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
their village from mine. There are 16 groups like this within the federation and I am charged with 'building the capacity' of all these groups.
They operate out of small offices like this, if they have an office at all. They are called VOIs, which stands for vondron'olona ifotony, and essentially translates to community group. But they are special community groups that are charged by the federal government to manage chunks of a vast new protected area, CAZ.
This is a picture of illegal extraction of precious hardwood timber. The VOIs are supposed to patrol the forest and stop activities like this...
and like this, which is tavy, or slash-burn-agriculture which is a major pressure on the forest because after a year or two they have to cut another swath and re-plant. Gold mining and taking animals (lizards, tortoises, frogs) for the pet trade are other problems the VOIs contend with.
A VOI also works to improve the lives of the members and their communities. Most are still trying to figure out their plans and strategies but some have already begun doing projects to generate income.
This is a camphor tree plantation that will produce leaves the group can sell for a hefty profit since the leaves are used for making an essential oil used.
And this is a tree nursery that was used to grow fruit, forest, and eucalyptus tree seedlings before planting. The eucalyptus is an important source of firewood, despite being invasive, since it re-sprouts once cut back and grows rapidly in poor soil. Unfortunately, sometimes VOIs decide to plant it right next to the rainforest thinking it will 'draw the bees' and help the forest re-grow, not realizing that it is toxic to the seedlings of those trees. Some basic ecological knowledge can go a long way out here.
Some of them are starting to do chicken farming projects, or improved rice farming or eco-tourism projects in order to generate income for the group so that they can carry out their forest management activities (well that's the line anyway - most of them are just doing them because NGOs give them money to and then they have some extra cash and the group and forest is no better off than before the project.... one of my major goals is to help the groups connect their projects to forest conservation as you will see below)
At first I held meetings like this one, with every one of the VOIs in my federation, just to do a baseline survey and find out how many members they have, what projects they have done, what their hopes and dreams are, etc. I also checked on the projects, like the ones above, that they had already finished, to find out how they are carrying on, and often, why they failed.
After we (there were 3 volunteers working in the area; the other two were with another federation of 22 VOIs, but we collaborated on our reports and presentations to the big-wigs in the capital - they have left me no -miss you!- so I'm on my own now) determined where the VOIs were at we began designing and implementing trainings.
While in Vondrozo I got to do a lot of forest surveys with the VOIs there, but here they need more assistance with basic organizational management: figuring out what their responsibilities are and what the functions of the various officer holders are. Its disheartening to know that many of these groups have existed for 5 or 9 years but they still don't know their organization's. Every two years or so a new NGO has taken over from the last to create more VOIs and support a couple with project financing, but most of the VOIs simply have not yet done anything.
In addition to organizational management, I was helping the VOIs (actually, I trained federation members, who are motivated locals, and then accompainied them as they trained the VOIs) to understand the connections between the forest and their livelihoods, between protecting the forest and doing projects to improve their lives. While it is important to explain to them about ecosystem functioning, global interest in preserving biodiversity, and about how the forest acts as a carbon sink, because these are the things that interest the big conservation NGOs in helping them, this isn't the kind of thing that is going to sell impoverished people on trying to protect the forest (unless of course a wad of money appears right after the speech). The fact remains, though, that maintaining the forest is integral to their on well-being, in terms of ...
watershed health (clean, seasonal water to irrigate their crops);
foods such as this eel, tubers and leaves, honey, and other animals like boars, crabs and tenrec (they still shouldn't be hunting endangered animals like lemurs, fossa, small frogs, etc.); and medical plants.
This the kind of thing that gets a rural 'Gasy farmer excited about protecting the forest. Most of these folks in the group already have some inkling of this, but the hard part for them is to figure out how they can protect it. Most are just waiting for the NGOs to come in and drop projects and money in their laps, not an entirely unreasonable expectation considering the track record. My job, though, is to help them set their own direction, develop there own strategy for the future, and implement their own project ideas.
So we will do diagramming ideas like this to try to connect the perceived threats to the forest to the kinds of things that the VOI may be able to do about it, like patrol the forest and teach their communities the laws. Sources of the destruction, like poverty and population growth, should be made clear as well, so that the imperative for improving lives connects back to protecting the forest.
Or we may do mapping exercises like this to make everyone aware of where the protected area is, where its being destroyed and how it is connected to where people live through watercourses.
After all these presentations and poster making sessions the VOI members should have a clearer vision of what it is they are trying to do. Then its time for them to present to their communities.
As they are charged with forest monitoring responsibilities and have the privilege of collecting fees when they authorize locals to cut needed trees, it is important that they inform the community about what they are doing and start taking the helm on protecting their forest. Many of the groups are so disempowered that they need me or a federation member to get up and explain the VOI's role for them (and 'Gasy folk just love to here a vazaha try to give a speech in their language) but the hope is that after all this they feel that it is up to them to improve their own lives, to protect their own forest, and that they have the power to do so.
As for me, I'll spend the next month designing a training to help the VOIs clarify their group vision, prioritize their activities and start to design and implement their projects. I will work with a partner to train the federation, who will hopefully go out with my replacement and help the VOIs to move forward.
I have no more field work planned so I won't get to wake up to this beautiful view again, but at the end of the month I will take vacation and hopefully get to explore the north of the island for a couple weeks before returning home late July. Then its off to Wisconsin to do a masters in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development so that I can continue to help marginalized communities through the conservation of awe-inspiring places like the CAZ rainforest in Madagascar.