Melissa Lafontaine

About me

I am a Canadian and American citizen dedicated to the protection and conservation of our natural environment through the empowerment of community groups.
Prior to my experience in Madagascar I worked for several environmentally focused non-profit organizations such as the United States Green Building Council and Bike to Work Month. After my experiences in Madagascar I am motivated to obtain a Masters Degree in Natural Resource and Environmental Sustainability with the goals of working to strengthen community based natural resource management groups similar to the COBA group I worked with in Madagascar.
 / ©: WWF / Melissa Lafontaine
Faline and me!
© WWF / Melissa Lafontaine

My Video

This is a video I made to bring attention to connection between rice agriculture and deforestation in Madagascar. This video highlights the progress that WWF has made and what our group of volunteers accomplished.

"Be Courageous...."

     My favorite memories of my 3 month internship with the WWF was spending time with a wonderful local woman by the name of Nanori. A term she would use often and which remains engraved in my thoughts forever was “Toujours courage, Melissa” This saying says so much about the women I met in Madagascar. They are a courageous group of women who want what’s best for their community and the next generation to come. They are full of joy in the midst of extreme poverty and very simple living conditions and are open to learning ways to improve their lot in life. I thought leaving North America to fly half way around the world, alone, to the remote island of Madagascar was a brave thing to do, but in hindsight is not as brave as what these woman do on a daily basis.

   
      Nanori and I were first introduced when our group traveled to meet the Lonaky, the title for the eldest and most respected member of the village where we were stationed.  I noticed Nanori and her baby, Tiena, sitting on the women’s side of the room. Everything about her inspired me, her loving ways with her baby Tiena, her colorful handmade clothing and her magnetic laugh. Her welcoming smile immediately helped me feel at home in a strange land. Shortly afterwards, she invited a few of us into her house, a small 10 by 10 room, which contained a bed, dining room table, all of her family’s belongings and a small corner where she warehoused handmade crafts and home grown and picked food to sell to other families in the community. She is a true entrepreneur. I purchased a bunch of bananas and my first Malagasy souvenir, a hand woven purple and yellow hat made from sugar cane. Nanori impacted me greatly as I developed a curiosity for her role in her village and learned about her resilience in the face of many hardships that me as a North American have not experienced. She spoke a bit of French, so I was able to extend an invitation for her to join us for dinner in our village across the rice field the following week. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that truly shaped my experience in Madagascar.

   
      
Nanori, is a member of the COBA- Communautes de Base, a WWF instilled Community Based Natural Resource Management group in the region of Ambararata.    Her involvement with the COBA is centered on improving her community’s way of life. She, along with 198 other local members, are the local voice for their environmental issues and the driving force to abolish their destructive land burning habits and promote sustainable practices to maintain their natural resources.  There were many individuals in the community that did not support the COBA mission and  WWF’s presence in the community, including the activities that we would lead as volunteers. Nanori’s husband was one of the men who opposed the COBA and WWF’s initiatives. I found it fascinating that Nanori  was one of their most active and outspoken members. She helped lead a women’s community garden where she taught women how to efficiently grow their own gardens as a secondary food source. She helped facilitate several COBA meetings among the women and interpreted many of our presentations and activities from French to Malagasy alongside our WWF team leaders. She also helped facilitate several individual projects that I led one being to encourage a small business enterprise for the women, and conducting a medicinal plant research and education project. When I did not have an interpreter available, she assisted me in leading a medicinal plant hike as the interpreter for the woman who participated. She was also instrumental in translating the plant names and their usage for my video footage.
     
      
I found myself spending much of my free time in Nanori’s village, joining in with her activities of daily living such as gardening, cooking and encouraging the women to create crafts to sell in the market. She worked from 5 am till long after dark and kept a constant smile on her face and tons of energy.

   
       
Spending time with Nanori showed me how much of an impact strong, committed, environmentally conscious woman can make in their community. At times when I felt that my impact in Madagascar was too small to be noticed, overwhelmed with the tremendous amount of restoration and future progress needed, she quickly reminded me to stay strong and keep going. If Nanori with so little resources can find the motivation and courage to keep trying to make her life and that of her community better then so could I. I learned so much more from this woman and the community I lived in than I ever imagined.

Spending time with Nanori showed me how much of an impact strong, committed, environmentally conscious woman can make in their community.

