Rainforests of Madagascar: Role Playing and Decision Making

Judith Kemlitz, Michael O'Hare, and Dorothy Reardon
1991 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute

Level II / Honors (Level I follows)


Students will increase their understanding of the cooperation necessary to solve global environmental problems by modeling roles of individuals involved in the exploitation, destruction and protection of the threatened rainforests of the island of Madagascar.

Student objectives:

At the end of this activity, students will be able to:
  • describe the reasons for deforestation.
  • describe the biological and abiotic components of a typical rainforest.
  • identify the location of Madagascar and better understand the culture of the Malagasy.
  • identify the various aspects to be addressed (i.e. ecological, political, economic) in resolving the problem of deforestation.
  • compare and contrast the needs of each participant at the round-table discussion.
  • predict outcomes of reduction of biological diversity.


Students often look for quick fixes to environmental problems. They need to develop a broader perspective which will help them understand that large-scale societal problems require multifaceted solutions. This exercise is best used as the final experience in an ecology unit. Students need to have a basic understanding of the flow of energy, trophic levels, food webs, the importance of biological diversity, the problems caused by massive extinctions and reduction of the genetic pool.

Madagascar is an island off the east coast of Africa. Its flora and fauna are unique, containing many species found nowhere else in the world. (A similar situation is found in the more familiar marsupials of Australia.) One species of baobab tree is found in all the rest of Africa; eight species are found on Madagascar. Organisms in Madagascar have been shown evolutionarily to be more similar to south-east Asian flora and fauna than African. These unique species have been demonstrated to be invaluable to humankind: for example, vincristine is extracted from the Madagascan rosy periwinkle and has been proven to be an effective drug in the treatment of leukemia.

This project is modeled after the development of a national park called Ranomafana in Madagascar. Scientists were concerned with the rapid destruction of the rainforest, erosion and extinction of endemic species. The park boundaries were declared only after a team of scientists, led by Patricia Wright (a primatologist with the Duke Primate Research Center), and governmental officials visited the area to sample the opinions of the villagers whose lives would be impacted by denying them access to the park. Different branches of the government became involved as the villagers began to bargain for schools, health services and roads in return for loss of income. A commitment was made to employ villagers as tourist guides and as park rangers in the ecotourism venture which was started in the park. Commitments were also made to enable Malagasy students to pursue graduate studies in academic areas related to tropical agriculture, zoology, botany and ecology.

It is preferable that students not know about the actual solution to this problem. It is referred to in several of the articles below and those references should be removed before assembling the folders.


Students are asked to become "experts" in one role and bring the concerns of that character to a round-table, consensus-gathering, problem-solving meeting at which decisions will be made about the fate of the tropical rainforests in Madagascar. Folders are prepared for each student with each folder being a unique collection of articles appropriate for their role in the simulation. The villagers should receive the anthropological articles, the politicians and the economists should receive international economic articles, etc. The range of articles in the bibliography enables the teacher to custom design the folders for students at different grade levels and abilities, and for teachers with differing access to periodical literature.

A moderator is necessary for the discussion and should be given a folder of general readings. In large classes, multiple students can be assigned roles or new roles can be created, such as Minister of Roads and Highways, Foreign Minister, doctor of tropical medicine, or head of a pharmaceutical firm. What follows the bibliography is a possible student assignment sheet which could be included in the folders of xeroxed articles the students receive.

Teacher's Bibliography:

Bailby, Edouard. "S.O.S. lemurs! A new biosphere reserve in Madagascar." UNESCO Courier. August 1990, pages 46 - 48.

Green, Glen M. and Robert W. Sussman. "Deforestation of the eastern rain forests of Madagascar from satellite images". Science. April 13, 1990. Vol. 248. pages 212 - 215.

"Madagascar: economic conditions and government reform". Business America. Oct. 12 1987. Vol. 10. pages 20 - 21.

Shen, Susan. "Biological diversity and public policy". BioScience. Nov. 1987. Vol. 37. pages 709 - 712.

