Where I was
The forest corridor, 120 km in length, is located on the rocky slopes of Eastern Madagascar separating the coastal lowlands of the East from the highlands of the Andringitra Mountain Range. It was established in order to save the habitat of innumerable species and a vast number of endemic plants, animals and other creatures.
Human activity threatens to fragment this forest system into separate pieces.
One of the main pressures is slash-and-burn-agriculture. A terrain of forest is cleared and set on fire; subsequently rice is planted without the soil being worked on. The soil is nutritious for three to four years before new land has to be cleared. Slash-and-burn agriculture on Madagascar is destroying the forests, because there are too many people practicing it, and fields do not have sufficient time to recover.
The green island has become the red island, and satellite photos show how rivers fill up deltas and estuaries with the red soil, unveiling a picture of a bleeding island.
For almost 4 weeks I had Ankarimbelo, on the eastern side of the forest corridor as my home base.
The people in Ankarimbelo have rusty tin roofs on their houses. The mayors office also used to have a postal agent.
The village has experienced the rollercoaster of the globalized economy. Most people living here are from other parts of the island, and they came here to earn money as coffee collectors. As the world market prices rose to its peak, the community blossomed, as it dropped at the turn of the millennium, the community sunk down into depression.
Sons are poorer than their fathers ever were, and have to learn agricultural skills again. Because they are immigrants, they lack traditional management schemes, which along with poverty have proved detrimental for the forest around Ankarimbelo. Villagers are increasingly dependent on the forest for survival, but through the practice of slash and burn, soil, freshwater and fuel wood resources are depleted.
The second village I lived in was Ambalamanenjana, where the ethnic group of Betsileo is the dominant.
Here, rice fields are laid out in terraces, with intricate water management, crop rotation and compost systems. The main threat to the forest is the Zebu herds, for which fodder normally is provided by putting a terrain on fire and thereby let the Zebus grass on the young sprouts.
In Ambalamanenjana I also got to see how fires are used as political statements. The dark night sky was lit up by a smouldering, crackling fire the same night as we arrived. In between red clay houses, greeted by the wise women and men of the village and after dancing with the children most of the villagers were happy to welcome us.
It had been a long time since the last “vazah” (Malagasy for white people) had visited the village. The fire, however, made us aware that not everybody was willing to change, no matter how many people from “l’extérieur” would come.
The green island has become the red island.
What I did
Sata is our agent, he has been working for the WWF for almost 2 years. He is our age, in the beginning shy and withdrawn, in the modest Malagasy way.
We have packed our bags; we are on our way into the forest.
Maybe it will rain, he says.
We unpack our bags.
The forest expedition will be started tomorrow.
The next day, together with Ambalamanenjana’s youth association, we walk across rice fields, through savannah grass, we pass red clay houses with roofs of straw; the eucalyptus trees crowd the hill tops. The kabuz, a small guitar, strums in the hands of Etienne.
3 people come towards us. The woman carries a basket full of litchis on her head and a child on her back. The older man carries a pile of sugar canes, and around the waist he has, not unlike the woman, a scarf, but habited with a hen instead of a baby. The youngest, wearing a basketball cap and shorts that barely covers his skinny behind, carries two petrol canisters.
Sata stops them.
We have to buy alcohol, in order to later pay the forest spirits our respect and ask for their blessings. The canisters are opened; the liquor is far away from see-through, it smells of medicinal alcohol from three meters away. A coca cola bottle of one and a half litres is filled.
The gods are particularly thirsty when vazahs are around to pay the party.
The edge of the forest was here, 20 years ago. We walk on grassland. The sun burns. Some 30km away we see a bush fire. Ignited against the formal laws. But the violator will never get caught. Sata’s hope is that social coercion will reduce the burning, before it is too late.
Ambalamanenjana is a community where the local leaders have formed a council to manage and protect the forest. WWF has been present for more than 10 years, and the capacity transfer from the agents of the international organisation to members of the local community is now at its final stages.
The youth association has the responsibility for the Manambolo forests. On the crest of a hill, the president points out the area for us. Some primary forest is still intact. Where we stand, the forests are turned into scrubland. The brushes are around two meters high, dry and scraping. One of the members in the association shows us the sign that used to be here, at the entry of the forest. Now it is covered in soot. There was a sabotage fire a year ago, somebody from the neighbouring community, probably. The kabuz starts its strumming again.
Around the camp fire we cook the daily rice as we look out over the magnificent natural swimming pool. The river has made a sudden bend, and given us a place to rest our souls and bodies.
Two condensed milk cans are filled with gravel and join the kabuz. After a heep of unsalted rice with white beans, and a delicious coffee, we set out in the forest. We are collecting kinangala sprouts. The Kinangala palm is endemic in the Manambolo forest, but close to extinction. Half of the sprouts will be replanted in another part of the forest, we will bring the rest down to the tree nursery in the village.
I walk in the middle of all this green and brown, moist and humid, old and life bursting, listening to the youth singing. Or bawling. No matter what, it is rhythmic, and it fits. It belongs here in the deep, primary forest.
One afternoon we head out to find lemurs. Over creeks and through swamps, under branches, avoiding thorns.
Sata makes noises. He whistles and rattles with his tongue. A brown creature answers us. It jumps around in the top of the tree, approaching to take a look at us, curious looking creatures, before it skips and flies behind the leaves.
The lemur, a Rubriventer, sings to us.
Talks to us.
It is just in this moment I notice my own feelings and perceptions make a back flip on me. What before was a strange looking mixture of a monkey and a mouse with nasty eyes turns into this miracle, something living and untouched, vulnerable and brave. It is incapable of defending its own territories in the forests.
