Caroline Mercer | WWF

Caroline Mercer

Never expected to know this much about Madagascar

Is the climate changing? Is the climate changing? Is the globe warming? Turn to the person next to you. Talk it out. Keep talking. Okay, break for lunch.
The WWF says that the earth’s climate is changing as a result of increased carbon emissions. Many (mostly American) public figures would say the opposite. Kentucky senator Rand Paul insists that climate science is “non conclusive”, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has referred to it as “junk science” and a “hyped up crisis”.  (Grist)
There’s something about climate change that gets people - and the climate, depending who you’re talking to - heated. George Marshall, environmental activist and author of Don’t Even Think about It: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, points to the phenomenon’s unique moral seat between accident and deliberate attack in hopes of explaining psychological resistance to the acceptance of climate change as a reality. In his account, climate change is a “perfect and undetectable crime that everyone contributes to but for which no one has a motive”.
If we accept that the climate is changing, we have to start pointing fingers at ourselves. In the same moment we force ourselves to feel guilty about harming our children and our fabulous hypothetical heirs, we condemn ourselves to a new life that is as annoying as it is ethical. Worst day (read: rest of your life) ever!
Is that why no one seems to be able to reach a consensus on climate change? Does the existence of such a human and morally poignant argument mean that climate change is real? I don’t know, I don’t know! Climate change is as apocalyptic as it is invisible - especially when you live in a developed nation whose infrastructure protects against seasonal and weather abnormalities.
Madagascar is home to fewer climate change deniers than the United States, but also proportionally fewer climate change advocates. Madagascar’s emphasis on environmentalism is very new, although organizations like Durrell and the WWF are working to introduce more extensive environmental curriculums into Madagascar’s schools. In Madagascar, climate change isn’t the unseen specter that deniers in the developed world make it out to be.
In the developing world, climate change is both a lot more in your face and a lot less discussed. During the four months I spent living on Madagascar’s rural southeast coast, I was struck by the consensus surrounding increased seasonal variation in the region. In the small community of Ambato-Sur-Mer, a subsistence-fishing village, the impact of and vulnerability to climate change is hard to deny.
During my stay on Madagascar’s West Coast, I interviewed locals in order to gage their perceptions surrounding environmental variations commonly attributed to climate change. I was surprised by the consistency of the accounts the villagers I spoke with delivered. Since my arrival in the village I’d been hearing people talk about the notable decrease in quantities of fish in the sea. Once I started formally interviewing people, I asked everyone the same first question: “have you witnessed a change in the number of fish in your waters during your lifetime?”
Everyone I spoke to said the same thing. Yes, the number of fish in our waters has drastically decreased. A good friend of mine named Jent told me that the village elders speak of a time where there used to be lots of fish. Rera, who runs the village shop, suggested that there were plenty of fish in their ancestors and even their parent’s time. Blaiset, who I lived with, got a little more specific (this could be due to the fact that we were able to speak to each other in French, while the other interviews were translated from Malagasy). According to Blaiset, the 1960s and 70s was a sort of golden age for fishing. You’d go out for just two hours and the boat would be full of fish. You’d fish 20 kilos of fish and stop. Why would you need more than that?
While I was living in Ambato, I’d see fishers go out for 12 hours and come home empty handed. According to Blaiset, marine life in the area had been “completely degraded” by 2005. The villagers I interviewed repeated countless times, “there is nothing left”.  Blaiset’s brother Emil told me about all the different species of fish that have gone extinct – among them, Tuna.
The villager’s have started to think up alternative solutions to the problem of overfishing. Robinson suggested agriculture, but acknowledged that he doesn’t have any land to cultivate. Dede, the village president’s brother, suggested crab fishing, which can be prohibitively expensive to set up. The wheels are turning and the clocks are ticking – everyone in the village acknowledges the negative impact of fish extinction on the standard of living in the village. Days are getting longer and there isn’t really an end in sight.
On top of the reduction in fish quantities, the villagers report increasingly frequent and vicious cyclones. Robinson says there used to be one cyclone per season, but now there are five to ten. Outside of cyclone season, it seems that there is less rain than there once was. Emil and Rera both connected decreased rainfall with poor fishing. Rera also suggested that the visually apparent deforestation of the village’s mangrove trees could be responsible for the lack of rainfall, because in her (translated) words, “mangroves bring rain”.
While we chat (or don’t chat) about climate change over lunch in downtown Toronto, its first acts are already being noticed in environmentally and economically vulnerable parts of the world. On coastal Madagascar, there is little debate about whether this infamous phenomenon exists. While “climate change” might not be getting as much attention in Madagascar’s media as it does in North America’s, people are definitely talking about species extinction, coastal erosion, overfishing, disappearance of forests, and the effects that these mysterious phenomena have on food security, standards of living and health.