Bibliography for Student Folders:

  1. Bemanajara, Rafaralahy. "A touchstone of time and place". UNESCO Courier. Dec. 1984. Pages 36 - 37.
  2. Cohn, Jeffrey P. "Duke primate center fosters research". BioScience. Dec. 1985. Vol. 35. pages 691 - 695.
  3. "A Debt to nature". The Economist. August 19, 1989. Vol. 312. page 31
  4. Delphos, William A. "Trading nature for debt". Global Trade. March 1991, Vol. 111. pages 39 - 41.
  5. . Greenaway, David and Chris Miller. "Industrial incentives, domestic costs and resource allocation in Madagascar". Applied Economics. June 1990. Vol. 22. pages 805 - 821.
  6. Hoke, Franklin. "Reopening the debate on tropical diversity". Environment. Dec. 1990. Vol. 32. page 23.
  7. Jolly, Alison and Frans Lanting. "Madagascar: a world apart". National Geographic. Feb. 1987. Vol. 171. pages 148 - 149.
  8. Knox, Margaret L. "No nation an island: the world has much to lose in Madagascar, where human poverty grinds away at nature's plenty". Sierra. May - June, 1989. Vol. 74. pages 78 - 84.
  9. Lawren, Bill. "Lost World (Ankara, Madagascar)". Omni. June 1988. Vol. 10. pagrs 32-33.
  10. Linden, Eugene. "The death of birth". Time. Jan. 2 1989. Vol. 133. pages 32 - 35.
  11. Mack, John. "Ways of the ancestors" Natural History. April 1989. Vol. 98. pages 24 - 28.
  12. Mittermeier, Russell A. "Strange and wonderful Madagascar". International Wildlife. July - Aug. 1988. Vol. 18. pages 4 - 13.
  13. Nadiaye, A.T.B. "The right to health". World Health. Oct. 1980. page 4.
  14. "The planet's vanishing species". U.S. News & World Report. June 4 1990. Vol. 108. pages 64 - 65.
  15. . Pryor, Fredric L. "Changes in income distribution in poor agricultural nations: Malawi and Madagascar". Economic Development & Cultural Change. Oct. 1990. Vol. 39. pages 23 - 45.
  16. . Raharinirina, Elisa. "Health aids of Madagascar". World Health. October 1980. pages 4 - 7.
  17. Raven, Peter H. "Loss of Biodiversity (Special feature: the 1991 Global Report)". BUZZWORM: The Environmental Journal. Jan. - Feb. 1991. Vol. 3. page 40.
  18. Rhodes, Robert E. "The World's Food Supply At Risk". National Geographic. April 1991. Vol. 179, No. 4. pages 74 - 105.
  19. "Saving Madagascar: bleak future is seen for ecological 'jewel'". The Futurist. Nov-Dec. 1990. Vol. 24. pages 43 - 44
  20. . "A treasure trove in the trees (The Economist: A survey of the Environment: Costing the Earth)". The Economist. Sept. 2 1989, Vol. 312. pages 10 - 12.
  21. Watkins, Chandra. "This could be the decade of economic expansion (Madagascar)". Business America. April 22 1991. Vol. 112. page 16.
  22. Westman, Walter E. "Managing for Biodiversity: unresolved science and policy questions". BioScience. Jan. 1990. Vol. 40. pages 26 - 33.
  23. Wilson, Edward O. "Threats to biodiversity". Scientific American. Sept. 1989. Vol. 261. pages 108 - 114.
  24. "Winged killer: malaria in Madagascar". The Economist. Oct. 15 1988. Vol. 309. pages 54 - 55.

Suggested Folder contents:

Minister: 4, 8, 11, 13, 16, 24Primatologist: 2, 7, 12, 17, 22, 23
Ambassador: 3, 4, 5, 15, 19, 22Herptologist: 2, 7, 9, 12, 22, 23
Farmer: 1, 9, 11, 12Agricultural expert: 6, 7, 9, 10, 18
Lumberman: 1, 9, 11, 12Population biologist: 1, 8, 13, 15, 19, 24
Village president: 1, 9, 11, 12Economist: 3, 4, 5, 8, 15, 21
Botanist: 6, 10, 14, 17, 18, 20

Decision Making and Science

Making a decision is not a simple task; and making decisions that have a national or international impact can become very complex. We are going to simulate this process by deciding what should be done on an island off the east coast of Africa. This country is the Malagasy Republic, formerly called Madagascar. We are going to be participants in a meeting which has been called to address the problem of the future of the rainforests. At the rate the rainforests are being cut down, they will disappear by the year 2010, along with the majority of the animal species that live in them. The meeting is being held in Antananarivo, the capital city. We will draw lots to see what role each of you will assume for the duration of this project. The available roles are:

