My Next StepsThanks to my experience in Madagascar, I have confirmed my desire to work on environmental issues during my career. I’d like to focus on the intersection of business and the environment. Also, in my personal life, I have set new goals to minimize my ecological footprint, particularly regarding water and waste.
Advice for Future Volunteers
The best piece of advice I can offer is to be flexible and approach the program with an open mind and positive attitude. Living in a different culture with a language barrier presents a number of challenges, but I found any frustrations could be solved with open communication and patience. Enjoy and good luck!
Antananarivo: The First Week
I arrived in Antananarivo (“Tana”) on April 23, 2013. The 14.5 hour flight from New York to Johannesburg followed by a 3.5 hour flight to Madagascar seemed long until I learned that a volunteer from Canada took five flights over three days. A WWF employee picked me up at the airport (my luggage arriving safely and a WWF sign at baggage claim were both reassuring). We drove to a hostel in the center of Tana, passing rice paddies, stray livestock, and soccer fields along the way.
The other five volunteers (ages 21-25) are from the following countries: three girls – France, Rwanda, Canada; and two boys – Gabon and Rwanda. Our conversations are a constant mix of French, English, and now Malagasy. Malagasy has simple grammar (no verb conjugations, only three tenses, no gender rules) but the vocabulary is difficult for me as there are few English cognates. The language is full of seemingly unnecessary letters – for instance the word for “a watch” is “famataranandro”.
It have quickly realized some of the things I take for granted, such as clean tap water and working street lamps. Poverty is rampant here with over 70% of the population in poverty (80% in rural areas) - a constant, glaring reminder of how fortunate I am.
We leave for the field next Tuesday where we will be for ten weeks. Once in the field, I won't have Internet access for several weeks at a time.
Month 1: Perspective from the Field
I have just gotten Internet since being in Antananarivo (“Tana”). I spent the first week of May in Fandriana, a seven hour bumpy, windy drive south of the capital and have returned here after three weeks in the field.
Our group of six volunteers is working with the WWF Fandriana office to help local communities come up with ways to generate revenue without destroying the forest. Historically, communities in this region have practiced slash and burn agriculture – where they cut down forests for fertile soil, plant rice and vegetables for several years, and then migrate to a new section of the forest. Slash and burn agriculture is now illegal, forcing small, poor villages to change their traditional methods of revenue generation.
The WWF and local Fokotanys (villages) collaborate to set up Conservation Associations in each neighborhood. The WWF helps the Associations to transition to improved agricultural methods, test ideas for alternative revenue generation, and work on forest restoration projects. For instance, the WWF and the Associations are developing a business plan for oil extraction from leaves (ex. Eucalyptus oil). More specifically, we work with one of the WWF Field Agents in charge of a region made up of 14 towns. We analyze the effectiveness of the Associations as well as contribute to their ongoing activities around conservation and revenue generation (ex. Planting trees for forest restoration and plants for revenue, interviewing association members, helping answer questions around business development).
- Most families consume what they grow so there is not much food for sale. We walked 1.5 hours to a local market for vegetables. Thankfully pineapples and sweet potatoes are plentiful.
- In one town the closest water source is a one hour walk down a steep slippery path in the forest. The locals carry 20 liter jugs on their shoulders back up the path. We quickly learned to conserve.
- Trash brought here stays here. We compost as much as possible and avoid plastic.
- Most towns can only be accessed by bike or on foot. We met one man who walked through the forest for four hours one way for cell service.
Month 2: Wealth Defined…Zebus, Land, and Children
We stayed in a home with a family this time, which was a welcome change from our previous more isolated set-up. We felt more engrained in the local culture – frequently sharing meals with the family, celebrating birthdays and first communions, and learning traditional Malagasy dances.
We worked with several WWF associations in the area, completing surveys to assess the impact of the WWF as well as participating in the association’s activities (ex. planting geraniums for their developing oil extraction business; building a new office; planting potatoes using an improved technique to combat diseases).
- The grandfather explained to me that wealth here is not measured by money, but rather by amount of land, number of zebu (similar to cows) and children.
- The WWF organized a celebration for the JME - Journée Mondiale de l’Environnement (like Earth Day) which was a two day event for all associations in the area. People travelled as far as a seven hour bike ride to attend. Per Malagasy tradition, a zebu was killed and shared among all participants in celebration. As it is a respected ritual, the zebu was killed in the most humane way possible – though gruesome (for me) to watch.
- I played in the JME soccer tournament as both the only girl and the only foreigner. Each time the ball came anywhere near me, the crowd started shouting in Malagasy – sometimes it’s preferable not to understand the local language well!
Month 3: Reflection
Through the work of the WWF in the region of Fandriana, I learned that simple solutions can be the best starting point. For instance, I was surprised by the effectiveness of basic educational programs teaching enhanced agricultural techniques. Additionally, I learned firsthand that determining the best policy regarding deforestation is complicated. It is a difficult balance between conserving and restoring forests for future generations while recognizing the impact of such efforts on local populations today.