 2 Ph.D. students and 1 master’s student travel to Madagascar to participate in field research and development 
  • Fall 2022: Curate and analyze data from Malagasy team members; hold weekly progress meetings and Malagasy speaker series 
  • Spring 2023: Complete data analysis; draft publications; work toward honors theses; develop reports for local stakeholders

This Team in the News

Meet the Winners of the 2022 Bass Connections Student Research Awards


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See related Story+ project, Biocultural Sustainability in Madagascar (2022).


Image: Madagascar, by European Space Agency, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Madagascar from space.

Team Leaders

  • Catherine Admay, Sanford School of Public Policy- Duke Center for International Development
  • James Herrera, Duke Lemur Center – SAVA Conservation
  • Charles Welch, Duke Lemur Center
  • Anne Yoder, Arts & Sciences-Biology

/graduate Team Members

  • Camille DeSisto, Ecology-PHD

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • John Poulsen, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Centre Universitaire Régional de la SAVA