We stand before a great challenge of transforming ecosystem governance towards sustainability in a world characterised by human domination and global change (Steffen et al. 2007). The conservation movement has been, and still is, one of the major responses to human exploitation, trying to limit its impact on the ecosystems of the world. Until recently, there has been a strong focus on ‘charismatic’ species, and conservation solutions have revolved around creating reserves or parks to protect nature from humans (Adams and Mulligan 2003). Most parks of the world, especially in developing countries with weak nation-states, are poorly protected and have not been able to adapt to the challenges of internal ecosystem dynamics or socioeconomic drivers such as demands for land and migration of people (Borrini-Feyerabend et al. 2004, Duffy 2006). The expanding branch of conservation recognises that local people establish and sustain self-organising institutions with positive outcomes for the protection of biodiversity (Berkes 2004, Gibson et al. 2005, Hayes 2006). While numerous studies document the content, functioning and role of such institutions in conservation and social–ecological resilience (Berkes et al. 2000), there is still a lack of understanding of their dynamics and their capacity to deal with external drivers.
Our chapter addresses how local institutions valuable for forest conservation in southern Madagascar adapt to religious and climatic drivers of change. It is based on the work on common property and social–ecological systems (SES) that has emerged as a reaction to ‘blueprint’ conservation schemes, with simplified views of the relationship between local and indigenous people and the ecosystems in which they reside (e.g. Ostrom 1990, Berkes and Folke 1998, Murphree 2002). Three key points are central for our chapter. First, the ecosystems that are to be shielded from people have often been shaped in coevolution with human activities. Thus a separation of humans and nature is artificial and arbitrary, and an understanding of the feedbacks of the integrated social and ecological system is essential for sustaining ecosystems and ecosystem functions (Berkes and Folke 1998). Second, contrary to assumptions based on theories of the tragedy of the commons, people have a capacity to create rules, norms and institutions that regulate human use of ecosystems, and in many places people have sustained resource use over long periods (Feeny et al. 1990, Ostrom 1990, Dietz et al. 2003). Third, such local institutions, such as ‘rules-in-use’ (Ostrom 1990), are developed and adjusted along with local ecosystem dynamics, building resilience of the linked social–ecological system (Berkes et al. 2000). In many cases, in particular in indigenous communities, the institutions are inseparable components of a knowledge–practice–belief complex (Gadgil et al. 1993). Hence, aspects of indigenous institutions that are desirable from a Western conservationist’s perspective coexist with notions of sacredness and understandings of nature as enchanted.