Ask a conservationist about Madagascar and she will first tell you about the phenomenal richness of the biodiversity and that the majority (80%) of species in this country are found nowhere else in the world. Next, she will tell you about the devastating loss of biodiversity due to habitat destruction. She will tell you how the practice of tavy, or slash and burn agriculture, and the need for firewood are driving back the edges of the rainforest and endangering increasing numbers of species. Hopefully, she will also tell you about the extreme poverty that forces many Malagasy people to employ these practices.
I saw these aspects of Madagascar. I saw incredible numbers of species in one tiny patch of forest, and I saw grassy, treeless hills that had once been rainforest. I saw people whose subsistence depended on the only kind of farming they knew. I saw the absolute terror of fishermen who knew that their livelihood would be instantly destroyed by the creation of a national park in the area where they fished for crayfish. But I also saw in many people a strong understanding of the need for conservation in order to sustain the resources they depended on.
My project was to work with Marjolein Kamermans to conduct a pilot study assessing the impact of fishing on crayfish populations in the area surrounding the town of Miarinavartra, which is in the central highlands of Madagascar. Our goals were to gain some idea of the level of threat to the crayfish population and suggest some possible approaches to conservation if it were necessary. In conducting this study we spent much of our time interviewing people in the area. Some fishermen reacted to us with near terror, fearing that our study would result in conservation measures that would prevent crayfish fishing – thus destroying their livelihood. But many people were grateful that we were doing the study. On numerous occasions people asked us what we had found out and what they could do to promote sustainable use of the resources. These people were aware of the need to use the resources they needed sustainably. They wanted to help promote conservation. All they needed was the knowledge of how to go about it.
By going to Madagascar I learned how organizations such as WWF are organized and what kind of projects they run. I learned invaluable lessons about how WWF goes about promoting community-based conservation in areas such as Miarinavaratra. But even more importantly, I learned to trust that there are people in Madagascar who are at least as dedicated to the joint goals of conservation and development as I could ever be. These people can and will move towards sustainable development. While they may need help with intellectual and physical resources, they will not fail to put these to good use.