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[ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR] A new teaching and research facility for biodiversity conservation has been set up close to the Madagascar rainforest at Ranomafana National Park, an area of huge natural diversity.

The NamanaBe ‘Friendship’ Hall, which opened at the beginning of last month, is part of Centre ValBio, within the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments.

Construction of the US$3 million facility was funded by donors that included the US National Science Foundation and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, US.

It will serve as a research laboratory and conference centre, with accommodation for students and scientists — the first such centre in the country.

"We want [it] to be a training centre for Malagasy and international students. At the conference centre we will be able to give lectures and present the different biodiversity discoveries we make," said Patricia Wright, Centre ValBio’s founder and executive director.

Biodiversity research and learning will focus on insects, reptiles, frogs, plants and the Malagasy lemur, as well as parasites and infectious diseases, natural products, and medicinal plants, according to Wright.

The facility will have equipment for conducting advanced scientific research — for example in genetics — that local researchers could previously only carry out abroad.

"It’s a great opportunity for Madagascar. Before, I had to send genetic materials collected in the country to Texas [for analysis]. That is no longer the case," said Onja Razafitsima, a Malagasy student affiliated to Texas University in the US.

The new station will carry out research intended to boost local agriculture and improve living standards for local communities, said Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a primatologist and lecturer at the University of Antananarivo.

"The more international meetings that take place [here], the more [local] skills and practice will increase," added Ratsimbazafy, who said that currently most research in Madgascar was carried out by foreigners.

It will also encourage local scientists to improve their English – one of the entry requirements of the centre. Lack of English can be an impediment to Malagasy scientists wanting to communicate with scientists abroad, to participate in conferences or publish quality papers in top global publications, he said.

Masters level students from several higher education institutions, as well as PhD students from University of Antananarivo, will start molecular biology and genetics classes in August.

Computer classes on how to map data using a Geographic Information System (GIS) and to analyse the results, will also be held.

Children have been selected from eight villages to participate in Saturday classes sponsored by UNICEF, under its Connecting Classrooms programme.

Ratsimbazafy believes Centre ValBio could also spur the creation of other research centres.

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