  • Jose Andrianoelison, minister of the Department of Health and Education
  • The Honorable Andri Andrianjabamanatsoa, Ambassador to the United States
  • Jacques Raoelison, farmer
  • Andriamampandry Razafimarivelo, lumberman
  • Cesaire Rabenoro, village president
  • Steve Eberhart, botanist, director of the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory
  • Patricia Wright, professor at Duke University, primatologist specializing in the study of lemurs of Madagascar
  • Martine Randriamanatena, professor at the University of Madagascar, herptologist
  • Georges Andrianasolo, agricultural expert
  • Jean-Jacques Petter, population biologist
  • Clyde H. Farnsworth, economist

Each of you have received a folder today containing articles to help you learn about this situation. All of the folders do not contain the same articles so it is vital that you study your articles carefully and prepare notes of the ideas or issues that you think it will be important to bring, as your character, to the decision making session next Friday.

You are going to be our "resident expert." If you are a farmer, it is important for you to speak out for the needs and concerns of the farmers. It is important that you try to speak with a farmer's concerns and not your own personal opinions. What is life like for your character? What does the rainforest mean to you? What will happen to your lifestyle if the rainforests disappear or if you can no longer live in the rainforests? Try to really get into the character!


Friday: Receive folders. You assignment over the weekend is carefully to read the material in your folder. Once you have read the articles, begin to assemble notecards with ideas, facts, data you want to have on hand in the final session next Friday.

Wednesday: All of the Biology classes will meet in the library to have an idea sharing session during Assembly Period. Please bring your folders and your notecards. All role-players from different sections who have the same role will meet in a small group with a faculty member. In other words, if you are an Ambassador this is your chance to meet with all the other Ambassadors to share ideas. Be sure to fill out your evaluation sheets when the session is over.

Friday: Please come to class, dressed appropriately for your role, prepared to participate actively in a discussion on the resolution of the problems facing Madagascar today.

Monday: Two group process evaluation sheets are due, one for last Wednesday and one for last Friday. First, evaluate your group meeting last Wednesday. If you were a farmer and there were five farmers, a total of 5 x 100 or 500 points can be awarded. If you feel that each person made equal contributions, award each person 100 points. If you feel than some people were better prepared and had more to contribute, award them more than 100 points and award other participants less than 100 points. But be sure that the total points you award adds up to your total; in the case of our example (five farmers) there can be no more or less than 500 points given.

Fill out your second evaluation sheet for the round-table decision making session in class last Friday. If there were sixteen role players in your class, you may award 16 x 100 or 1,600 points.

Level I (Average) Version of
Rainforest Role Playing


If the preceeding activity seems too time-consuming for either the teacher or the class, then the following version may be more practical. Students should have some introduction to the tropical rain forest. Then the class should be divided into 11 groups. Each group is given one of the following roles. If possible, each group should read one or more of the articles in order to expand upon the assigned role. The article "Madagascar: a world apart" from National Geographic (see bibliography) is a good comprehensive article. During the roundtable discussion, the students will attempt to come up with a solution (or solutions) that will be acceptable to the majority of participants.

Roles for participants:

Jose Andrianoelison - minister of the Department of Health and Education. He is working on a limited budget in a developing country with a weak tax base. He was educated in the United States and is aware of the concern the people in the U.S. have for the rain forests. He is responsible for the health and welfare of his countrymen, many of whom live in small villages. He is responsible for establishing and managing the health delivery system and schools for the country of Madagascar.

The Honorable Andri Andrianjabamanatsoa - ambassador to the United States. He has been educated in Europe, speaks fluent English and French, and has travelled extensively in both Europe and the United States. He is aware of the concern the people in both areas have for the rain forests, and the way that the Western world views his country. His job is to communicate between his government and the U.S. State Department and to negotiate foreign investment and aid for his country. He listens carefully to Western concerns and would like to see his country viewed favorably by the rest of the world.

Jacques Raoelison - farmer. He has never attended school; he is a young man with a family. His first wife is dead and his second wife has borne 7 children, only one of whom survives. He has strong ancestral ties to the land and the forests that surround his village. According to tradition, he needs to be buried in his tribal land in the rain forest as his ancestors were. When the land that he farms is exhausted of nutrients, he clears a new area from the forest and his wife plants a new field. He knows all of the flora and fauna of the forest and can use many organisms as a source of medicine.

