02 June 2010

Photo Essay: How a vazaha tries to support community-based conservation in Madagascar

[disclaimer: my 'w' key is quite broken; if any are missing from the following post, please blame the beer I spilled on my computer at the internet cafe]

After months of wrangling with the writing on the avowed blog post on the intersection of conservation and development; after venturing to begin stories in formats such as the academic essay, the travel log, and the fictional account; after starting and scraping a plethora of garbage stories all in an attempt to tell the story of what I am doing here in an informative and engaging way - I give up.

After fretting so profusely, I realized that I am in the capital now, have a decent internet connection (wireless!), have a bunch of photos and that it is easier for me and probably more enjoyable for you, just to post some pictures, with some minimal words to provide context. Why didn't one of you experienced bloggers clue me into this oh-too-obvious format earlier? For a funny and informative (and more frequently updated!) discussion on some of the frustrations of working on these issues nearby in Madagascar, you should totally read Chris Planicka's blog. This post will be limited to explaining some of the work I have been doing. Maybe, in the future, but at this rate probably not, I'll actually write that other post I keep mentioning....

So here we go. What do I do?
I work with groups like this. It took me a day to ride the 55km or so that it takes to get out to

02 April 2010

Support CLIC!

Bibliotheque CLIC (Centre de Lecture, d'Informtation et de Culture) is the new library in my community, Morarano.

They just opened two weeks ago, and as you can see, they can certainly use some more resources.

Their plan is to be a regional information hub and they hope to have the resources to promote language study and to act as a technical library for improved farming techniques. They are working on getting solar power to run a computer, photocopier, TV and VCR/DVD player in order to make multimedia available to the local community.

Right now they are requesting books!

- French/English dictionaries, textbooks, and other learning materials
- Atlases and Travel Guides with pictures
- Childrens Books

Materials can be sent to me or directly to the librarian:

Bibliotheque CLIC
Tendry Maharavo Joël
c/o Chez Meur. Le Chef ZAP
EPP Morarano Gare
Moramanga 514

If you want to do anything else to help out, like organize a drive to cover the shipping costs on a box of books, let me know!

26 February 2010

Respect My Boundaries!!

Call the doctors! (wait....on second thought, don't do that - he'd be pretty mad at me) I think I'm suffering from a failure of my creativity systems (how does a doctor treat one for that, anyway?) because for the life of me I can't figure out how to make my work sound interesting... I know, I know- I live in Madagascar and work in the rain forest helping local people manage their forest; how can it be anything but interesting!? All I have to do is describe my yard, or the chameleon I saw yesterday, or the national park I visited, or what species of tree is dwindling in numbers (no), or what I had for dinner last night, or the role of CIREF in forest delimitation (no), or the funeral I went to, or maybe my life here with regards to coffee, or the training I'm developing on the statutes of the VOIs (no, no, no!), yet somehow I am having trouble.

As you can see, anything related to daily life here has some general appeal. I just read my friend Sara's blog and was thoroughly entertained by her descriptions of the left-overs she ate for breakfast and her ride to site the first time. But somehow I feel compelled to use this blog to highlight the incredible complexities or working in the field of natural resource use and conservation on this ecological wonderland of a economically impoverished island – but the daily realities of it are so tedious and boring! What to do? Describe breakfast (some cocoa cereal and decent coffee – I am in the capital right now after all), or write something only the most stalwart of my eco-nerd friends will appreciate? Oh, how about this: I draw you in with big picture goodies about life in Madagascar to set the stage and then bring it down to the nitty gritty details in such an insinuating manner that you don't even realize you're being hit with science.

Scratch that. All of it. I'll save the professional-like sciency stuff for a less SalmanRushdie-inspired-self-reflective-mess of a post and hit you with a couple anecdotes about the meaning of boundaries in Malagasy culture instead.

How do you like that?

I don't care, I'm doing it anyway...

One obvious boundary that has shaped the Malagasy psyche is that of the Mozambique channel. Being adrift in the Indian ocean has certainly created a disconnect with the rest of Africa. There is very much a sense of island isolation – difficulty in coming and going, for people and for goods, has created a strong sense of being Malagasy, as opposed to being vazaha, or an outsider. This sense was heightened by French colonial power, engendering a sense of inferiority. So at one and the same time there is a pride in being Malagasy and a strange sense of cultural shame. Malagasy tend to hide their traditional practices, rather than flaunt it like many Africans. Being a tourist here is a different experience than in the rest of Africa: it would be very difficult to find a village here that encourages tourists to join their life for a day, sing their songs, see their traditional clothes and share their meals.

