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I am Fabiola Monty, 25 years old, from the island of Mauritius in Western Indian Ocean. Though small and not known by many people, it has once been home to the world symbol of extinction, the dodo. It’s not really something to be proud of but is one of the reasons I got in the biological field with a particular interest for biodiversity conservation.
There are indeed unique biological treasures here but we remain this small speck in the ocean. There was a whole world that I needed to discover. Alongside my passion for nature, I am fascinated by humanity itself with its intriguing differences, histories and cultures. As I felt more concerned and more curious about those unique ties between some communities and their natural environment, there was the urging need to discover the world of those people. And where else could I go, other than Madagascar? So far and yet so close to my country…
During my volunteer placement, I was based in Midongy du Sud in the South East of Madagascar on a community-based forest management project implemented since 2003 in the region. The project’s aim is to improve livelihood of the communities so as to conserve the natural resources.
This was a totally new concept for me who had spent some time doing fieldwork and yet had no experience of conservation work where communities were involved.
Trying to find the right words to share my experience there is however somewhat difficult as it seems that it is just now that the experience is really sinking in, almost three months after I got back home. Yet as I worked on my video that hopefully manages to summarize what I felt in the big island and as I went through my pictures, I manage to realize the real impact of this eye-opening experience on me.
Madagascar is no doubt a destination that all biologists want to discover. This unique biodiversity is what you have in mind and what you want to see when you get there. And I did get my share of nature’s wonder out there: beautiful plants, mesmerizing misty forest in the morning, bright flowering orchids, funny-walking chameleons and lemurs that sometimes do ‘like to move it’.
Yet they are not what I cherished most from the experience. It is those people that we met, the people we lived with, these communities we were part of that made this experience, a true human experience. With them I discovered a new way of living: simple and tightly linked to their immediate environment. They warm-heartedly shared their life with us.
I also discovered communities deeply anchored in traditions, which was somewhat playing a role in the degradation of their environment. Yet I find it hard to blame them. We are all raised in a specific way, immerged in whatever culture/religion and way of life we were born into. We would all be different, living differently and have different opinions about life if we were born in that other place, with that other family. There, it was a question of survival, their way of living. Giving them opportunities for a better livelihood and informing them about the consequences of their actions on their own survival is one of the reasons we were there. Yet as you go there hoping to help them, it is them that help you: to see and live life differently. And with my biological background as I plan to pursue a career in conservation, my time there has given it a different dimension. I wish never to have a microscopic view of wildlife, to see this little species isolated from others. There is a whole complex world within and beyond the forests, yet it is all intricately and beautifully linked.
Being able to picture the names, faces, and lives of my family in Ambararata, the village where we were based has given a new and unexpected value to the world of biodiversity conservation. This experience has its own positive impact on me and I am sure there are so many life-changing and eye-opening adventures waiting for you, who want to play a part in conservation worldwide.
My most important advice: There should be no time for regrets. Go for it and once in your project location; don’t hesitate to leave your cultural luggage behind. Be open to differences and allow yourself to immerge completely into this new culture that you get the unique chance to discover. It is what will keep you going as things just don’t go well or don’t go as expected.
Yes! Don’t go there with a ‘I see life in pink’ attitude expecting everything to be perfect and everybody to be grateful and like you. Since I like these color metaphors, also don’t go there if you are to see everything either in black or white. That same day that you will get into conflict with another volunteer can also be the same day you will learn to make your own coffee in the traditional Malagasy way. There will be good and ‘bad’ things happening simultaneously but keep a positive attitude because even small things like the smile of the kids are enough to make your day. Once home, it is what you will remember and all the rest will just not matter. So dare to go out there and LIVE!