Andriamampandry Razafimarivelo- lumberman. He has had some education (equivalent to about the sixth grade in the U.S.); he knows arithmetic and can speak a little French. As a lumberman, he fells single trees which he drags out of the forest with his water buffalo and sells to an American or Japanese company. The large trees near his village have been cut down over the years and he has to go further into the forest each time in order to obtain suitable trees. He experiences a similar life style to a farmer, but his economic status is one step above him because he has cash.

Cesaire Rabenoro - village president. In addition to being president of the village, He is also one of the several elders of the village to whom villagers come for advice and decisions. He is a just man and has settled many disagreements among villagers. Since there are no representatives of the central government in the village, the decisions of the elders are final. He wants to make certain that his villagers have the right to graze their cattle near the village at the edge of the forest. Cattle are very important to people in his village since cattle are featured in many of the special ceremonies such as the arrival of manhood and weddings.

Steve Eberhart- botanist. He is concerned that when the forests are clear cut and then allowed to regrow, that the new growth will lack the diversity of the original. Also, several foreign plants seem to be invading the regrown areas and choking out the native plants. One such species of grass is very competitive , but because it lacks any nutrient value is is useless for grazing cattle. He sees that as these plants are lost, the genetic pool is being depleted and the hybrid diversity that once was there is being threatened. He also knows that many of these threatened plants may give yet undiscovered medicines and drugs to be used to cure diseases.

Patricia Wright - professor at Duke University, primatologist specializing in the study of lemurs of Madagascar. She recently discovered that some species of primates that were believed to be extinct are actually surviving in small numbers in the rain forests. On one hand, she is eager to see a new national park created. On the other hand, she has a great concern about the villagers and their needs since she has lived among them for some time. She would like to see some local people included as employees, as guides, and in other positions at the research center. She would also like to see some of the local young people have the opportunity to study in the United States and then return to help their native country.

Martine Randriamanatena - professor at the University of Madagascar; herptologist. She is concerned about the balance of ecology in the rain forests. She is particularly concerned about the role of snakes in the food webs in the forest. She is from Madagascar, grew up in the area and understands the customs.

Georges Andrianasolo - agriculture expert. He is also concerned about the invasion of foreign plants to the cut areas of the forest, especially a particular form of grass that grows very quickly and cannot be eaten by the grazing cattle of the villagers. He is a soil expert and knows about the poor quality of the soil under the tropical rain forests, and the lack of potential for supplying food to a large cattle population. He is also a native of Madagascar and knows the economic value of various products of the rain forest.

Jean-Jacques Petter - population biologist. He is concerned about the rapid growth of the population of Malagasy. Since there has been an increase in health care, the infant mortality rate has gone down and the population has increased dramatically. He wonders if more modern medicine is brought into the country if the population rate will increase faster than the economic base and the people will be worse off than before.

Clyde Farnsworth - economist. He has written many articles about the economy of Madagascar. He feels that the country cannot continue to look to the United States for foreign aid. He would like to encourage private investment in Madagascar. Since the country has a significant national debt, could some of that be forgiven if sections of the rain forest were set aside as nature preserves? He knows that there are not many current markets for their natural resources. He suggests that planting eucalyptus trees in areas where the forest has already been destroyed and then harvesting them for pulpwood would help the economy. Another way to improve the economy would be to import raw materials to make use of the cheap labor in factories and export the products.

Tropical Rain Forest "Grabbers"

Use the following terms to generate interest in tropical rain forests. Before the topic is announced, write the terms on the board and ask students to make a concept map showing how the terms are related to one another. The terms can also be arranged at random on a handout sheet as a "word splash." In this case, students are asked to write a short paragraph including the words and showing how they relate to tropical rain forests. For extra credit, encourage students to write a few paragraphs about as many terms as they choose. Students may also give group reports on terms of their choice.

Tropical Rain Forest Terms

  • Yanomami
  • Chico Mendes
  • Sting
  • Periwinkle
  • CO2 sink
  • Medicines
  • Cattle
  • Golden Lion Tamarind
  • Aye-Aye
  • Laterite
  • Grateful Dead
  • Biodiversity
  • Greenhouse effect
  • Fast-food restaurants

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