The forests diminish as people cut down and burn it. To produce food. This is the moment I understand: conservation work crosses the intellectual border and becomes development work.
This is the moment I understand: when conservation work crosses the intellectual border and becomes development work.
Olivier is our agent this time, he has just joined the WWF. He started to work as a teacher, but quit when he noticed that his pupils could not learn anything because they were too hungry.
For 20 years he has been working on agricultural development in rural areas. He smiles at me with the brown remnants of teeth which have never seen neither toothbrush nor dentist.
We are off to help Fransisca in her rice field.
Bright green, dark green, yellow green. We have to balance on small earth walls between the fields. I constantly have the feeling of being too tall and with too big feet for these fragile and slippery constructs.
We remove our sandals and step into the warm clay. It is probably 30 degrees, and reaches halfway up to my knees. Every step I take, it sucks, and every move I make, it slurps.
We align up the rice sprouts; two thin grasses of straw are to be planted in lines, with 25 cm distance. We use a blue rope with knots: for every knot, a sprout is to be planted. The afternoon sun glows and enhances all the colours of the landscape.
I feel a sudden peace; for the first time in my life I am planting what I eat.
The WWF promotes a rice culture system as part of the agricultural development. Rice in lines, a germinating process for the grains, and use of organic fertilizers increases the yields of each parcel, and reduces thereby the need for clearing new land.
Here, on the eastern side of the forest corridor it proves difficult to implement the new system. Every man carries a hatch on his shoulder. Harvesting from nature does not necessitate working the soil. Clearing vegetation and setting fire to it is enough. In the highlands, everybody have spades, the soil needs to be turned and worked on in order to yield.
As the sun disappears behind the mountains, we are done. On our way to the village we have to cross the river. Olivier tells us that we have to scrub our legs. Apparently there are parasites in the rice-fields, and one has to use sand to scrub it off.
A young woman, she can’t be more than 17 asks me if I would like to come swimming with them. She takes us to the female bathing corner; girls, teenagers, and grandmas splash and soak around in the water. Nobody swims too far: they tell us there are crocodiles here.
A skinny man with a torn sweater knitted sometime in the beginning of the 80s, barefoot, on skinny legs and with a hatch over his shoulder. His eyes are bright, and his face cracks open revealing the biggest, whitest teeth I have ever seen.
We are greeted with a smile and “Ianona ny vao vao?” (What’s new?)
We answer: “Tsy Misy” (Nothing new).
Of course, being white young girls there is lots of news; and we have to explain why we are here. But common courtesy requires us to assure about no bad news.
He is glad to see us, and he looks forward to work with us.
He is the local king.
He is troubled by the increasing hunger and diseases in his village. He is also worried that the forest clearing may reduce the water source.
During our stay we install a demonstration site on his land. We dig out terraces for rice and plant coffee, vanilla and clove trees. I ask the King what he wishes his village to be like in 20 years, the answer is no hunger, no disease and electricity.
He does not want it to become a city; he does not want to have cars: they make too much dust he says.
I feel a sudden peace; for the first time in my life I am planting what I eat.
The Vintsy club is organized by WWF at local secondary schools throughout Madagascar. It is a club which carries the name of the national bird, the kingfisher. The slogan is to love and protect nature.
I expected to meet kids that are concerned about the deforestation and who wonder what they can do.
This was rather far away from the truth.
Their teacher has made it obligatory for them to participate in extracurricular activities, and for the ones who were too slow to play football, too shy to sing in the choir, and too uncoordinated to sow and do embroidery, the Vintsy club took them with open arms. Discouraging at first, but we had some excellent moments with these blossoming adolescents.
We meet the members in their classroom.
I can not tell if they are shy or uninterested, but they rise from the 40 year old wooden benches and greet us with “Bonjour” as we enter. Most boys have fake baseball caps on: San Fransisco Lions, or Detroit Vikings. The girls have tightly, more or less creatively braided hair. There must be at least 30 altogether squeezed into this room.
The teacher informs them about the program for the next months. We are supposed to renovate the club house, to take care of the tree nursery, to create an arboretum with tree species from the local garden. None of the members say anything, except for one who asks for the translation to Malagasy of a word.
...the people in Madagascar ask me, if there are so many poor people in Europe, where I come from.
I try to tell them that there are less people dying of hunger, less people dying of dirty drinking water. But when I then want to explain that they are poor, they do not want to listen.
Carsten Jensen, a Danish author claims that exclusion is what poverty is about. When groups of people are excluded, it is only on the surface that it seems that one can count money or Zebus or tons of rice.
But the underlying reason, the exclusion from the opportunity to develop, is poverty’s most appalling face.
Groups of people live with no future.
Not because they are supposed to die tomorrow, but because their lives are static. We have still not found a way to organize a society so that everybody can develop in the future.
I try to imagine how it must be like to grow up without tap water, without telephone connection, without electricity; while a day march away the whole consumption economy is available.
For me it is wonderful to have a break, to live a life without the commodities and comfort that we pay for. It even feels more comfortable and right. In some romantic way, I believe this is the kind of life I would like to live. To see how and where my food grows, to produce less than a kilo of garbage in a month, to wake up as the sun rises, and go to bed when it is dark.
It seems easier to maintain a sustainable lifestyle here.
But how to convince the 16 year old next to me, as he stands there in his “Titanic” t-shirt: with Leonardo entwined with Kate, practising the Jackie Chan moves he saw in the latest Kung-Fu movie, that there are many downsides to the lifestyle most people in Norway have?
...the underlying reason, the exclusion from the opportunity to develop, is poverty’s most appalling face.