Sustainable—capable of being carried out on a long term timescale, and in the case of WWF’s work, on a long term timescale without lasting impact on the environment.
Development—the act of progress and growth. In the case of the “developing world,” the idea of bringing third world countries up to a first world standard of living with regard to technology, economy, and everyday comforts.
Sustainable development, then? In a nutshell, it is the question of how to give the people of places like rural Madagascar a quality of life that rivals that of the developed world without threatening the natural environment in the process. That sounds like a difficult task, indeed. I graduated from Stanford University in June of 2010 with my head full of ideas and ambitions but with little background in practical, on-the-ground field conservation. I arrived in Madagascar, wide-eyed, eager, hopeful, and ready to make a difference in the world. But upon my first sight of the Malagasy countryside, I was shocked.
Only 10-20% of the Madagascar’s original forest land remains, and my volunteer group’s three-day transit from the capital city, Antananarivo, to our field site in the remote, southeastern town of Vondrozo bore witness to deforestation of massive proportions. Some 80-90% of Madagascar’s land area is burned on an annual basis, a staggering figure that reflects the Malagasy people’s widespread use of tavy, a slash-and-burn agricultural practice, and doro-tanetry, a method of landscape burning meant to make way for grasses on which to graze zebu, Madagascar’s emblematic cattle. The once-verdant landscape between Tana and Vondrozo is, today, a red and barren wasteland. Madagascar sits at a delicate point in its development history, for the threats to its fragile and unique ecosystem are many and very real. However, through the work of conservation groups like WWF, I believe that a sustainable, developed future for the Malagasy people is still a possibility.
My horror at Madagascar’s widespread environmental destruction was tempered by an astonished awe at the country’s diverse ecology and incredible people. I saw sights the likes of which few westerners have seen before—wild, overgrown valleys, plummeting waterfalls, twinkling fireflies in inky, black skies. There were sunrises and sunsets and lemurs climbing ravinala palms and chameleons changing color to match the sleeve of my raincoat. There were inspiring Malagasy boys who showed us secret forests full of wildlife that they longed to protect and old Malagasy men who talked of the trees’ importance in regulating climate and young Malagasy women who told us that by asking what about Madagascar’s environment was important to them, we were encouraging people to reflect and learn about themselves.
And I, too, was learning—more than any classroom had ever taught me. “Ecology has a synonym which is ALL,” wrote American author, John Steinbeck in his ecological treatise, The Log from the Sea of Cortez. And Madagascar unveiled to me the truth of those words.
I learned that conservation is not just about ecological transects and data tables but also about planting sustainable crops, cooking on wood-conserving stoves, and maintaining a well-balanced diet. I learned that the future of Madagascar’s environment rests in the hands of bureaucrats in Tana, professors in New York, volunteers in Vondrozo, kind men and women in the forest-community of Vohimary Nord, and so, so many others. I learned to think holistically, for the environment encompasses both the natural world and the people who inhabit it, and if we are to preserve the former, we must also maintain the livelihood of the latter. In short, I learned the true meaning of sustainable development.
In my time in Madagascar, I saw landscapes so beautiful that they brought tears to my eyes, I worked with colleagues so remarkable that I felt proud just to have known them, and I felt a fierce sense of injustice in the freedom I had to return after three months to my comfortable home in California when the people of Vondrozo had no choice but to continue trying to eke out a living in the poor, rural community in which they were born. I maintain no illusions about the difficulty of the path ahead, but I feel a desperate need to go back to this wondrous, extraordinary place and make sustainable development a living, working reality. Our Explore! group saw models of ecotourism at its finest in some of Madagascar’s iconic national parks, but it was the beautiful yet unprotected ecosystem of the Vondrozo Forest Corridor and its subsistence-level human population that truly astonished me. It is to Vondrozo that I long to one day return and further explore its potential for conservation along with sustainable human development.
And so, I learned more in Madagascar than I could ever do justice in words. I discovered new things about myself, about my colleagues, about their fascinating countries—Canada, Austria, Spain, France, even Madagascar itself—and about how our fates and the fate of our natural world are all inter-related and inter-dependant. It is true that I have physically left Madagascar, but there is much that ties me to the country still. In the words of John Steinbeck, I have “become forever a part of it…truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region.”