WWF Madagascar's Public Health & Environment Project

Posted on 19 October 2009

Six volunteers joined WWF Madagascar's Public Health and Environment project at the beginning of 2008 to promote family planning while using this education as a catalyst for WWF to promote conservation and environmental programs in the area.
WWF Madagascar's Public Health and Environment (PHE) Project

Table of contents:

* Introduction
* Explorer Program
* Environment
* Public Health
* Conservation
* Financial Assessment
* Conclusion


The Public Health and Environment (PHE) project was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and placed six volunteers from WWF in different areas of the Amboasary District of Madagascar. The volunteers were separated into two groups, each consisting of three volunteers. Both groups were given a set amount of tasks to implement and questions to answer regarding the current work being done in the region regarding PHE. The goal of the project was to promote family planning while using this education as a catalyst for WWF to promote conservation and environmental programs in the area. The populations of each village differed, and each of the villages had different socio-economic residents. Based on observations and time spent in the village, volunteer group A concluded that their village was generally more educated, with higher income levels, than that of group B's village.

Group A was placed in a village in the Ankirikirika region near south Behara in the area of Amboasary. This area was very close to Amboasary providing the market with a larger selection of fruits and vegetables. The village itself was bigger and there were more people in the population who were able to speak French and a few that had family members that received education in areas such as Fort Dauphin. For this report the focus shall be in this area, and the information regarding the project done by Group B in the Tranomar area will be based on information provided by the other volunteers, with a few brief observations on my part. Since the data is limited for both villages, I shall emphasize the implementation of PHE in the Ankirikirika area, and goals that should be put in place for long term progress in this area, as well as recommendations for future projects by WWF.

Explorer Program

The explorer program placed three of us volunteers in the area of Ankirikirika. The population in this area was over 2,000 people, with over 70% of the population in their 20s or below. The people ate mainly rice with vegetables, and goat meat. There were zebu, and most the "zebu warriers" were younger than ten years of age. Based on information gathered, the people in the village tended to be traditionally Catholic, and Presbyterian. There was also a percentage still practicing the traditional religion that was part of the Antandroy area. Regardless of differences in religion, all of the residents believed in fady, or taboos that play a vital role in the culture of the Malagasy. Many areas of the village were considered sacred hence people did not cut down trees or defecate in these designated areas. The tombstones of the ancestors were one of the sacred areas and it was seen as disrespectful to take photos of these locations. Malagasy are the people who inhabit Madagascar and are considered those who identify themselves as being exclusively from this island rather than immigrants. Although there is a small percentage of Indians who live in Madagascar, and dominate the businesses, the locals of Ankirikirika were only Malagasy.

The organizations who are doing NGO and other work in the area are: CARE, Azafady, FIVOY, WWF, Peace corps, and others that might not have been known to me during the time of living in the area. These organizations work with the local government as well as the people of this region on various projects. The PHE is part of a project in the area that is put together by ASOS. ASOS is an organization that is part of the WWF and has been providing education for better family planning, protective sex, and the importance of respecting the environment. By putting together simplified skits in open areas of various villages, as well as working with doctors and agriculture experts in the area they are trying to help the farmers create better farming methods to avoid the practice of tavy (slash and burn) on protected trees for lumber.

The ALA Mikei project of the Dry Forest program also occurred in the area of Ankirikirika, one of many programs of this area. The Ala Mikei project is part of WWF's goal in the area to promote sustainable agriculture and environment in the area. The project had an initial stage where the WWF had to work to gain access to the community by creating stronger ties with important "village members" as otherwise the long term implementation of the project would have not occurred.


The island of Madagascar is a far more diverse place than one would expect based on the cartoon movie inspired by this island. The dry forest is home to numerous succulents, many of which are endemic, some endangered, and extremely important to the people and animals of the island.

