Sergio Rejado Albaina
Tonga soa eto Madagasikara!
How to introduce myself? Probably, if you go trough the different texts that all the other volunteers have written, you will find lots of self-descriptions much more interesting than mine. But I will try to catch your attention, nonetheless.
I was born in a city called Vitoria, in Northern Spain. I moved to Pamplona to study Biology, with a specialization in Environmental Biology. During the fifth year of my studies, I had the opportunity to travel as an Erasmus student to the Arctic Circle, to the city of Tromsø (Norway), were I focused on Arctic and Marine topics. And I was there, enjoying of the experience of the Arctic winter, with is cold and never ending nights, wondering about what I was going to do the following year, when I crashed against the defy: “So, you want to save the planet?”
In this moment of the dissertation, it is important to remark one or two things. First of all, when I was a kid, I was that kind of boy that absorbed all the documentaries, articles and books he could about animals, nature, explorers, adventures and conservation. And I became the kind of young boy that started to shiver automatically when thinking about the mere possibility to travel to Africa or Asia. It was this fascination that leaded me to study Biology. It is obvious that I had always been attracted by the possibility to travel a developing country as volunteer. Second, when I found the webpage of the program, I was already in Norway. I had never had many opportunities to travel before that moment (and it is also true that, from that moment, I have not stopped). This means that I had already broken the barrier of living abroad, and I was exactly in that moment in which, once overcome the initial reluctance, there are no more frontiers for you.
Hence, I decided to apply. But wait a moment. The application form was so long, and I was traveling to Greenland in a two weeks research cruise the following day. It had to wait. When I landed back, I had almost forgotten about the topic, when I found the webpage once again in my favorites. Only to discover that the application deadline was in a two days limit!
Sincerely, I never thought I had the lesser opportunity to be selected. I was sure that tones of people from all around the globe would apply, and that they would have a much wider background that mine, that they would have much more experience. But I decided to try, regardless of these considerations. Who knew?
Six months later I was taking a plane towards this island between Africa and Asia. Yes, I was shivering.
Sincerely, I never thought I had the lesser opportunity to be selected
I could continue writing indefinitely about all the things we saw and did, about all the different funny stories that happened, and the things I learnt. While writing this text, all the memories that come to my mind are simply so overwhelming, collapsing any possible order I could have thought for them. I think I will start giving a short briefing of the different activities we performed there.
The first one was supporting the WWF agents in their formative lessons for the local communities. As everything was to be explained in Malagasy, in the beginning it was pretty difficult to find our role in these lectures. Moreover, I found myself doing things I had never done before (like cultivating rice). But in the end, were giving all the formative sessions all alone. Some of the formations we performed more frequently were the SRI/SRA (“système de riziculture intensif ou amélioré”), the ecologic marmite (“fatana mitsitsy” in Malagasy), nutrition formation, vegetable culture…
We also had the opportunity to participate with one of the local communities in forest restoration activities, something that was extremely interesting for me, due to my background. This activity has transformed in a video that you can see on Vimeo.
But, undoubtedly, the most interesting activity was the last one: the elaboration of a touristic brochure about the area. For this, we had to cross longitudinally all the corridor, visiting all the forests and villages, recollecting data about the paths, the culture, the interesting places… for this, we had to have interviews with the local population in all the different villages, in order to know as much as possible about the particularities of each location regarding to language, ethnics, culture, festivities, traditions… and also with the local guides, who brought us through the forests, showing us the most incredible places. It was an absolute immersion in the reality of the local livelihoods.
By the end of this activity, we had tons of material for our videos and articles, and we had got such a complete view of the area as we had never thought we would have. We knew all the characteristics of all the villages, all the difficulties they faced in their daily lives, all their idiosyncrasy and we had been trough the most amazing routes in the forests. This information materialized in a long report full of data and proposals towards the implementation of the tourism in the zone, and the brochure that is available in this webpage.
I found myself doing things I had never done before.
So we started to think about possible topics for the videos. We wanted something that could go further and deeper than our personal experiences, something that really could tell something about the country, the places we were visiting and the activities we were performing. And, suddenly, we had the great idea: why not to bring with us a bottle, asking the people we met a question easy to answer, taking photos and videos of all the process? Great!
Now, we only needed to agree in the question we wanted to ask. Finally, we decided the most suitable was “Which part of the environment of Madagascar is more important for you? And why?”. So we proceeded to carry on the project, asking this question to ourselves, to the people in the villages, to the WWF agents… but you’d better check by ourselves the results in the video.
We think that this side project was pretty successful, and we are all very proud of the impact we generated in the local communities. Many people had never considered this aspect of their every day lives before, and being asked by a group of young estrangers made them think about it. We even arrived to know that they spoke between themselves about it after we had been making our research. And we hope that many of them are now more conscious about their natural richness than before.
