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Katherine Culbertson

Ecologist ~ Explorer ~ Conservationist

Welcome to one of the most incredible places on earth: Eastern Madagascar!

Madagascar, located off of the eastern coast of Africa, is the fourth largest island in the world. It has been dubbed “The Eighth Continent” due to its unparalleled biodiversity: Over 80% of plants and animals native to Madagascar are found nowhere else in the world, and new species continue to be discovered. However, with devastating rates of deforestation and one of the lowest GDP per capita in the world, Madagascar’s unique ecosystems are increasingly threatened – making it the hottest of conservation hotspots.

My name is Katherine Culbertson and I’m an ecologist working to solve challenges in conservation and sustainable development. I’m currently a PhD student in the Potts Lab and Razafindratsima Lab at UC-Berkeley through the Environmental, Science, Policy, and Management program. I became hooked on forest landscape restoration as a Peace Corps Volunteer while serving in a rural village in the heart of Madagascar’s deforested rainforest, working with local collaborators to expand agroforestry systems and integrate native tree species back into the landscape. While my Peace Corps service ground to an unexpected halt at the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve continued to collaborate with Malagasy and international stakeholders in both ecology research and agroforestry outreach.

A bit about me

Working with bright, enthusiastic middle school students on gardening and forest restoration projects has been one of my favorite parts of working in Madagascar. (Photo credit: McKenna Roberts)

I was born a naturalist, chasing butterflies and watching tadpoles transform into frogs. Though I grew up on the prairies of northeast Kansas, I’ve always been fascinated by forested landscapes – especially tropical forests, with their unparalleled diversity of plant and animal species. As I’ve learned more about the natural world and our human communities that inhabit it, I’ve also become increasingly interested in the intricate links between ecosystem conservation and sustainable development. After graduating from Harvard in May ’18 with a degree in Environmental Science and Public Policy, I knew that in order to help address these pressing challenges, I needed to gain first-hand experience. Working with communities in rural Madagascar to simultaneously increase food security, improve public health, generate higher incomes, and conserve Madagascar’s biodiversity treasures has been the perfect opportunity to do just that.

A bit more on Madagascar

Footpaths like this are the only way to access many rural villages in rural Madagascar.

Madagascar is one of the most diverse places on earth – its unique geography and geological history have generated a diversity of flora, fauna, and culture greater than one would expect for the island’s size. Madagascar is home to 18 different ethnic groups, each of which speaks their own dialect of the Malagasy language. Landscapes across the island consist of a variety of wet and dry tropical forests and grasslands; I’ve lived and worked in the eastern rainforest region, with and among wonderful people belonging to the Betsimisaraka tribe – the “many, yet always united” people of northeastern Madagascar

Historically, nearly all of eastern Madagascar, from the coast to the central plateau, was covered by a vast expanse of rainforests. However, deforestation, driven by shifting slash-and-burn cultivation (tavy, in Malagasy) and firewood harvesting has reduced these grand forests to mere fragments of their former glory. While the exact extent of historical deforestation is still unknown, over 40% of forest cover has been lost since 1950. Many people living in eastern Madagascar recognize the numerous negative consequences ensuing from forest loss, which impacts human health and livelihoods as well as biodiversity. However, in many cases, rural farmers have little power to provide for their families, much less work to restore native ecosystems. Chronic malnutrition and neglected tropical diseases, including malaria and schistosomiasis, are still common in Madagascar, and the vast majority of the population still lives in rural areas – oftentimes incredibly remote, accessible only by narrow footpaths – with household incomes of less than a dollar per day.

Once a landscape of mountainous rainforests, the Beforona area in east-central Madagascar is now a patchwork of fields and brush, with ecological degradation often preventing natural regrowth of forests even in abandoned fields.

Note: All photos and artwork featured on this site are by the author unless otherwise noted. The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the organizations I work with.

Leave a message below to connect. Also find me on LinkedIn.

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