Facing Reality

Posted on 24 February 2006

Any biologist would love to visit Madagascar. After all, it is renowned for its richness in biodiversity and endemism.

I thought of all those images I had seen from the country—the lemurs, the chameleons, the baobabs… I became fascinated with the idea of finally being able to see unique species. My expectation was to be immersed in wild nature during most part of the internship.

But I was mistaken.
Any biologist would love to visit Madagascar. After all, it is renowned for its richness in biodiversity and endemism.

I thought of all those images I had seen from the country—the lemurs, the chameleons, the baobabs… I became fascinated with the idea of finally being able to see unique species. My expectation was to be immersed in wild nature during most part of the internship.

But I was mistaken.

I only got to see the lemurs and chameleons twice, during short visits to two National Protected Areas, and the baobabs once, standing lonely in the route to Toliara. During my internship, I was exposed instead to the extreme effects of human intervention on the natural environment. I worked in an area where forest has almost vanished. The circumstances of my work in Madagascar were hard, for sure, but now I recognize they could not have been otherwise. It was a necessary shock, so to speak: the experience turned out to be enriching in ways that I never expected, for I found myself facing reality.

Ankarimbelo, my internship location, is part of the forest corridor that connects the National Parks of Ranomafana and Andringitra. It is one of the intervention zones of WWF Madagascar, and was my home for almost two months.

My work in this commune—located in the southeastern part of the corridor—entailed carrying out a diagnosis of the situation of four local fish species. I had to make three field trips, during which I visited the villages of Iarinaomby, Vinanimasy, Faliarivo, Tanambao and Ankarimbelo. During the first two missions I familiarized myself with the area and I did a ‘socio-participative’ diagnosis of the fish species and their habitat. I also identified where the conservation areas were and thought of possible protective measures for sensitive spots.

The final field mission (last but not least!) saw me working with the commune and the local population to come up with a species conservation plan. During all of these missions we were able to recognize different means to improve people’s situation and protect the environment at the same time.

As a result of negotiations, local people and authorities committed themselves to work on different ways to control the respect of the Forest Law, especially with regard to fishing periods and the protection of basin vegetation. In this context, initiatives like the creation of fishermen associations and the participation of women in these activities were among the big accomplishments.

Though I was studying the fish populations, my work allowed me to interact with the people in the region. It was the perfect chance to discover the culture and to observe the people’s relationship with the environment.

My job included visits to the five villages mentioned above in each of the three field trips. It was no easy feat: I walked an average of 3 hours a day accompanied by one or two of the WWF field agents in the zone. We crossed rivers, traversed mountains, and walked under the heavy November rain, of local fame. These were some of the unexpected features that somehow made my work all the more captivating. They put a stamp of real adventure on an already adventurous experience.

 To my delight, after each trip, fascinating conversations in each village rewarded my physical efforts. I interviewed local authorities, both traditional (ray-aman-dreny) and governmental. I shared and learned with old wise men, women, fishermen, and young leaders, each and every one with a distinct story to tell and with his and her own idiosyncrasy. And at the end of our formal conversations, I was lucky enough to go fishing with some of them, which was incredibly relaxing and new for me.

My study regarded the most significant threats to fish species, the conservation priorities and explored the most suitable solutions to current socio-environmental problems. The findings became the basis for the development of a 3-year conservation project proposal for ichthyic species that live in the Maitimbahatra and Matitanana rivers.

My work and the project are especially important in the forest corridor that links Andringitra and Ranomafana, given that it does not enjoy legal protection and that it is under the pressure of hundreds of households living in poverty. Understandably, the corridor is subject to intensive human exploitation, particularly slash and burn agriculture and forest clearing. This indiscriminate use of the environment occurs in a context where rivers and aquatic resources are sometimes ignored by conservation efforts, making it essential to apply a comprehensive plan to protect and manage river ecosystems and fish species. This is precisely what WWF Ambalavao plans to achieve, given appropriate funding, in the eastern zone of the corridor.

To judge from my experience, the situation in Madagascar represents a considerable challenge. But in the same time, I also became aware of the tremendous possibilities in the country. From a scientific standpoint, there is much to be learned from the river ecosystems.

The socio-participative approach to species’ diagnosis offers an interesting approach to environmental problems. It adds a cultural dimension to the scientific work, and thus integrates relevant actors into the process. Specifically, from the cultural standpoint, it should be said that the Malagasy people can share unique experiences and traditions.

This sounds like a cliché, but the truth is that they keep a remarkably positive attitude towards life, which is noteworthy precisely because of the environmental and socio-economic problems in the region. Moreover, they were receptive to my own culture and experience.

I established very strong ties with local people, especially with the field agents, who helped me with language translation and facilitated the approach with local populations. Naturally, with time we became close friends, and I got to meet interesting and unique individuals who enriched my intellect and soul.

The fact that I was able to contribute significantly to the project is also an encouragement for further work. My technical skills were useful in the development of the diagnosis and the project proposal. I should also add that bringing in the perspective of a foreigner was of immense value, both for the project and for the local communities.

I became an active member of their small society and, through close interaction, I was a constructive force in the group. I remained a vazaha, or foreigner, and yet I was heard and appreciated; precisely because I was something of a stranger they became all more aware of how much value people place in the local biodiversity and how much others can appreciate the beauty of their culture.

I think that the presence of WWF and of people like me emphasized the importance of the conservation of their natural environment and, above all, of the power they themselves have as a fundamental part of conservation efforts. The change might have been small in the large scheme of things, but I think it is nonetheless significant, especially when it comes to the perception Malagasies have of themselves, of nature, and of foreigners. I am glad that I took part in this process.

In short, the juxtaposition of challenges and possibilities made this internship an eye-opening and simply unforgettable experience. Malagasy people taught me that it is possible to face adversity (extreme poverty in this case) with strength and optimism, as well as to make the most out of every situation. To be able to learn this, while contributing a little in the conservation of four possibly endemic fish species and of their habitats, was very gratifying.

My easy immersion in Malagasy culture showed me that perhaps basic human values are the same all over the world, no matter your ethnic group, social status, gender, or culture. More importantly, the reality I lived in Madagascar showed me the way forward for conservation efforts, making me realize that it is all about people, their personal situation, and their ties with nature.

Carolina Zambrano-Barragán, October-December 2005