The area where we lived was in the spiny forest or thicket. At first glance it doesn't seem like a vital region for conservation, as it isn't a lush rain forest, but it is an important area not only for vegetation but animals as well. According to WWF, "the spiny thicket is particularly outstanding with 95 percent of the plant species endemic to the ecoregion." Notable animals included tortoises, the famous Lemur catta (dancing lemur species), both of which were located near our village.

The succulents, and numerous plants in this area are not just used for food by endemic species, but also for making houses, and medicine. The number of medicinal plants in the forest near our house that was pointed out by Roland was over twenty types. The famous members of the endemic Didiereaceae family can be found in the forest or thicket near where we resided. Most importantly, there is a species of the Didiereaceae family that only exists near the Mananara river that runs perpendicular to our village.

There is also a well that is used by our village and others in the area. This water is what we used for cooking and bathing. This area has rice fields, other farms, and the area surrounding the well is marais or swampy, which makes it a great location for frogs. Frogs are Madagascar's only amphibians and there are more than 300 species, 99 percent of which are endemic. During my time there I was lucky to see numerous frogs although it seemed there were only two species that were residents of our swamp by the well.

The island is not only rich in endemic species, but also resources. The area where we lived was rich in mica, a mineral said to have its name derived from the Latin word which means "glitter". The area around our village shows remnants of an old mining factory which locals say is where they would collect mica. There is also a collection of rocks in this area to transport and create homes in the cities of Madagascar. Gems from the Corundum family, such as rubies and sapphires are mined in other areas of Madagascar, as I was made aware of by many Peace corps. volunteers. The area where we resided seemed to have mainly mica and maybe tourmaline, while the area where Group B resided was not far from a place that had milky quartz, and other minerals.

The land in this area is red, however during a long walk we found ourselves surrounded by fossils of snails and ground that showed high levels of mud cracks and white sand. The island is called "red island" due to the heavy erosion of land causes it to look red on satellite views, and during heavy rain many rivers look like flowing clay because of the erosion issues. Many blame tavy or slash and burn method of clearing land as the reason behind why it is seen as such, but others say there are more reasons than just that. This area had a large amount of rocks that I later learned were jasper and granite. The minerals of this region were collected many times and used for building houses in other areas. In this region however, the people built most their houses out of wood, using the famous Didiereaceae species that are well known for making fence-like structures around their homes. The Madagascar floristic region is relatively moist, and the country as a whole has twelve endemic flora species, 400 endemic genres and over 800 endemic species according to the research done by Dr. Q. C. B. Crouls for a book called Plant Life.

Out of these plants are plants such as the monge plant which is important as it is a food for the tortoise. The baobab plants are also very important as their bottle neck trunks provide water to dehydrated travelers in the dry forest and are also food for the endemic lemur populations.

At night one can hear and occasionally spot a few fruit bats, one of many endemic bat species to the island. In 2007, scientists discovered a sucker-footed bat in Madagascar, hence proving that species of all sorts are still being discovered here and the importance of this island's biodiversity is increasing with these new findings.

Aside from the mouse that would not leave our house and gave birth to her babies in Margaux's backpack, we had limited interactions with wild animals in our house itself. However, there were many lizards in the area. Madagascar is home to more than 210 species of lizards, according to the site WildMadagascar, so it was always interesting to see the numerous species of chameleons of various sizes, lizards that were large, and amazingly bright to dull colored geckos we were able to spot during our time in the village and brief times in Fort Dauphin.

The spiny thicket also had a lot of beautiful butterflies that would flutter through our house, and leave us breathless during our walks. There are over 90 species of butterflies in Madagascar which makes it a place to visit for butterfly enthusiasts. Many times we would see butterflies and dragonflies during our walks to fetch water and have to stop and be amazed at the bright colors and the large size of many of the species.

Needless to say there are numerous species of all sorts that exist in the spiny thicket. The ones I saw left me amazed, and have caused me to emphasize the importance of helping to promote conservation and education to the locals of the rare beauty that they posses in their backyard.

