And what exactly did I learn?

…which may seem as something quite ironic in itself, when apparently, we had come here to talk with the local people and teach them how they must live in order to be sustainable and to conserve their local habitats – True, but in my opinion, we have so much more to learn ourselves…

“Tanindrazana…Fahafahana…Fandrosoana”
“Ancestral-land…Liberty…Progress”

We were trekking through the forest close to the village of Ambodihasina, within the Betaolana forest corridor. The path was narrow and steep and despite the strong urge to gaze at the lush greens and the sporadic splash of colour from a beautiful butterfly or a handsome beetle, my eyes simply rested on Cliffan’s bare feet (a young boy who became our friend in Ambodihasina) – They were lightly springing off protruding rocks and roots as he made his way up the mountain with complete ease, armed only with a small bag carrying his school book and a pen. I clumsily stopped still in my tracks, breathing heavily, gulping down a few mouthfuls of water from my fancy “hiker’s flask”. And as I swallowed, I looked down at my feet, dressed with these expensive, heavy and awkward hiking boots. I wiggled my toes and felt that blister was getting bigger…and I thought what’s the difference between needing something and wanting something? I don’t literally mean that hikers don’t really need hiking boots, but I do believe that as more people from the rich west visit developing countries, they begin to realise the difference between necessity and desire – despite being constantly encouraged in our consumer societies that desire should most definitely comes first!

And I’m starting to believe that perhaps more people are now realising also, that conservation is not about green earthy hippies wanting to “save the planet” just because they prefer trees and animals and so want to live amongst it…In fact, I believe more people realise that conservation of our biodiversity and the protection of our land, sea and air is actually something not that people just want, but something necessary, something we need for the future existence of our population and our planet.

Is the WWF’s appeal, appealing? (extract from diary, 05.10.07)

As I mentioned from the start, one of the aspects of this experience that interested me most, was that of questioning how conservation could work in a developing country? And this led me to think about what were the objectives of conservation organisations, particularly when working in developing countries, which carry the added priority of developing their country economically, socially and politically? On our journey from Antananarivo to Sambava, I started to re-read an article I’d brought with me, outlining the need to address 4 categories in evaluating the success of a Forest Management project in Madagascar. The categories were: “People, Power, Wealth & Nature” (Raik & Decker, 2007, see below for full reference). It was something I was starting to understand, that anywhere in the real world, (but particularly in developing countries) these aspects, primarily concerning people and nature, are by no means mutually exclusive and therefore must not be considered as so – they are in fact, intrinsically linked. And so I started to think perhaps this is where conservation and human-aid agencies and organisations, perhaps even the WWF are going wrong…

Of course, I’m sure that most, if not all of these organisations are aware of the intricate links between people and nature and so in a developing world context, a conservation organisation’s objectives would address the livelihoods of local people, and equally a development agency would take notice of how the surrounding natural environment fares in their management plans. If these are truly the circumstances, then perhaps such organisations need to be sure that in appealing to the public, governments or local officials about their objectives, and more importantly in executing them, they address both nature and people.

For example, as we have witnessed first-hand in Madagascar, it would have been impossible for the WWF to come here and only focus on saving the lemurs and their habitats – they also had to work with the local people to ensure that their livelihoods were protected as well. Yes, that may seem rather straight forward, but the point I’m making is that if the WWF just appealed to the public purely with objectives and aims of protecting the highly endangered lemur species, I’m pretty sure they’d be strongly criticised for example, by a development agency saying “Yes, but what about the country’s economic position? We also have to do something about the fact that a huge proportion of people in this country cannot get decent medical care?” I have often felt in the past, that in communicating with and appealing to the public, conservation organisations (particularly when working in a developing world context) are guilty of simply discussing how a particular species or type of habitat will benefit from their work. Surely it would be more beneficial to fully recognise and allow those they are appealing to, to also recognise this intrinsic link between people and nature, by including both “people” and “nature” issues in their objectives and promotions.

By looking from one perspective, 2 things happen:- First, it makes one more passionate about that perspective, and second, it makes one more critical of the other – in other words, people become more narrow-minded. As I learnt, Madagascar is a perfect example of this – For example, when we were developing an ‘Annual Work Plan’ for the ‘Amis des Lémuriens’ association (see ‘what exactly did we do in Madagascar?’), if I had taken the stance of being ‘pro-conservation’ and ‘anti-development’, nothing could have been achieved – the project would have failed. Despite my training in the natural sciences and my love of biology-related subjects, I learnt I had to be open-minded and understand that the conservation projects here in Madagascar also need to consider, on an equal level, the issues of development – indeed, the members of the ‘Amis des Lémuriens’ association were vocal about their need of some form of incentive (by a way in which they may benefit in terms of receiving education or money for example) to carry out the tasks to protect their forest and its inhabiting lemur population. However, it must be noted that in protecting our environment, we are in fact, protecting ourselves either directly or indirectly in many different ways and this was something of which I felt many of the Malagasy people I met, where aware.

Who are we to barge in and tell the Malagasy people what to do? (diary extract from 02.11.07)

As I have often read, some of the management plans and structures imposed in developing countries are “remnant from colonial times which may reinforce resentment” (Sutherland, 2000). As white women from developed countries, and having travelled through several countries in southern Africa, this was something that I was concerned about – the local Malagasy people may not appreciate or accept anything we suggest. Indeed, I often asked myself “who are we to barge in and tell the Malagasy people what to do, particularly when we’re in such a comfortable position in our developed nations?!” But firstly, we’re not barging in. And secondly, and most interesting, is that after speaking to many different people here in Madagascar, that is exactly what they do want – for more white people to come, more ‘vazahas’ (‘foreign stranger’ in Malagasy), who they believe possess an intellect and money that they may never have themselves. At times, I have not picked up on any kind of resentment for our presence and opinions. In fact, on speaking with Marie-Hélène, one of the WWF Field agents in her 40s, it was her great grandparents who still resented the colonists – but that resentment has practically disappeared today.

I wrote this short poem after a conversation with Martina on a hot day in the jeep crossing through the north of Madagascar in October:

How to take care of your Bonsai tree

“How to take care of your Bonsai tree” –
How fortunate to have this guide!
Meticulous precision in its care
is vital for a tree of this kind.

With scrupulous snips and prudent pruning,
a Bonsai really values with years.
And to lose all this work with a single mis-snip,
is one of an owner’s greatest fears.

And it’s a lot like the Malagasy forest
that took millions of years to “build”.
And with just a click of my fingers,
acres of this forest are killed.

But you can’t just say, “Protect it!”.
Its conservation is a tough venture…
To consider the livelihoods of the people
as well as the intricacies of nature.

But unlike the case of the Bonsai,
There is no script to protect the forest.
And if there’s one thing I think I’ve learnt,
it’s not to let this scare and daunt you –
It certainly will make things worse,
if you lack a positive and rational view.

Charlotte Whitham – 16.01.08



References:
  •  Raik, D. B. & Decker, D. J. (2007) A multisector framework for assessing community-based forest management: Lessons from Madagascar. Ecology and Society 12 (1): 14
  • Sutherland, W. (2000) The conservation handbook: Research, Management & Policy. Blackwell Science Ltd.
 / ©: WWF Charlotte Whitham
Kids fighting to get in the picture!
© WWF Charlotte Whitham
 / ©: WWF Charlotte Whitham
Pride
© WWF Charlotte Whitham

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Donate to WWF

Your support will help us build a future where humans live in harmony with nature.