Caroline Mercer

	© Caroline Mercer

I look out onto the canal that runs through the centre of Morondava, the beach town capital of Madagascar’s Menabe region. From my vantage point on a hotel terrace jutting out of the water on stilts, I see thousands of bristling mangrove leaves. Late afternoon sun hits the treetops as it begins to set. I’m growing used to this sight - I’ve been looking out on mangroves for several months. I’m growing accustomed to these particular trees and their rural cousins, those further afield.
I will have spent two months of 2015 living in a small coastal village on Madagascar’s west coast. Ambato-Sur-Mer sits just out of reach of tides that feed and flood the roots of expansive mangrove forests. I’ve walked through these forests in mud up to my knees. I’ve paddled calmly through canals walled in by mangroves. These forests represent dozens of species and decades of growth. I’ve hopped along their roots, letting them decide my path like stones in a creek.
I’ve watched their leaves bristle with many winds. I’ve seen them grow pink contours as the sun disappears behind them. I’ve seen them fall out of sight behind night skies. These trees are the reason I’m here. Like many species of plants and animals in this rich but steadily imploding country, mangrove forests are threatened. They are being slashed, burned and sold, slashed, burned and sold.
They are falling victim to rapidly increasing dependency loads, like so many other resources on this island and on this earth. Blaiset, the wise and knowledgeable man that I have had the pleasure of living with in Ambato, takes me for a pirogue ride through the village’s canals. We move swiftly, low on the water. Mangroves jut up and around us on all sides. Their roots are twisted and mangled. The light in the air reflects their colour onto the water. When the canal becomes too shallow to paddle through, we hop out of the boat and trudge through the mud. Blaiset pulls the pirogue behind us.
The forests are dense. They make me feel like I’m deep in the wild. As they should, I am deep in the wild. I remark on the thickness of the forest. “This is nothing,” Blaiset disagrees, “everything is gone”. Blaiset has been witness to a huge amount of change in the village during his sixty-year residency. He watched the problem of litter materialize twenty years ago with the arrival of packaging, candy wrappers and coke bottles. He’s seen the quantity of fish in waters off the village coast decrease at devastating rates.

