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Who am I?

My name is Ian and I am a 24 year old student from Canada. Upon receiving notification that I had been accepted for the Youth Volunteer Program in Madagascar, I had just finished my Undergraduate degree in Geography and Environmental Studies in Southern Ontario, Canada.
Ever since I first started to to travel, I've wanted to do more, and what an opportunity it is to go half way around the world than to participate in studies with the World Wide Fund for Nature Youth Volunteer Program. This was one reason why I went on to study Geography in the first place - to learn more about our planet and the strange and beautiful about it. During my undergraduate studies I had taken classes that had briefly touched on the environmental situation in developing countries, some more specifically on Madagascar. From those brief moments of power point slides, short video clips, and a glance over some facts in my textbooks, I realized that there was a great importance to environmental work in developing countries.

I wanted to know more about Madagascar specifically. I went to do research (through my not yet expired university access card…shhh) at the campus library and found that the situation was much worse that I had anticipated in Madagascar. The endemic nature of the land has been pitted up against aggressive development and was losing the battle. But there were and are organizations, companies and locals taking action to help prevent, and reverse the environmental degradation of one of the worlds most surreal landscapes. One of those was the WWF; the global conservation network. Looking a little deeper I found the Youth Volunteer Program, and being urged by my professors to pursue international experience I applied. Heading off to a land that I had only seen through photographs, academic text, and the words of my professors to gain a first hand experience that would help me gain a much better understanding of the true issues facing the protection of the environment in a global context and in a developing country.
Me at the ANGAP Reserve 
© WWF / Ian Martin
Me at the ANGAP Reserve
© WWF / Ian Martin
Synergy, Energy, Environment
I was placed in the Energy and Environment Synergy program in the South West of Madagascar, Toliara Province, in the village of Andranohinaly. I knew little to nothing about the region coming into the placement because most of the available writings were about the Eastern Rain forests on the island. I tried to find out the most I could before departure, but prepared myself that everything would be new, and shocking. It was. Coming from Canada; yes it's cold here in the winter and departing in early February is arguably the coldest time of year. When I left Toronto, there was a good three feet of snow on the ground, the wind cutting though our clothes walking into the airport and the snow still coming down sideways. I knew it was going to be hot, being a tropical climate, close to the equator, but the catch was that I had never been to a tropical climate in my life. The transition, needless to say, of acclimatization went slower than anticipated and resulted in many saying " Ian ne supporte pas la chaleur, c'est un grand problème!" An overreaction on their part, but it showed me that the people that I was to be working with, were there just like a family to support us if we had any issues, be it the climate or program based.

Take a look at our video

WWF Volunteers Francesca Carbonneau and Ian Martin with SEESO project (Synergie, Energie, Environnement dans le sud-ouest Madagascar), February-May 2010

The things I learned... and my advice to others
  • If given the opportunity to participate in this program, don't hesitate. The people are genuine and there for your support, the land is like nothing you will see anywhere in the world, and the experience will help you gain a global understanding of whatever issues are important to you. Days will be long, hot, and both physically and mentally demanding. In the end you'll have participated in something that few have the opportunity to experience. This will make you a better person, and change you in ways that at first you might not realize.
  • Lots of things aren't going to go as planned - but they plan for that, and tell you, so it might as well be a plan… to not have a plan!
  • There were lots of times where we wanted to get out and do as much as possible, but simply weren't able to because of conflicts of various sorts. That being said, there was always something to do. Be that read up on Malagasy biodiversity or simply chat with locals. Everything was a learning experience.
  • I knew that trying to enforce things that I have learned through my schooling about conservation just wouldn't work in the Malagasy context. It's a different culture, different rules, different everything from your home country. Be patient, and have respect for everything as the locals more than likely know more about the land than you. Through communicating with the locals around the village we learned local history, issues, thoughts about current developments. Be respectful of the people and they will show respect in return.
  • Dehydration was a real problem and left me often in pretty bad shape. After long bike rides to other villages, and hikes through desert terrain, the relentless heat made me realize that you can never have too much water on hand. Also pick yourself up some oral rehydration salts, those little bags of salty sugary goodness helped turn feeling horrible into feeling not so bad lots of times really quickly.
  • Start writing every day, before dinner, or whenever you have enough free time to jot down some thoughts of the day. This helps a lot when it comes to writing up final reports, or even processing thoughts on potential improvements that could be made to the project.
  • Every day may present itself as being similar to the last. But the small things that make up every day can make that day for you unbelievable and unforgettable. Be that playing frisbee with kids, checking out the local chameleon population or simply admiring your surroundings -  they all will make you appreciate the experience all the more. While you might get HUGE plates of rice, all the time, just wait for those little bits of Zebu. When they cross the Malagasy culinary path it's like Christmas!

And now?

I have accepted to go back to school to start my Master in Geography & Environmental Sciences in the fall of 2010. I will be focusing on ground water issues and how they pertain to climactic variability. My experience in Madagascar with the Youth Volunteer Program has also encouraged me to pursue conservation related issues around my home in greater detail. The desire to continue with my studies in Geography was certainly aided by my experience in Madagascar, work I contributed to and events witnessed. I hope to end with work in the conservation field, be that in Canada or any part of the world where I will share my unforgettable experience living, working and exploring Madagascar.

My photos of Madagascar