That's my biased snapshot of the Malagasy view towards foreigners, but when you look within Madagascar, the Malagasy are just as adept at establishing that boundary between us and them. Are they from the highland or the coast? What tribe are they from (there's about 23 officially but they are constantly evolving)? Are you a newcomer to the village? Are you a family member? Male or female? Catholic or Protestant? All of these things will be ascertained quickly and often subconsciously as a way of defining one's role in society...

Ok, enough waxing psuedo-anthrolopological... my point is that the Malagasy are very aware of the boundary between us and them, which makes it very curious to Western eyes how apparently oblivious to personal boundaries they are. Enough stereotypical baloney. I said anecdotes...

One morning, soon after getting to site, I decided to take the taxi brousse the 30km from my village into the main town to do some marketing. Thus far I had gotten rides in private cars since my return from exile, I mean home, so I was rather happy to be riding in a brousse for an hour, reconnecting with 'gasy culture, reminiscing about the two day long brousse nightmares I had experienced in the past and musing about how many people they pack into these things and how interesting it is that nobody minds being squished in, butting up against your neighbor with a random baby's head on your shoulder and a chicken at your feet. At this point we were 5 across which accounted for all the butt-space available in the rather narrow row (5 random Americans would not fit, I can tell you that). We were about half way to town by this point and full up, but there were more people clambering to get on. "Do six 6 across," the driver's assistant tells the bus. "um..," I'm thinking as people grumble and start shifting around to get cockeyed with one cheek on, one cheek off, to add an extra rear end in there. There is no way that we are going to get 6 of us in that row. I had the middle seat, which is a board that spans the aisle between the two benches, so naturally when we had to get another butt on the bench and couldn't, my thigh became the bench and I had a random girl sitting on my lap (this was one time I wasn't made to feel like a foreigner). Similar arrangements we being arranged in the other rows. We didn't talk. She just sat half-in-my-lap and the only time we communicated was for me to say "excuse me," as I reached my hand under her butt to extract my bus fare from my pocket. She didn't even feel the need to reply. Trying to imagine this scene taking place in America, I decided then that I needed to write a few remarks about boundaries.

One other incident, illustrative in another way of the Malagasy view on personal boundaries, was when a fellow volunteer got her camera stolen during a training. About 60 villagers (and 3 volunteers) were brought to Tamatave, the big port city on the east coast, for a 3-day training given by a big conservation NGO. On the third day we had coffee break around 10 o'clock and shortly thereafter the volunteer noticed her camera missing. It had been really hectic, with people in and out during the break, so it easily could have been removed from the otherwise encapsulated training space. Lockdown! Was it because it was a volunteer's (i.e. vahaza's) camera? Was it because it was a NGO training and the NGO wanted to demonstrate it's concern for our wellbeing? Was it indicative of everyday life in Madagascar? I was told repeatedly by the people carrying out the actions to come that it is the latter: "don't worry, they're used to it!"

Whatever the impetus, for the next hour-or-so various searches were carried out. The doors were shut and the facility searched – had it just gotten misplaced? Then everybody's bag was taken to the front and searched in case somebody had stolen it and stashed it. People were asked to accuse the perpetrator. I think that in The States we probably would have made an announcement that the camera was missing, ask if anyone had seen it, maybe search the room, and then call it quits saying, "I can't believe someone took it..." or the like. It didn't stop there. Oh no. While bags were searched, men and women were lined up and pat-downs were carried out. Finally, we were all allowed to go to lunch, the victim apologizing that all this time had been taken up on her account, mortified about what was being done in her name (they really didn't seem to mind all that much though). Deliberations were carried out. It was decided that one of the participants was sketchy because he went to the bathroom and they agreed that his room at the hotel should be searched during lunch. Woah – just so you know, if NGO staff suspects you of stealing they can tell the hotel staff and get a key to your room. Yeah, there is no word from privacy in Malagasy...

Coming back from lunch we got on with the training, sad to be missing the camera and glad to be moving on from the inquisition and to have that uncomfortable situation behind us. But was it done? Not yet! Before going home they brought it up again. New accusations were raised, inquiries made. It was decided that a box should be placed near the women's bathroom, which was behind a partition. One by one, with our bags, we were to go to the box and either put a piece of paper with information-which-leads-to-the-apprehension-of or the camera itself in to the box (you know, as an act of shame brought on by the extensive efforts made to wear down our souls).

No camera. Accusations were read. Nobody directly implicated. Debate drew to an end. It was over.