 / ©: Fabien Perett
Dancing with the COBA ladies
© Fabien Perett

A post from the field

Tsara Ambararta

It has been 4 weeks in the field and we are back in Midongy for a quick rest and time to make calls and emails. It has been such a wonderful experience. We arrived after a 5 hour trek to our quaint village in Ambararata, where we are surrounded by rivers and mountains scarce of trees from Tavy burning. In our village we live with the Secretary of the COBA (local environmental group instilled by WWF) and his family. His wife Jaclyn is one of the most beautiful people I have met so far, she has the most gorgeous smile and carries a sense of pride for her family and her way of life.
We hang our laundry on ropes surrounding the house and fetch our water in buckets from the river down a steep hill. We carry the water on our heads with much less grace than the Malagasy women as they can walk effortlessly with no hands, without spilling a drop of water. Usually by the time I reach the house I am covered in water! At first the village of 15 found pleasure in watching our every move, sitting outside watching us arrange our things, cook, do laundry and spill water all over ourselves as we walked up the hill. I think they were a little bit curious when I began to do yoga poses in the grass one evening. By now we have settled into the everyday flow of the community and strange looks of curiosity are less frequent.  We are interacting more with our neighbors as they share some of their basic cooking techniques. We have learned how to make homemade peanut butter (crushed roasted raw peanuts, oil and brown sugar), coffee from roasted beans, flour (made by crushing rice) and banana steamed cakes, fried bananas and we hope to learn how to make yogurt out of zebu milk with sun fermentation.  I made a modified version of the rice and banana cake by adding coffee, honey and chocolate (schocolate in Malagasy.) I think it was well received.

One of Madagascar’s largest struggles is deforestation, the locals use slash and burn methods called “TAVY” to clear land for their rice fields.  The WWF has set logging standards for building homes in the protected area, the villagers are only enabled to cut down a certain amount of trees per year, and are restricted to cut down trees of a certain diameter. There are consequences for those who do not abide by these restrictions, such as payment with a zebu which is a large price considering one zebu provides a family with milk and food. Madagascar is using a community based management approach for the conservation of its natural resources which preserve valuable ecosystems and support local livelihoods. The transfer of local natural resource use rights has been transferred to a group entitled Communaute de Base or more simply COBA. The COBA group in Ambararta consists of many members committed to the protection and conservation of the humid forests which will then compliment added improvement of their daily lives.  One of the many projects that the COBA group is involved in is reforestation to surrounding areas. Each local village has a few COBA members that are in charge of planting seedlings. They plant both exotic and native trees such as Acacia and Eucalyptus. One of our group leaders took us on a hike to see one of the areas where the re-plantation has begun. It was incredible to see the tiny spuds and new life. Although, as we looked across the surrounding mountain valley we were reminded of the unimaginable desolation of the other mountains, covered by tall golden grass instead of the once lush, large shady trees.
We successfully finished our compost project last week where we were able to interact with the COBA members on a deeper level. My partner, the newest member of the group, Eddy is a local Malagasy working as a Language Training and Culture Instructor for the Peace Corps. Yes… he can understand my American French accent unlike the rest of the Malgache population ;)  We conducted 4 successful compost presentations and demonstrations, leaving each village a community compost to maintain and a deepened understanding of the benefits that the addition of composting will bring to their communities. The COBA members were positive and receptive.  I plan to continue to encourage the villagers to use their composts by conducting visits and consulting farmers on when to prepare compost based on their agricultural calendars.  A few days ago we planted several new vegetable varieties in the COBA community garden with the COBA ladies. When we return to Midongy our compost will be ready to use so we will plant a small community garden at the back of the volunteer house and demonstrate how to add the compost in the soil prior to planting the seeds. This will be my first garden!!

 See more articles and photos  on my blog!

www.lafontainewwf.blogspot.com

Setting goals and making them happen!!

Having a passion for the environment I have always wanted to go to a third world country and work on sustainability issues. I applied to the WWF Explore Fiji trip in 2011, was shortlisted for the program, but unfortunately did not get chosen. In the meantime, undeterred, I decided to get involved in my local community and held several work related positions where I served as an advocate for sustainability and environmental issues. I was in the running a second time, for a placement in the Congo River Basin but was not accepted that go around due to my beginner level of French. I had always wanted to improve my French as I was born in Montreal and knew it would improve my chances of being accepted to an international program. I then relocated to Montreal and enrolled into intensive French courses. After a year I had a good working knowledge of spoken and written French and this time when I applied for the Madagascar placement, it was a perfect fit. I was ecstatic!


One last obstacle needed to be hurdled before my dream came true. My funds were dwindling and I was not in a position to cover the costs. Again failure was not an option so I set up an online blog/support site, held a traditional Malagasy dinner/fundraiser for friends and family to promote awareness of the WWF and the environmental issues of Madagascar and was able to raise enough to fund my expenses. As a thank-you to my supporters I continued posting updates and sharing photos while in the field on my blog site. I also enjoy photography so upon my return, I thanked my supporters by giving them a copy of some of the photos I took in Madagascar as well as some Malgache children’s drawings of lemurs from a supplemental project I did educating children about biodiversity and lemur species. I set a goal and did everything I could to reach it and realized my aspiration…

I highly recommend that anyone who has an interest in biodiversity and sustainability issues specific to third world countries apply to this amazing program…The Malagasy people are very receptive and the experience will definitely impact you for the better as it did me!

Contact me!

 You can contact me with any questions at m.lafontaine13@gmail.com 

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