Public Health

Taboos or fady, play a huge role of being a barrier in statistics of infant mortality rate on the island. Interviews with both the main doctor in Behara-haut and the Amboasary health coordinator, found that many families did not allow doctors to learn of the reasons behind the passing of newborns and certain traditions made it difficult to be able to have a formal tallying of deaths and ages of infants who pass prior to reaching their first year birthday. The Sur Eau tablets and vaccination of children in the area have shown an increase of children not dying from waterborne diseases. However, the doctor stated she is only able to provide vague numbers of that, as attaining vaccinations is voluntary. However, due to "word of mouth" in women circles in villages and group meetings, the promotion of vaccinations in Behara has increased. She was able to give me limited data regarding my village of Ankirikirika as she was new to the posting. An issue she faces is that she is from the Tana area, and her dialect is different from that spoken in the villages of the Antandroy area. As the doctor is from a different area, she is considered a vazaha (stranger) amongst locals of this area, much like we did as volunteers. However, just like us, the doctor was able to gain support in the village by meeting people from the village who were able to help her translate the importance of vaccinations and better food handling with other members of various villages.

The lack of data on population existence, plus the poverty in the area played a huge role in the literacy rate. The sanitation issues, such as poor toilets for children and lack of any toilets in villages, along with limited to no options for girls during time of menstruation could be assessed further with citing from other studies done in developing countries to explain the reasons that many girls were not as active in the school system. However, that being said, the school books that were present all taught information regarding sanitation and protection of the forests. The information about public health and environment was already part of the education system for children, however interviews with the AVBC (lady in charge of promoting PHE in the village) offered more information regarding why people did not wish to pursue these ideas in creating action.

Toilets in the area did not exist aside from the one that was created for our group to use. It was the observation of the locals regarding our "decision" that caused me to see that many viewed that we went to the same location always to defecate as being strange. The AVBC representative informed me that she felt that many people were unable to move away from old ways of thinking, that although change was necessary, implementation is easier if a local was the first to partake in the change. Although I discussed it with the people from WWF staff, and also stated we could work with Azafady (a NGO that is currently doing sanitation education and toilet building in the Fort Dauphin region), the duration of our project did not allow for this implementation.


Our main contact with information around our project came initially from those working in the public health, thus our conservation and ecological information was limited. However, with my request, Voahanginirina Rasoarinoro, from WWF, had Roland the conservation person in Forth Dauphin come visit us. As none of us spoke Malagasy (the particular dialect that is spoken in our village), we were very thankful and obliged to Madam Rasoarinoro for providing us with this opportunity. Thus far, our main contacts had been with Fidy, a WWF staff with an economy degree, and Sahondra, who was in charge of the WWF-YVP.

  The conservation that had been already done in our area as well as reforestation being done nearby was explained to our team by Roland. Roland also took us on a walk through the forest, during which time I attempted to write down the names of all the main endemic species and important plants in our area. The Malagasy names as well as the scientific names were of importance in order for us to take this information and provide it to our respective countries, also for the promotion of protecting these plants in Madagascar.

It was during this stage that I came up with the idea of a video to show to the locals, as we had a generator and would only need to ask for a projector to make this possible. I had already seen it done for one of the ASOS presentations, so I talked to Sahondra about this, but due to the fact that I did the entire video using my canon digital camera, my computer had some issue on iMovie and I was only able to show it to one village rather than two. However, watching the video with the locals taught me a lot about their comprehension of the plants in their area.

Many of the people chimed in and yelled out the names in Malagasy of plants that were being shown in the video I had created. The images and simple text were put in so that there was an ability to comprehend what was already known to the locals. As could be expected of anything fresh, most were very excited about an opportunity to participate in a visual activity, and also excited to see themselves on camera. The music and village scenes were of interest to the locals, but they were also excited about seeing plants from their forest. Many pointed out plants, and animals that were shown in the video. During my stay at the village, I drew pictures of plants, animals, and items such as the moon, so as to learn the Malagasy wording for them. The people were very helpful in providing assistance, and many were interested to learn more about our desire of preserving their forest. The chief of the village even created a song around nature, understanding the need to respect it so there was land left for future offspring and the protection of the forest's trees for medicine needs and providing food for the precious animals of the island.

