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Salama! My name is Eirik Lindebjerg and I’m 24 years old. I’ve just come back to Norway after three incredible months in Madagascar. I went there straight after finishing a Bachelor’s degree in Environment and Resources, and I soon realized that living among Vezo fishermen could teach me much more than any book or lecture.
A struggle for survival
"If the weather is bad, we suffer. We are then sometimes forced to sell our furniture to be able to buy food", says Rajoma, a Vezo fisherman from Ambohibola, southwestern Madagascar. He experiences decreasing catches and an everyday life that’s getting tougher. The future of his 12 children is unsure. The Vezo people are totally dependent on the ocean, and are therefore very vulnerable when the weather is bad. The negative long term trend for catches is even more worrying. Overexploiting of the coral reef is becoming a problem. An increasing population is living off a decreasing resource.
As a volunteer for WWF’s Youth Volunteer Programme I lived with Rajoma and his villagers. I experienced myself the fishermen’s challenges. But I also saw success stories and people committed to turning the situation around. I was in a group of volunteers working for the Southern Toliara Marine Natural Resource Management Project. The project has established management committees in five villages in the region, and the goal is to implement sustainable management of the coral reef and avoid overexploiting. We were placed in one of these villages: Ambohibola. Our work in the village included teaching of both ecology and French language, as well as starting an ecotourism project as an alternative income source. And while teaching brought us closer to the community, diving for a biological survey team brought us closer to the natural beauty we were trying to protect.
For the three divers in the group, the biological survey was an important part of the work. We were monitoring the health of the coral reef, both for fish populations and coral cover. Working under water was an incredible experience, as was being part of a professional team consisting of scientists and WWF staff.
"As the climate is getting dryer, I get less and less yield from my field every year. For my children the future is to become fishermen", says Chrysostome.
He is a retired teacher in the small village of Antsikoroke, not far from Ambohibola. I learned a lot from Chrysostome on our weekly walks through the fields and over the sand dunes. He told me about a dramatic past, about everyday life and about a climate that is getting dryer. Southwestern Madagascar suffers from climate change. A dry region is getting dryer. And farmers experiencing decreasing yield travel to the coast to become fishermen, increasing the pressure on the coral reef.
My new friends in Ambohibola taught me a lot. They showed me a sense of community that we have lost in our part of the world.
The village is like a big family. If there’s a party, grandma will dance alongside the youth. And if an important decision is to be made, all the men have to gather. The Vezos want to keep this society, and for them, all development isn’t necessarily positive. Through the locally elected management committees, that also decides the development track of the villages, the WWF has given the Vezo a chance to decide their own future.
The stay in Ambohibola has given me many good memories. Eating fresh homemade fish for dinner. Running with the local boy Jean along an endless beach. Dancing so intense that it created a cloud of sand and dust. The model pirogue I got from Franco is standing on my desk, reminding me of it all. Franco is a ten year old boy. Amazingly clever and full of energy. His future depend on the success of projects like this.
Working with conservation in a poor society is quite different from doing it at home. So be prepared to meet completely new challenges. Of course, you will at times feel frustrated over the lack of simple solutions, but your work over three months can make a huge difference. Be open, learn from the villagers, don’t be afraid of making friends, and you will have the most giving three months of your life.