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After touching down in Antananarivo (Madagascar’s capital), we had a week to settle into our new surroundings before the official programme (made up of 3 main activities) began. This ‘introduction’ may not sound entirely glamorous, but it’s part of that vital “behind-the-scenes bit” that was able to set us up for the 3 month Explore programme…currency exchange, sorting out administrative papers, visiting our respective Embassies to organise our visas, registering with the medical centre and organising our medical insurance for the next 3 months, meeting WWF Madagascar staff and attending presentations providing an overview of the WWF Moist Forest Programme in Madagascar…

And a brief overview of the 3 main activities…

After a few Malagasy lessons in our new stomping ground of Andapa, we were on our way to spend the next 12 days living with a host family in 2 small villages situated on the fringes of the Betaolana Forest Corridor, between the Marojejy National Park and the Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve. Half of the volunteers went to Ambodivohitra and the other half (including myself) went to Ambodihasina.

And so the first activity was underway…within these small villages, the previous volunteers had created an association named, “Amis des Lémuriens”, or “Friends of the Lemurs”. As well as having an extraordinary, unique and incredibly valuable experience of learning what it was like to live in Madagascar and become part of a family and its surrounding community, we were also there with a mission regarding these associations. In brief, we monitored what progress had been made within the associations over the previous year - what had they achieved in terms of reforestation plans for example. After several meetings with the members of “Amis des Lémuriens” and observing and helping with some of their activities (for example, visiting their reforestation sites, their fish farms and carrying out a 2-day lemur survey of the nearby forest), we could then form our own suggestions about what the association could plan for the following year (otherwise known as an ‘Annual Work Plan’) – what changes could be made that would help the association to function better for the benefit of both the local people involved, and the adjacent forest and its lemurs.

The experience in Ambodihasina (the village in which I stayed with Martina and Alicia), was probably the most rewarding throughout my 3-month stay in Madagascar, both in terms of the activity in which we were involved, and the community with which we lived and eventually of which we became part. Unfortunately on our arrival to Ambodihasina, it was obvious that the members of the association were not motivated either to carry out its tasks or to be part of it – we faced quite a challenge to try to change things around and motivate both the members and the entire community in the surrounding area. To best achieve this, we tried to raise awareness of ‘Amis des Lémuriens’ within the community and particularly with the children – so we decided to visit as many schools as we could in the village and the surrounding area and deliver several ‘environmental lessons’ to inform the children about the incredible and unique biodiversity inhabiting their country, outline some of the main threats to this biodiversity, therefore briefly explain the aims and objectives of the WWF, and finally to explain our presence and the work of the Association in Ambodihasina. After our work in the schools, we came up with a few ideas and put together an Annual Work Plan for 2008, to re-organise some of the work of the Association itself, and to re-motivate its members – and we hope it worked!

We then made our way along the bumpy (well, that’s an understatement!) 30km track (that took over 3 hours to travel by 4X4!) back to Andapa, to discuss and de-brief our last couple of weeks with the WWF Andapa staff…and of course to prepare for the 2nd main activity…

This took us on a long (a very long) journey by 4x4 again, to Ambatoriha, a small town close to Bealalana, in the north-west of Madagascar, We met up with the rest of the WWF Andapa staff to begin preparations for “Journée des Lémuriens”…this was a 5-day festival to raise awareness within this large community, of the importance of the general environment, the forests and the lemurs in particular, and why their protection was necessary. Our role was to help organise some of the activities that made up the structure of the festival…dancing, singing, and watching some ‘environment-educational films’, games, sporting events and official speeches. Primarily, as we learnt, our main role was to attract attention…and we certainly did that! But as well as having fun with the activities themselves, this experience also taught us the importance of raising awareness (or the French expression ‘sensibilisation’) for a successful conservation project. Although at times it was difficult to understand all of the speeches being made (as it was all in Malagasy), it was clear that the WWF staff and the members of the audience were passionate and proud of their country and its wonders and this was hugely motivating and moving.

After stocking up on provisions and saying goodbye to the civilisation of this town, we then made our way towards the small, relatively close-by villages of Analila and Antilongo. Here, we would be taking part in the 3rd main activity, by helping some of the WWF Andapa staff carry out the necessary tasks to facilitate the management-transfer of the forests adjacent to these villages to their local inhabitants. Briefly, this involved creating another association within each local community that would be responsible for ensuring their area of forest that they previously exploited, unabated, would now be managed sustainably. Both villages were aware that there were problems with the way they had used their forest in the past – they seemed to know that supplies of this natural resource were running low…so they appeared keen to adopt the methods proposed by their Malagasy neighbours, working for the WWF - keen to be educated about how best to manage their forest. The process of transferring the forests’ management is rather long and complex, but our involvement, as volunteers, was to partake in the first part of the process…the forest inventory. We spent a few days in each forest with locals from each village, and several WWF field agents, carrying out the forest inventories - making a note of plant species, size and number in particular sample plots. After we left, statistical analysis would be applied to this data back at the WWF office, in order to determine the state of that area of forest, and then to suggest how it could be sustainably managed in the future. For example, the WWF would be able to inform the village how many trees (and of which species and size) would they be able to take from the forest in a certain time period, and subsequently, how many trees (and again of which species) would need to be planted again.

As I said however, our time in Analila and Antilongo was purely devoted to carrying out the forest inventories, and it will be interesting to learn how the process actually continued, and whether the communities in question, were ultimately able to sustainably manage their forests. But now, we were nearing the end of our volunteer experience, and there was one more activity remaining…and it’s all about, communication

As well as creating this webpage, we, the volunteers, will be giving presentations in our home countries about our experiences with working with the WWF in Madagascar – and this is perhaps one of the most important parts of the programme. Hopefully you will be able to tell from this, and the other volunteer web-pages that we have witnessed and learnt a lot from our volunteer experiences. We were given an extraordinary opportunity to observe for ourselves the stories that we so often hear, concerning the plight of Madagascar’s wonderfully unique biodiversity and the struggles its inhabitants face day by day, living in a poverty that we in the western world often find difficult to comprehend. We were able to gain an incredible insight into the workings of one of the world’s largest conservation organisations, and the difficulties they face in ensuring an effective and successful combination of both conservation and development is achieved…
…but the good news is, it’s not only 6 people that were able to experience this…hopefully, with our presentations and webpages our experiences will be able to impact many more people than just us, the volunteers…and that was the purpose of our final activity – to communicate to other people around the world, about what we learned from our volunteer experience in Madagascar.
© WWF Charlotte Whitham
my cheeky little host sister, Prisca
© WWF Charlotte Whitham
© WWF Charlotte Whitham
A warm reception at Solofo School
© WWF Charlotte Whitham
© WWF Charlotte Whitham
© WWF Charlotte Whitham