Walks with Roland taught me a lot about the importance of numerous plants to the people and protection of the endangered species of the area. He was kind enough to sit with me and provide the scientific name and Malagasy name for numerous important plants in my area, hence allowing me to create a photo gallery of endemic plants of importance to my region for future use in Madagascar and elsewhere. Roland's expertise along with the assistance of Sahondra and Voahanginirina increased my knowledge of the area very quickly. My walks and interactions with those who resided in the nearby areas was also helpful. However, my concern throughout the project and afterwards was that we had come to educate those who were lacking education of the importance of conservation and family planning, and those were individuals that we had limited interactions with during our stay.

I worked with ASOS as well as the doctors to create a gathering in Behara of women from both villages where I was able to speak to them and ask them the reasons they do not implement better sanitation practices in their houses. I also discussed the reasons for lack of family planning among many. I learned from the meeting the family planning that was implemented by numerous households, the desire to wash hands with soap, but a decision to choose to buy food over soap, the understanding of need of toilets, but slowness in action towards this occurring.


As a team we explained to the two villages about composting. The idea was new to them, but seemed like it would be useful for creating fertilizer for the area. However, as Franziska pointed out, there needed to be a more efficient fashion of composting, where worms and such were added to assist in the breaking down process. The composting idea led to the village taking part in putting their items in trough (hole) we had created near our house, we explained what items could be composted and which could not. The idea was to show them that they could use this then to create fertilizer that was natural for their farms. I am unsure what was the follow-up to this part of our project, as I had a limited part in it since I was predominately gathering data for the public health and conservation aspects of our project.

Stove: Toko mitsitsi

The stoves toko mitsitsi that we were taught to build, we first used ourselves. After building one and documenting the process, the other individuals made it the focus of their video. During the building of it, I noticed that the clay/dirt has to be highly compacted into the ground so that there weren't any bubbles. The fragility of the horse-shoe like stoves due to wear and tear seemed to be a concern amongst locals, as well as the need to build one big enough to withstand holding more than one size pot. The outdoor stove has been assessed by me using three needs:

* size
* environment
* efficiency

Regarding size, the directions given to build it did not take into account that there would be more than one size of stove that would be put on the square like ridges that were created for the project. The idea for the stove was great, as it would decrease the use of excess wood and decrease the health implications of an indoor coal burning stove.


Keep the stove instructions as they exist. However, create an area for a grill set up to allow the wood to be put under and the stove to still function for various sized pots.

Regarding the environment, although the Spiny forest does not receive much rain, when it does, the rain pours. The need to have a covering over the stove was neglected. I recommended that they add a tin shielding device that could be slanted with a wood-like pole, material which already exist in the village. This way the stove can be used year round. Due to high temperatures, there also needs to be a good strong cementing of the surface.

Efficiency of the stove is also something that was needing to be assessed. During our stay we felt that it took us a long time to heat the food, and it was understandable why people would prefer to use other means of heating food. Numerous times we would decide to cook instead with our given modern stove options, as the toko mitsitsi would not stay lighted and we would have to buy more wood or borrow some from our neighbors. The design of the stove could be fixed to allow it to have two C's rather than a horseshoe, but this might need to be assessed by someone who has higher level of physics and stove knowledge than myself.