Just like this blog. Now that I have worn down your patience you are free to go. Just after you line up and one-by-one deposit your comments in the form linked to the comment button below (really though, it would be wonderful to hear from all of you!). If you feel guilty for not having done so before, you can deposit goodies in your mailbox and send them to the address in the sidebar of this blog (the title of this should link to the blog if this was sent as an email to you). Just to make it easy: c/o Conservation International, BP59 Morarano 514, Madagascar

Maybe for next blog I'll get to that stuff that I care enough about to leave family and friends half a world behind in order to work on for 6 months. Maybe I can put CBNRM in the context of boundaries, to tie it to these fun stories and make it more interesting. Boundary to Development in Madagascar: Lack of Alternatives to Over-exploitation of Natural Resources! reads the headline...

Ugh...already sounds boring...

20 January 2010

It's a Different World Up Here!

Pardon the typos, but I'm back to having to use a French keyboard in a slipshod internet cafe. That's right, I'm finally back in Madgascar! It only took me 10 months of frustration to get here and I'm still not even sure this was the right decision, but I'm here for the next 6 months so hopefully soon I will feel like I belong again.

Part of my difficulty is the rapidity of the transition. I arrived a week ago and had two days of orientation before being brought to site. Last time around I had 10 weeks of training and the opportunity to gradually get used to things. I certainly appreciate the confidence that everybody has in my ability to thrive despite any real idea what the hell I am doing but it would have been nice to at least see my friends first...

Now I'll put away that grumbling voice that seems to have arisen in me some time in the last few months. Hopefully, next blog I will be able to post some pictures; I just have to find a place that I could plug in my own computer so I could prepare the next blog ahead of time while the clock is not ticking. For now, though, maybe I will just highlight a few of the similarities and differences between my old site in the South-East, and my new one, up on the plateau but still near the rain forest corridor.

Similarity: I'm still working with community based management groups (COBAs) charged with managing swaths of a large new protected area. Again this time there are way too many (16) to work effectively with all of them during my 6 months but at least i can try to meet with them all and really benefit a few (which is the realization I came to after my first year in Vondrozo). The work should take me out into the forest again, though just like before, I live a few kilometers away (in fact, where I am now, I can't even see it for all the eucalyptus that has been planted).

Difference: Before, I was working with a field team of 5 Malagasy WWF empoyees who were pretty knowledgable and quick to learn, who had connections and a good rapport within the communities already and who were dedicated to conservation and helping the locals develop. This time around my aim is the same, but I'm working with Conservation International and I AM the field team. That's right - just me. Melissa and Lety are doing the same job in nearby areas but we all work independently. So my hopes of accomplishment are much lower this time around, though I should be able to transmit enough insight about the reality of things on the ground to CI that they decide they aught to have a field team here (the local office closed during the political crisis). This time around though, there are federations that link the COBAs together. There was nothing like that in Vondrozo and I think it is a great idea. So maybe I can spend much of my time developing the federation instead of working directly with the COBAs. We'll have to see how this goes...

Difference: People are really friendly here! I walk around my village and everybody smiles and says 'hi', they seem stoked to have me around and not put off by me. In Vondrozo, I was the first PC volunteer and they hardly ever get white people out there so they were scared of me and didn't really know what to do with me. Up here they are used to vazaha, foreigners, and in fact called me "Aaron's replacement" for the first few days! I'm working hard on establishing my own identity and assuring them I wont leave after a few days (maybe thats why they seem so friendly - they are really trying hard to make me like them so they won't lose their vazaha again!). It took a long time before I really found out who I could work closely with in Vondrozo and to build the trust needed to be effective. I've already here had the head of the Parent's association at the school come to me seeking advice on a grant proposal, right after she handed me the curtains and sheets she had offered to sew for me (I never even ahd curtains in Vondrozo!) Seems like folks are a little less kamo (lazy) here and ready to work. I better step it up!

Difference: They are really good farmers up here. My village is on a fairly major road, 30km off the road to the most visited tourist site in the country and the main shipping thouroughfaire in the country. Im near if not in the breadbasket of the country and man do people know how to farm rice here! I've been walking around taking pictures (which i would have been self-conscious to do in Vondrozo) of rice fields, tractors, fertilizer, etc. because I am so struck by the knowledge base and ensuing wealth here. I won't subject you all to another blog on rice, don't worry, even though i do want to post the pictures. I'll just have to write my next update about some of the wildlife so I can show off the beautiful birds and moths that I have been seeing (all very commonplace but still beautiful).

Ok, Im sure that's more than enough to sate your appetites for now. I do wish this computer's spellcheck wasn't in French...

Miss you all! Mandrapihaona!