As we paddle, he talks to me about the ‘70’s. Back then, he says, “we had so many fish we didn’t know what to do with them. We’d throw them back into the sea, what’s the point of fishing more than you can sell?” He remembers that sharks were a problem just ten meters from shore, in the village’s small port basin where I swim everyday. I ask him if he knew anyone who’d been bitten by a shark. “Of course!” he roars, and I laugh.
When I ask him about fish quantities today, he says the same thing he said about the mangroves. “Everything is gone. There’s nothing.” Blaiset easily articulates the link between diminished fish quantities and the clear-cutting of mangrove forests. It’s a question of erosion – the mangroves protect against coastal erosion and keep waters pristine. When mangroves are lost, waterways fill with sediment and become uninhabitable to marine life. Mangrove deforestation is also linked to diminished rainfall. Rainfall attracts fish to the surface of the water, so when we have less rain we have less marine catch.
That’s a cause and effect explanation, but it’s not enough on its own. The depletion of natural resources is generally a question of population loads. This is easy logic, something we all know. If there are more people living in Ambato (it’s a village of three hundred people, a hundred of whom are less than ten years old…), more wood gets cut down. If there are more people in Ambato (or the region, or Madagascar, or the world…) then there are going to be more people going out fishing and more people eating fish. This is all very normal. We are predators and fish are prey.
But we’re laughing if we think Vezo fishing populations in rural Madagascar are responsible for meaningful decreases in fish populations in regional or international waters. If you look a little further off shore – beyond the village’s fishers who return home every afternoon with decreasing numbers of shrinking fish – you’ll make out the static spectre of commercial fishing boats.
No one factor is responsible for climate change or the destruction of marine life. However, the villagers of Ambato suspect, as I do, that these boats have a hand in the dangerous threat to their livelihood that diminished fish quantities presents. While some of these boats take port in larger, wealthier parts of Madagascar, many of them come from the distant waters of Thailand and Japan. The presence of these spectres is felt strongly in village life. My partner and I teach weekly language classes in Ambato. The first time we stood in front of our students, we opened class with a question: does anyone have any English words they would like translated, right off the bat? A little boy, who couldn’t have been older than five, raised his hand – “Japanese?”
When I give environmental education lessons at the school in Ambato, I aim to make one thing clear.  We’re not teaching rural populations about climate change because they’re responsible for it. Okay, everyone plays a part, but these people eat products they’ve personally gathered three meals a day. We’re teaching them about this phenomenon because they’re especially vulnerable to its effects, because when it strikes it will strike them early. It’s already striking them. It is already completely literally sweeping the sand out from under their feet.
They’re vulnerable to its effects because they are geographically and politically unprotected. They’re geographically unprotected because they live one hundred meters from a coast that has receded by nearly a kilometer in the past two decades. They’re physically unprotected against cyclones that come in with stronger winds and reap greater damage each year. They’re socially vulnerable because fishing represents one hundred percent of their industry and livelihood. They’re politically vulnerable because of widespread government corruption and a weak education system that will leave them without alternative when the fish stock dries up.
The diverse presence of corruption in Madagascar is as shocking as it is impressive. Scratch the surface virtually anywhere and you will see it. Or rather, hear about it. It’s hard to know if accounts of corruption are anything more than hearsay, but they get repeated so often that I definitely started listening. Let me give you some examples. An election is coming up in July, and so apparently the dahalo bandits are especially active right now. Why? Because opposition candidates pay them to wreak as much havoc as possible in the months leading up to the election. This is golden attack-ad material. When electoral candidates knock on the door of rural Madagascar they forego political platforms and arrive instead with rum and T-shirts. This is a huge deal to people who can’t always afford to buy new clothes and don’t tend to splurge on booze. To look at rural Madagascar, you would think this is the most politically active island in the world. Everyone is sporting an electoral T-shirt. In poor countries, university scholarships are a hugely important enabler of upward social mobility. Unfortunately, in Madagascar, you have to know the right people to get one.
Madagascar doesn’t suffer from a shortage of passionate and engaged individuals who are trying to change things. There are regional conferences aiming to draw up no-fish zones; there are village locals responsible for ensuring mangrove protection. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) works with a number of different development organizations and is present throughout coastal Menabe. Successful conferences are held; successful brainstorms yield optimistic action plans.
Yet, in Madagascar, it seems that exchange of currency still resonates more strongly than exchange of ideas. Corruption reigns at local and governmental levels. Villagers report that the individuals charged with the enforcement of mangrove forest protection function as gatekeepers rather than guards. Governments should set examples for their citizens. If people don’t expect the parties which enforce their lawfulness to abide by their own regulations, a law becomes nothing but a line drawn in smoke. The line marking a no-fish zone is always going to be invisible. In a country where lawlessness reigns, this line becomes imaginary.

I watch the light that floods the mangrove trees fall away into darkness. I watch the tides come in around their roots and melt away just as swiftly. I’m watching time pass. I think of the young children I’ve seen going out to fish with their parents. I’m reminded of Blaiset’s stories about his fishing days, which have mostly passed. I picture the water basin where I’ve swum every day for the past two months filled with sharks. I think about the number of times I’ve seen fishermen come back from a day’s work, shaking their heads and sighing “tsy misy fia.” There are no fish.
A strong and accessible education system offers the potential for communities like Ambato to develop alternative revenue strategies that can lessen the dependency load on fishing. No-fish zones and restrictions on commercial fishing can help alleviate the problem these villages are facing before it becomes so grave that fishing has to be abandoned altogether. Education and protective regulations ensure that citizens have options and potential. These social cornerstones are paramount, especially in a country that needs to adapt quickly to widespread environmental changes.
Blaiset has born witness to a lot of change in Ambato. His children are sure to do the same. The villagers expect they’ll have to pack up and move everything sometime in the next decade as erosion claims their shores and higher tides swallow their homes. These people are incredibly hardworking and strong. I’m confident that they’ll be able to remain positive and adapt to changing circumstances. However, they’ll have a hard time doing so without the support of a government which respects them enough to prioritize the protection of their lives.

The Sun Goes Down on Madagascar

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