Financial Assessment

The problems that exist in dealing with workers in Madagascar are predominately a lot to do with lack of funding, and also the poorness of the entire country. The people have limited access to potable water that is clean in the city area, there is limited electricity, if any in villages, and water is scarce to those who are not fortunate enough to live in main city areas. Even in the nicest hotel in the country, one can face water stoppage, electricity outages, and limited access to technology. Even the individuals working with WWF, many of them are working due to their passion for their work, and employees circulate throughout the island to various organizations based on needs. As a volunteer things are slow at times, but after the project is almost done, I comprehended the socio-economic issues faced even among those who were our contacts with WWF. The financial issues of individuals and yet their tenacity in promoting the message of WWF is still existent, but many are at times stressed by the bureaucratic needs of the policies and lacking of funding for the promotion of the research/conservation minds/ individuals within the group.


As a volunteer with WWF I was able to grasp some of the strengths and weakness faced by numerous non-profit organizations. The balancing of administrative duties and providing the support and control to the researchers/conservationists who are providing the information we seek in the field. The communication barriers which existed were predominately due to the inability of those desiring work done by specific times to understand the length of various research needs and the process of scientific research as a whole, and also the need to be open to changing structure of the research to deal with changes in the variables (e.g: lack of statistics caused me to change from looking at infant mortality to looking at water issues based on conversation with a doctor) of factors for the project.

My time as a volunteer doing this project (PHE) caused me to comprehend the importance of the work being done by the WWF in Madagascar and the impact I had made during my brief time in my village. Prior to my departure I handed over approximately thirty soap pieces to be cut and distributed to the people in my village along with books and shoes for a girl I had seen that lacked any shoes. However, I realized that the only way to know if there were actual changes in the work we had done on the mind frame and public health and conservation methods of the village inhabitants would be to have a follow-up to this initial research.

Human geography and conservation were intertwined in this project, which made it difficult for some individuals to understand that sanitation issues need to be addressed to promote conservation. Through research, in the third quarter of the project I was able to see the way that addressing needs of people had to occur to gain their trust. Trust played a huge role in WWF's ability to communicate and be greeted with "open arms" rather than "closed doors" in numerous areas of Madagascar. The cultural norms and poverty of the island along with political decisions of the government has caused skepticism amongst many villages about "strangers", or vazaha assisting them in their lifestyle decisions.

The village where I lived still lacks toilets and based on this project I hope to either help build or financially support the building, and most importantly the promotion of usage of something like a toilet. The goal of this project was to promote public health and environment and in many ways we have done exactly that. Now we will see if this creates a change in the amount of people who cut down protected trees and provide a means for the guardians of the forest to be able to better police the protected forest, shall require new observations to be made.

This project provided me with an amazing experience which has inspired me to return and do more work in Madagascar. By sharing my experience with you, I hope you have both learned about my time in Madagascar and are inspired to pursue your own adventures.


I thank WWF - the global conservation organization - for providing me with this wonderful opportunity. Also, my heart and mind are forever thankful to Monsieur Roland for providing us all with the information for endemic species and programs that are occurring in the area. I am humbled by the kindness of Jean D'Arc, and my neighbors in Ankirikirika for their hospitality and help with my video. I thank the WWF Fort Dauphin staff, WWF's administrative section in Antananarivo, the nice family at L'Epicerie in Fort Dauphin that fed us yummy yogurt, WWF's Toliar branch for their information about issues facing the marine environment, the many people from CARE, ASOS, and AZAFADY that assisted me in gaining interviews, providing me with transportation and information, the people of my village, the AVBC representative who took it upon herself to work with the women who work in the fields, the Behara mayor for his time in listening to us, Dr.Voahanginirina Rasoarinoro, Fidy, Sahondra, Dr. Mam, Dr. Thierry, and my team from WWF: Fraziska, whom I hope gets better soon, Shana, Margaux, Leon, and Emmanuelle. I would also like to thank all the kind malagasy people who made this experience memorable and worth sharing with the world. My family's financial support as well as the many papers I read from wildmadagascar, panda.org, and wikipedia, are highly appreciated for providing supporting data. I apologize for any names that might have been spelled wrongly or not added, as this was created by partial data and research on the internet as my field notes were not available to me during the time I compiled my (initial) findings.