My experience in Ivohibe, Madagascar
If I step back and I have a look at my idea of conservation before arriving in Madagascar, I probably didn’t realize how complicated conservation can be, and how many factors are interlinked within a simple conservation project. Even if ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss are initially scientific issues, they involve many other spheres (economic, political, social, legal, ethical, etc.), all of which become exceedingly important to warrantee the success of your project. In the past, to face the increasing concern of biodiversity decline, the main strategy was “simply” to establish Protected Areas, which undoubtedly brought significant benefits to wildlife, but often excluded local communities, as well as their daily-life activities, from them. Whereas now, WWF’s attempt, as well as many other organizations’ around the globe, is to try to conciliate conservation with economic development and, above all, to help local communities to become responsible and warrants of their natural resources. I think that this approach is “ethically” more legitimate, but also practically more useful, as it assumes the fact that in areas where economic and social concerns are still very high (like in many parts of Madagascar), the only way to ensure environmental protection is by allowing people to use their natural resources in a sustainable way. Local people still rely on the forest for many of their livelihoods (wood, water, medicinal plants, food, etc.), if we put “fences” around the forest, conservation would become an enemy and nothing would probably be solved. At the same time, using the forest as the sole source of revenue increases the pressure that people have on it and would probably lead to further deforestation and forest degradation. For this reason, WWF promotes new activities, such as vegetable plots or small-size breeding, so that villagers can have some economic alternatives within the village, sell their products, rise their revenues and, therefore, decrease their dependence on the forest.
However, as I said, conservation is not an easy thing and, unfortunately, there is no “silver-bullet”! Even this approach can have its issues, as it assumes the fact that once the NGO will leave the site, local people will keep carrying on the activities, and will manage the forest as they have been asked. I’m not saying that this won’t happen (I do hope it will, of course), but as far as I have seen during my volunteering experience and learnt during my studies, there is unfortunately often a gap between what “we” western conservationist think and hope and what local people actually perceive. We see Madagascar as one of the most diverse place in the world, with one of the highest rate of endemism and with astonishing landscapes. We scientifically know that the evolutionary processes that happened in this island are unique and unrepeatable. We also know that if this heritage will disappear, it will be gone forever. On the other side, local communities might have a different vision, which reflects what THEY consider important and how THEY see nature. Lemurs are the symbol of their country, not an endemic group of primates that exists only in Madagascar. Baobab are sacred trees, not “Adansonia gender within the Bombacaceae family, of which 6 out of the 8 overall species grow only in Madagascar”. The forest is a source of wood and food, not an aesthetical attraction for a touristic summer trip. I am not saying that one vision is better than the other. I am not saying neither that these visions are incompatible, or even static (many villagers in Ivohibe described the environment in a way that was very similar to the one we had). Though, I just think that this potential difference is exceedingly important and challenging, and, according to me, it should be taken into account if we want our conservation projects to be successful.
We had the impression (and not only the impression, as we realized some surveys in the villages that seemed to confirm it) that people in the villages where WWF is working are usually very satisfied about the ongoing project and grateful to WWF for the technical and financial support. They also seem to be aware of the importance of protecting the forest, which means that the significant bulk of debates, workshops and discussions that have been undertaken in the last year seem to have been very useful. However, I am personally afraid that, due to other external factors (such as high rate of illiteracy, poverty or maybe just cultural behaviours), this enthusiasm may significantly decrease as soon as WWF will leave the site. It might not be too hard to be happy when WWF’s agents (and sometimes even white young volunteers) come to your village and tell you what you should do and how. I think it isn’t that straightforward to do the same once you are on your own, and once you don’t have any external motivational support. In fact, some people often told us that they really don’t want WWF to leave them, because they are like “the pup who needs his mum!”. As WWF’s goal is to support the communities until they become autonomous, my question (which unfortunately doesn’t have an answer!) is : as WWF is planning to leave Ivohibe very soon, are people ready to follow up on their own?
Whatever the answer, I think what has been done so far by WWF is remarkable, and I’m glad to have given even a tiny contribution. As for me, this project was a great and probably unrepeatable experience, both from a human/personal perspective, and to help me to understand how a project like that works and what are the difficulties that can come up within conservation. For sure, these 3 months in Madagascar gave me a back-pack of information that I will keep for the rest of my life.
Adrien Lindon, WWF Volunteer in Madagascar, 2012