03 October 2011

Gibson and CITES: Attention finally being paid to Madagascar?

If you know anything about socio-ecological issues in Madagascar, you know that exploitation of precious timber, especially rosewood, ebony, and polysandre, has been especially egregious since the 2009 coup d'etat. Even if you don't know anything about Madagascar, you might have heard recently of the ramifications of this through your rabid devourment of American political news. US Fish and Wildlife Service investigations of Gibson guitar have become a battleground between tea-party activists who think the government is over-regulating and environmentalists who see corporate greed ravishing the forests of impoverished nations like Madagascar. Here's a link to a fairly comprehensive article about the case from the Tennessean, published in the home state of Gibson Guitars.

The Myth of the Virgin Forest

A new meta-analysis of 138 studies across the tropics was published in the online edition of Nature a few days ago and found that, “primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining biodiversity.”

I was drawn to this article because it has been picked up by the popular media. This piece is already being wielded to call from stronger protection of these forests. In interview, one of the first authors does just this. Luke Gibson tells us, “It is therefore essential to limit the reach of humans and to preserve the world’s remaining old-growth rainforests while they still exist. The future of tropical biodiversity depends on it.”

What interests me is that it is never clear what forests they are talking about. Part of the problem is that the language is loose. Are “primary” and “old-growth” the same thing? Gibson seems to imply so.

In a quick google search of the sources publishing about this article, nearly every one on the first page uses a different epithet for these forests. From the first 6 headlines we get: “Virgin forests,” “natural forests,” “old growth forests,” “primary forests,” “pristine forests,” and “rainforest.” All of these names seem to conjure an idea of an untouched forest far from humans where nature can thrive free from the negative effects of our species. They all embody the wilderness myth.

To further highlight this let’s see what kind of land this pristine forest is contrasted against. “Degraded forests,” “disturbed forests” and “a re-modeled home,” and one piece from The Conversation tells us, “We live in an age of vanishing rainforests.”

This is the conservation myth.

18 September 2011

Anatomy of an Expedition. Part One.

In August, two fellow grad students from UW-Madison came out to Madagascar to conduct fieldwork for a project to document the critically endangered Greater Bamboo Lemur, Prolemur simus, using trail cameras, and to gather interview data related to forest use and specifically the culture of hunting. They stayed for 2 weeks. Here is a log of our expedition (a word I do so love to use).

August 4
I picked up Erik and Britt at the airport a bit after midnight. We headed back to the hotel to have a preliminary meeting with a preliminary THB (Three Horses Beer, the national beer of Madagascar), and to catch up and revel in the excitement of the impending expedition, before catching a few hours of zzzs.
Erik and Britt still bleary-eyed from two days travel in the down-stairs part of our little loft at Sakamanga

18 August 2011

Toaka Gasy!

Just got back from an amazing two week expedition with colleagues from the CHANGE program at UW-Madison to find the critically endangered Greater Bamboo Lemur and to investigate the effects of hunting on this and other species in the region around my research area. Next time I will post an anatomy of the expedition, as a sort of digital field journal.

But, as there is nothing better than a cold beer to soothe the physical and mental exhaustion after such an endeavor  I thought it would be appropriate to share short photo essay on toaka gasy, Malagasy moonshine, before heading back out for another 10 day field trip. Not that it is anywhere near as refreshing as beer...

19 July 2011

Agroforestry Conundrums: Vanilla vs. Camphor

A recent series of posts (Well, back in May, but still…) by Noah Jackson, over at Rainforest Alliance’s Frog Blog, focused on vanilla farming in Madagascar. He is an auditor for RA, travels the world meeting farmers and foresters, assessing the sustainability of their practices and compliance with certification standards. He makes the point about how important it is for vanilla farming to be sustainable. Especially in Madagascar:
Vanilla grows in the northern part of the country, where coastal and montane rainforests thrive. In a place as biodiverse as Madagascar, growing and cultivating crops like vanilla in harmony with nature is particularly important –  irresponsible farming could threaten the integrity of this incredible landscape.
But if its like most of the crops in Mada very little is certified because of how expensive it is to do the audits and stay up to date with the latest requirements. There are, however,  folks  trying still export crops the right way. People like From the Field Trading, composed primarily of 2 rpcvs and the farmers that they have lived and worked with for years. 

09 July 2011

My (not so) Nightmare Third World Dentist Experience

I got off the taxibe 165 as if I was going to The Cookie Shop, a little cafe in the capital that is the closest thing you can get to America this side of Africa. Unfortunately, as soon as I neared the shop, I had to ignore the little latte fiend in my brain and turn down a side road instead. This road heads past a strip of chop shops that leads to an informal market surrounding the “stinky lake,” the most foul, putrescent cesspool of a pond in Tana (and people fish in it). I did this because I was headed to the dentist, having ejected a filling from a lower incisor and subsequently swallowing it while therapeutically biting my nails the week before. I think I should take up smoking instead - it would be better for my teeth.

29 June 2011

Searching for freshwater fish in Mada - what it can say about forest conservation

In a new blog post from the field for The New York Times, John Sparks describes his search for an incredibly rare and recently discovered species (1990s) of Damba, a genus of fish endemic to Madagascar.

He highlights the plight of freshwater fish on the red island: 
“It should be painfully obvious to the reader from my earlier posts that Madagascar’s native freshwater fishes are in very serious trouble — narrow endemism and widespread habitat degradation are a dangerous combination. Throw in competition with an array of exotic species, and you have the ingredients for a full-blown disaster. Essentially, freshwater fishes are afforded little protection within the isolated patches of protected forest that remain throughout the country, and within which one can still find relatively healthy populations of lemurs, chameleons and other native vertebrates. Most of these forest reserves are at higher elevation, where there is little suitable habitat for fishes other than rheophilic gobioids (gobies and eleotrids). In addition, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a watershed that has not been affected to some degree by deforestation throughout its course — and obviously, the negative effects of siltation persist downstream to the sea.”
But its not just fish that are threatened in freshwater systems: The lac alaotran lemur is critically endangered and the Alaotra grebe has recently been declared extinct.

One thing in his post that intrigued me is his emphasis on tilapia and their importance to local livelihoods:

27 June 2011

....And the Wheel Turns: A year in review

Well... I’m back! Both to Madagascar and to this digital weblog of my exploits. As I continue my protracted transition from Peace Corps volunteer to academic / conservation professional I am reevaluating the purpose of this blog and its potential (more on that in a future post), I realize many of you may not quite know what I’ve been up to. That may be exacerbated by the fact of my signing off of here so abruptly and then disappearing from normal human reality into my own personal malarially-feverish year of grad school. So in lieu of the malagasy folk-tale about how the gecko got its spots (also in a future post, you better believe), I’ll just do a quick picture post of some of the highlights of my last year to get us all back up to speed. Then i’ll be free to focus on Madagascar and conservation.

After touring the North of the island with a bunch of amazing friends, going to places like this...

...and this...

...and then my 6 months were up and it was time to come on back to Fremont for a couple