Expedition into the rainforest
Sata is our agent, he has been working for the WWF for almost 2 years. He is our age, in the beginning shy and withdrawn, in the modest Malagasy way.
We have packed our bags; we are on our way into the forest.
Maybe it will rain, he says.
We unpack our bags.
The forest expedition will be started tomorrow.
The next day, together with Ambalamanenjana’s youth association, we walk across rice fields, through savannah grass, we pass red clay houses with roofs of straw; the eucalyptus trees crowd the hill tops. The kabuz, a small guitar, strums in the hands of Etienne.
3 people come towards us. The woman carries a basket full of litchis on her head and a child on her back. The older man carries a pile of sugar canes, and around the waist he has, not unlike the woman, a scarf, but habited with a hen instead of a baby. The youngest, wearing a basketball cap and shorts that barely covers his skinny behind, carries two petrol canisters.
Sata stops them.
We have to buy alcohol, in order to later pay the forest spirits our respect and ask for their blessings. The canisters are opened; the liquor is far away from see-through, it smells of medicinal alcohol from three meters away. A coca cola bottle of one and a half litres is filled.
The gods are particularly thirsty when vazahs are around to pay the party.
The edge of the forest was here, 20 years ago. We walk on grassland. The sun burns. Some 30km away we see a bush fire. Ignited against the formal laws. But the violator will never get caught. Sata’s hope is that social coercion will reduce the burning, before it is too late.
Ambalamanenjana is a community where the local leaders have formed a council to manage and protect the forest. WWF has been present for more than 10 years, and the capacity transfer from the agents of the international organisation to members of the local community is now at its final stages.
The youth association has the responsibility for the Manambolo forests. On the crest of a hill, the president points out the area for us. Some primary forest is still intact. Where we stand, the forests are turned into scrubland. The brushes are around two meters high, dry and scraping. One of the members in the association shows us the sign that used to be here, at the entry of the forest. Now it is covered in soot. There was a sabotage fire a year ago, somebody from the neighbouring community, probably. The kabuz starts its strumming again.
Around the camp fire we cook the daily rice as we look out over the magnificent natural swimming pool. The river has made a sudden bend, and given us a place to rest our souls and bodies.
Two condensed milk cans are filled with gravel and join the kabuz. After a heep of unsalted rice with white beans, and a delicious coffee, we set out in the forest. We are collecting kinangala sprouts. The Kinangala palm is endemic in the Manambolo forest, but close to extinction. Half of the sprouts will be replanted in another part of the forest, we will bring the rest down to the tree nursery in the village.
I walk in the middle of all this green and brown, moist and humid, old and life bursting, listening to the youth singing. Or bawling. No matter what, it is rhythmic, and it fits. It belongs here in the deep, primary forest.
One afternoon we head out to find lemurs. Over creeks and through swamps, under branches, avoiding thorns.
Sata makes noises. He whistles and rattles with his tongue. A brown creature answers us. It jumps around in the top of the tree, approaching to take a look at us, curious looking creatures, before it skips and flies behind the leaves.
The lemur, a Rubriventer
, sings to us.
Talks to us.
It is just in this moment I notice my own feelings and perceptions make a back flip on me. What before was a strange looking mixture of a monkey and a mouse with nasty eyes turns into this miracle, something living and untouched, vulnerable and brave. It is incapable of defending its own territories in the forests.
The forests diminish as people cut down and burn it. To produce food. This is the moment I understand: conservation work crosses the intellectual border and becomes development work.