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My name is Franziska Peuser and I am from Germany. I am about to finish my studies of forestry and environmental science. My trip to Madagascar was a big contrast to the theories about sustainable development, climate change, Millenium Development Goals, Good Governance, participation and all the theoretical knowledge I gained at university.
I wanted to participate in the WWF Explore Programme in order to contribute with my knowledge and experience to a team consisting of people from different backgrounds, and in order to gain valuable skills and knowledge which I can use in my future career in conservation. According to my experiences in Europe and the Cape Verde Islands, conservation always meant to be faced with challenging problems. I wanted to see how people in Madagascar deal with conservation issues and how they use their natural resources for this purpose.
Our so-called project in southern Madagascar is supposed to protect the spiny forests by improving people’s living conditions and health and by introducing family planning methods.
First of all I want to say: Sarotra be ny teny gasy, which means, that Malagasy is very difficult!! Nevertheless, I started learning this language and I remember some words:
Tsilamaha, the village where we lived for 2 months, is surrounded by spiny forest. There are still big areas of forest left, although many parts of the spiny forests have been cut down to create new rice fields or pasture land for the zebu herds. The forest is an important resource for the villagers; it provides them with firewood, wood for building their huts and it is an additional income resource. Many of the hills are bare, deforestation happened some generations ago and the grassland makes it difficult for new trees to grow. The WWF initiated reforestation efforts, some of which are successful. Planting of the endemic spiny tree Allaudia, for example, was successful, whereas Eucalyptus reforestations failed....
Compared to other villages, Tsilamaha still has enough forest resources. We visited another village, Amboropotsy, where nothing of the forest is left, where the wooden huts are only surrounded by cacti and the women have to walk several kilometres in order to get firewood.
There are MANY children in Tsilamaha and the Vazaha (foreigners) are a big attraction for them! Everywhere we go, we are followed by kids who make friends with us very easily. Together we practice French and Malagasy, play Frisbee or sing songs like “a ramsamsam”. There is a school in Tsilamaha and children learn to read and write, but education is not their main occupation during the day. From early age on the kids need to help their families: they take care of their little brothers and sisters, they carry water from the river, work in the fields and look after the zebus. I am impressed by how skilful even very little kids can handle big knives without hurting themselves. In our western civilisations many children are overprotected and spoiled and very often city children do not know where milk and cereals come from. This is totally different in Madagascar. I enjoyed the company of the children in Tsilamaha very much. When we went for a walk (tsanga-tsanga), we laughed a lot and enjoyed being together.
Girls get pregnant very early and they have several children without having the choice of how many they want. It is still a long way to promote family planning methods in rural areas and meanwhile the population continues to grow and grow, and so do their needs for their daily livelihood.
Life is rough in southern Madagascar. People have to work hard to nourish their families and especially women are physically affected by many successive pregnancies and by taking care of all the children. However, they seem to be very happy! The next doctor is 10 kilometres away and one morning we see a newborn baby to which its mother had given birth in her hut without anybody’s help. Malaria is common in Tsilamaha, some villagers sleep under mosquito nets, others do not. We, as volunteers, take our Malaria medication, but the villagers have to live with the disease. Every now and then people from the centre de santé from the next village come to vaccinate the children, hand out some vitamins and to registrate the newborn babies.
There is not much water in Tsilamaha, the river bed is almost dried up, most of the water is used for the irrigation channels which cross the ricefields in a well planned system. Because of stagnant water in many parts of the area, the disease bilharziosis can affect people. As the children do not know about it, they enjoy their bath in the river. How could you resent their behaviour in the spiny bush with a temperature of over 30 ° C??
People in Tsilamaha are subsistence farmers and eat what they grow: basically vary (rice), zako (corn) and balahazo (manioc). Some families start to plant pumpkins, garlic and onions to have more variety. But the fact that seeds are expensive, makes it difficult for families to grow tomatoes and carrots as income generating activity. Most families have chickens in order to have some meat and eggs. Zebu milk is used for producing a sort of yoghurt. Young girls carry it through the heat for kilometres, only to earn some money.
Every Saturday is market day in Tranomaro, which is about 10 km away. It is a social event for news exchange, meeting people and bargaining for goats, zebus or water melons. For many people this is the only opportunity to earn some money by selling their surpluses from the fields. We begin our long walk to the market at 6 am to avoid the hot sun and our sweaty hike is recompensed by fresh, delicious Goiaba fruits and a water melon which we cannot carry back to Tsilamaha! On the market stands I recognize the dishes and pots every villager uses, as well as the colourful blankets they wear to protect them from the morning cold!
People live in small wooden huts, the roofs are covered with straw. They give shelter to the villagers against rain, but if there is a heavy cyclone like in February 2008, nothing is protected any more. The houses are so small, because once their owner dies, the whole hut is burned down and it is forbidden to build a new hut on the same place.
Omby gasy (Zebus)
Zebus play a big role in the village life. Possessing many zebus is a status symbol. A lot of work is involved with the zebu herds, the young boys help to herd the zebus and very often they stay with them in the forests over night. The zebu herds have to be protected very well because there are bandits living in the forests, too who might steal the villagers’ zebu. To defend their animals against the bandits, some men carry guns with them. Malagasy people do not keep the zebu for meat. The animals are only slaughtered, when a family member dies. This big sacrifice is important for the deceased’s afterlife; in whole Madagascar ancestor worship has a long tradition.
Living in Tsilamaha showed me how close people’s livelihood is related to nature, but is it still in harmony, in a sustainable way, even if there is still a lot of forest left?
Coming from a western civilization where we spend tons of energy, produce enormous amounts of waste and climate gases, I became aware once more that we live in affluent societies and want to continue growing without respecting the limits of our natural resources. I hope that developing countries like Madagascar won’t be the victims of climate change and globalization and that these countries don’t pay the price for our high living standard. And if Madagascar’s population growth goes on like this, there won’t be enough agricultural land and forest resources for all. I hope that we had an impact on the villagers by creating awareness and that they take care of nature so that future generations have their livelihood protected.