Which part of the environment of Madagascar is more important for you?
- Provide the volunteers with an insight of the challenges developing nations face for the conservation of their environment.
- Provide the volunteers with an insight of real conservation fieldwork.
- Provide the volunteers with the capacity to communicate their experience to others.
Well, all these objectives have been completely fulfilled. Especially the first two, as the third one depends more on our personal implication once we come back to our home countries.
But, more concretely, what did I learn?
We all know about the importance of preserving our natural heritage. Or, at least, this is a very widespread conception in the developed countries. And we can all mention several reasons for this. But none of us is so extremely dependant in their closest environment as people in developing nations are.
For them, their natural richness is the main source of food, water, resources and even monetary richness. The environment is their livelihood, and there are extremely and directly dependent on the health of their ecosystems. They drink the water that comes out of the forest, they use its wood for cooking and shelter, they hunt its animals for food… and very often they lack of the knowledge or the means to manage this resources in an adequate way.
For example, the general belief in the Vondrozo area is that, if you burn the plants in an area, afterwards they grow stronger and healthier. And this is only true a few times, after which the soil depletes its resources, and it comes as an obvious consequence that it is necessary to burn a new surface.
The most curious fact about this is that, often, they are conscious of this. Concretely, old people in the villages seemed extremely worried about these problems. They said that the forest is now way further from the villages than it used to be, and that water is scarcer, and hence the rice cultures are more difficult to irrigate. But the combination of the culture and the lack of alternatives avoided them from changing their habitudes.
Only with this small example (there are tons of them) we arrive to the most important lessons I learnt during my time in Madagascar: nature conservation can never be separated from socioeconomic development. And this is equally true in developed nations (concretely, in my home country, the confrontation between culture and conservation tends to be pretty frequent), but with the difference that it is much more difficult to achieve in developing countries.
You cannot tell people “don’t burn the forest!” if this is their way of live, “don’t hunt the animals” or “don’t mine for gold” if these are important income sources. It is necessary to provide alternatives, to teach ways to manage their resources more sustainably and efficiently, to generate new incomes, to grow their crops in a more efficient and ecological way. These were some of the things we were doing there, or at least trying.
Other important lesson we learnt is that both conservation and development are slow processes; you cannot pretend that they will happen rapidly, in a short time lapse. There are numberless barriers, challenges and difficulties that need to be addressed and solved: cultural conceptions and traditions, economic implications, analphabetism, bureaucratic obstacles, budget limitations and infrastructural difficulties. All of them make the objective of conservation extremely ambitious, but still worth to accomplish.
And it is because of all this difficulties from where we can extract the last lesson: conservation is made of teamwork. This means, it is not only the conservationist organizations that make conservation come true. It is necessary the collaboration of the governments, institutions and even commercial companies and brands. But, essentially, nothing of this would be possible without the collaboration and implication of the local people. And, once again, this is equally true in North and South. It is them who are going to make conservation a reality, because they will be the most profited ones from the benefits that it implies. This makes formation, education and divulgation essential tools for conservation and, also, development.
Conservation is made of teamwork.
The objective of conservation is ambitious, but still worth to accomplish
And what is my advice if you are selected? Just go for it, keep your mind and eyes open, and expect the unexpected. If you are ready to face with optimism all the challenges and to get involved to the maximum degree in what you are doing, it will be the most awesome experience in your live.
It did not only improve my French, learnt about conservation, tested my abilities and skills in the wilderness and experienced the reality of developing nations. I found myself doing things I had never imagined (like teaching the villagers how to cultivate rice in a more efficient way while sunk to my knees in the rice crops), discovering were my physical limits were (much further than what I thought they were), experienced what being absolutely disconnected from the outer world meant (no telephone network, and obviously no Internet)…
Hence, if I have to choose only one word to describe my entire experience this would be “challenge”. For me, everything I saw, did or performed while in Madagascar was extremely challenging: speaking French everyday, learning Malagasy, eating rice three times per day, purifying always the water you were about to drink, the long walks below the burning sun of the Cancer Tropic, cultivating rice, making clow-pop made ecological ovens with my hands, getting my legs completely scratched thank to the plants of the forests, getting used to the new culture, getting familiar with the Malagasy way of life, interacting with the local population… it was the challenge which made this experience so unbelievable.
We should no t forget about all the unforgettable moments: watching the sun rising behind mountains covered with forest from the top of a waterfall, taking in my hands a 30 cm long millipede, playing with the ever smiling kids of the villages, enjoying of the Malagasy hospitality…
One thing is true: in the front page of the webpage you can read that the Explore! program will provide you with the “experience of a lifetime”. It is not exaggerated.
And what I am about to now?