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About Me

My first memorable encounter with Madagascar was not, I am pleased to say, thanks to the DreamWorks Animation production. As a Biological Sciences undergraduate at Oxford University, I was introduced to the unique patterns of evolution and speciation that Madagascar’s 80 million years of isolation have generated. Subsequently, during my graduate studies in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, Madagascar was once again ubiquitous - as one of Conservation International’s ‘Hotspots’ and WWF’s ‘Ecoregions’.
The logical progression (if I could wangle it) seemed to be to experience this biologically unique and globally significant place for myself, and to progress from the theoretical to the practical. Having previously conducted my own research in Indonesia and Tanzania, I was prepared for the trials, frustrations, joys and rewards of working in the field. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the sheer beauty of the place I was about to find myself in.
Getting to grips with intensive rice production methods 
© WWF / Emma Woods
Getting to grips with intensive rice production methods
© WWF / Emma Woods
An Education
My work in the Ivohibe district of Madagascar focused on seven rural villages and their associated ‘COBAs’ (organisations established in agreement with the Malagasy government and given charge of local natural resources). The COBAs were at different stages of maturity: some were already recording the number of seedlings planted for reforestation each year, and had cooperative and functional women’s associations, while others had barely established the roles of the COBA’s president, secretary and treasurer.
‘I got the impression, as I had done with the fourth COBA, that things were actually getting done, being planted, being evaluated’ (my diary, 12th June 2010)
My team of six volunteers worked to facilitate the effective functioning of each COBA according to its specific needs, through development, nutrition, gender and forest livelihood workshops. The overriding goal was to encourage community wellbeing and sustainable resource use. We also developed particular initiatives which similarly involved all seven COBAs, such as environmental radio broadcasts and an awareness-raising, advocacy-based film (see ‘COBA Avotra’).
I was particularly proud of these latter two projects, as a lack of awareness and knowledge sharing between the villages seemed to be a major contributor to the general lack of social capital in the area. Given the variety of skills and strengths exhibited across the different COBAs (including the less ‘mature’ ones), this lack of connectedness was all the more lamentable, and was something which I hoped to change.
‘…what I love about focusing on radio is my genuine belief that raising awareness via radio broadcasts is a truly effective way of solving problems such as disempowerment through isolation’ (my diary, 16th June 2010)
Our work also involved a good deal of interaction with children and young people. I was greatly moved by the Malagasy youth’s eagerness to learn - a stark contrast with the apathy which plagues my own nation’s youth. So impressed was I by the enthusiasm and optimism of the children we encountered, that I was inspired to create a film dedicated to the activities we organised for them, and the sense of hope that these activities inspired in me (see ‘Expectation’).

Contact Me

Please feel free to email me

While project work represented the skeleton of my Madagascan experience, the flesh and blood came from elsewhere. My experience was as much about my immersion in a stunning country and culture, and my encounters with some truly inspiring people, as it was about my assignments. As someone who has always lived in a town or city on a crowded island, the vast skies and sweeping plains of Madagascar’s Ivohibe district offered me an overwhelming sense of freedom.
‘And what breathtaking views - probably the best this life of 23 years has seen’ (my diary, 19th July 2010)
However, while the child in me was frequently in heaven, the conservationist in me was deeply concerned. The open grasslands which made for stunning photographic panoramas and pleasurable, sun-baked hikes were, of course, a biodiversity desert. When informed that not many years ago the same panoramas had been forested and lush, the picture became all the more bleak. Deforestation is a global problem which concerns me more than perhaps any other form of environmental destruction, due to its wide-ranging effects: from habitat loss and soil erosion, to drought and inadequate carbon sequestration.
Given the desperate statistics, I felt extremely fortunate to see lemurs, chameleons and snakes in the wild, and to even spot a chameleon myself. If trends continue, future generations may not be so lucky.
My Advice
If volunteering for WWF sounds appealing, do not hesitate to apply. Fortunately, there is no such thing as a typical volunteer: my team’s interests varied from Botany to Business, from DJing to skiing, and from cookery to poetry! Whatever your interests, the most important attributes of a WWF volunteer are a passion for the natural world, and an appetite for discovering unfamiliar lands and peoples. Also useful are a sense of humour, a readiness to change your opinions and goals, a tolerance for rice, and a decent head-torch.
If you remain unconvinced, I leave it to W.H. Auden (1936) to persuade you of the joys that can accompany a departure from the rat-race and an immersion in nature’s tranquillity:
Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead
In the windless nights of June;
Forests of green have done complete
The day’s activity; my feet
Point to the rising moon.
Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working place;
Where the sexy airs of summer,
The bathing hours and the bare arms,
The leisured drives through a land of farms,
Are good to the newcomer.

And Now?

After three months of Madagascar’s ‘mora mora’ (slowly slowly) approach to life, flying straight back into the hustle and bustle of London was a bit of a shock to the system. Although my work for WWF has undoubtedly increased my desire to see more of the world, for the moment I’m still enjoying being back in the land of football’s Premier League, the National Theatre, and the good old Sunday roast! Since Madagascar I have worked as an intern for The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (a small London-based think tank), and in the Royal Society's Science Policy Centre, while continuing my part-time work as a science tutor. I am looking for full-time work in the environment and development sectors, across think tanks, government, NGOs and consultancies. Fingers crossed…

Since then I have worked for the Environment Directorate-General in Brussels.

A film by Emma Woods
The Road Taken
A film by Emma Woods