Friday, June 11, 2010

Field Tripping

Madagascar. March 1. Forestry Volunteer.

Seven months ago, Peace Corps sent me an invitation to serve with those three essential points of information. The first two were simple enough to understand and explain; I’d be leaving for Madagascar on March 1. But the all-important last bit—what I’d actually be doing—was admittedly ambiguous. Volunteers in the same country with the same title often end up doing completely different things, based on the specificities of the communities where they live and the organizations or individuals they partner with. Now, after nearly a month at site, I can finally provide a job description. Sort of.

In 1996, Madagascar implemented a law allowing for the transfer of forest management rights and responsibilities from the national forestry ministry to local community organizations called vondron’olona ifotony (VOIs), or Communaut├ęs de Base (COBAs). For over a decade, WWF has been working in the Vondrozo Corridor (and elsewhere on the island) to help forest communities establish and manage VOIs. There are now 28 in the area, and WWF has selected five that are particularly weak to be the focus of my efforts—three to the south of Vondrozo (Mazavalala, Antandoharano/Ambalatraka, and Ankazomaneno/Manomboerivo), and two to the north (Vohilava and Antaninary). My job is to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the communities, work with them to improve their VOIs, and facilitate the introduction/adoption of techniques (in farming, gardening, cooking, etc.) that might lead to better, more sustainable management of their forest areas.

Obviously, all of that is contingent on me knowing the communities and their members well, and being able to intelligibly talk with them. We decided it was best to dive right in, so a week after arriving in Vondrozo, I found myself sitting on my bike, coasting south out of town with Robson, a WWF field agent, on the first leg of my introductory trip into the Corridor.

Well, coasting might not be the right word. Rolling, or pedaling, maybe. All right, I guess swerving or stumbling probably conveys a more accurate picture.

Let’s get one thing straight: I know how to ride a bike. Really, I do. But as some of you have witnessed, I don’t necessarily know how to ride a bike well. And if you’ve seen me struggling on the paved, perfectly fine roads of Burgundy, Ireland, or Washington, DC, try to transpose that image and skill level onto a washed-out, dirt road in the hills of Madagascar. With an overstuffed backpack. In the rain.

Five minutes after leaving Vondrozo, I’d already toppled off the road into bushes or ditches multiple times. In my defense, the road to the south is universally acknowledged to be ratsy, or bad. It rarely if ever sees maintenance work, and a cyclone in March left it in particularly poor condition. We’re talking, you know, canyons in the middle of the road.

And then there was the rain. The whole first week I spent in Vondrozo, there wasn’t a drop of precipitation. On the day we were scheduled to leave on our trip, though, I woke up to a torrential downpour that didn’t let up all day. By the time we set out in the afternoon, the roads were streams, and the canyons I mentioned above had turned into lakes. Plus, I’d decided to bring my big backpacking pack along, strapped to the bike. I didn’t think that riding with it would be that tough, but I grossly overestimated my ability to balance.

But once we’d set out, we’d set out, so I kept trudging, falling, walking, and pushing. Robson was absurdly patient, following behind and letting me lead at whatever speed I could. About an hour and a half into the trip, though, his bike got a flat. We tried to repair it using my brand-new, PC-provided pump, but the nozzle gauge somehow wasn’t right. With our sunlight hours dwindling, we decided to turn around.

I was frustrated, defeated, and relieved. As painfully obnoxious as it was to surrender the ground we’d already covered, I also couldn’t wait to collapse in my own, dry bed. We made it back to Vondrozo shortly after nightfall and grabbed a quick dinner at Behavana, then went home to sleep.

To minimize time lost, we set out early the next morning on attempt number two. I’d taken the opportunity to repack my things, opting instead for my small backpack and wearing it as I rode, which made balancing a whole lot easier. To get to the first village, Mazavalala, we followed the road 14km south, stashed our bikes in Ampasimpotsy, picked up a trail, and hiked about 3km west. Over the next five days, we met with VOI members in Mazavalala, Ambalatraka, and Ankazomaneno. We returned to Vondrozo for a few days, and then embarked on the second leg of the tour, riding north about 20km and hiking to the villages of Antaninary and Vohilava.

These “villages” actually consist of several hamlets, each with between ten and twenty huts made of bamboo, ravenala, grass, and/or other materials from the forest. Some are quite spread out, so assembling the VOI members can take a bit of time—over a day, in certain cases.

So when we arrived, the VOI president would put out the call, and once a critical mass was obtained, we’d have our meeting. The program generally involved Robson providing an introduction, me stumbling through a kabary, or speech, in Malagasy, and the VOI presidents and other community leaders making some welcoming comments. Tradition dictates that whenever a vahiny (stranger/guest) comes to the village, the men gather, slaughter a chicken, cook a huge amount of rice, smoke tobacco, and pass around the toakagasy (moonshine rum). Guess everyone likes an excuse to celebrate, eh? I did a lot of sitting around while all this transpired. It was incredibly interesting at times, exasperatingly boring at others. My language skills are slowly improving, but understanding these guys was damn near impossible, so I was generally precluded from conversing beyond the basics. I just smiled and nodded a lot, laughed when it seemed appropriate, and prayed that they hadn’t just asked me a question.

I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow recanting of the whole trip, but here are a few choice highlights. Feel free to inquire further if anything peaks your interest:

-Getting my first leech (on the ankle) while wandering through rice paddies. I let him drink his fill and fall off.
-Biking (stumbling) back to Vondrozo—in the dark.
-Trying to score some points with the mayor by holding his baby grandson. And getting peed on.
-Trading songs with village kids. They offered up “Alouette” and a few Malagasy national numbers. I answered with Third Eye Blind and Johnny Cash.
-Watching my first Malagasy sunrise from the hilltop town of Vohimary Avaratra.
-Crossing a crocodile-infested river.
-Being kept awake by rats having a party in the dishware.

It was awesome, and tough. There were moments when I was severely discouraged (often because of my continuing ineptitude at communicating), but a glance at the surrounding landscape was enough motivation to keep on keeping on. See, when I and the WWF field agents describe our jobs, we usually say that we work “an’ala,” or “in the forest.” The truth, however, is that there’s little semblance of a “forest” left in much of the Vondrozo Corridor, at least near the communities I’ve visited so far. Around here, the foothills—once completely covered by contiguous rainforest that stretched the length of the island—look more like rolling savanna, interrupted here and there by a patchwork of forested enclaves. The higher mountains to the immediate west are generally still thickly forested, but even there, tentacles of barren land have begun to reach up, sometimes all the way to the crest of the ridge. Tavy, or slash-and-burn agriculture, remains unfortunately common, and, especially where VOIs are weak, forest degradation continues at a steady pace.

Toward the end of training, we had a session with Steve Goodman, an American ecologist at the University of Antananarivo, who explained a bit about the nature of deforestation in Madagascar compared to other high-profile cases. In Brazil, the burgeoning beef industry provides incentive for cattle ranchers to push back the Amazon further and further. In Indonesia, profitable export has led to the sprawl of palm oil plantations where forest used to dominate. But here in Madagascar, it’s poverty, pure and simple, that drives deforestation. People need firewood to cook. People need building materials for their homes. People need land to grow rice and the other crops on which they subsist. There’s no corporate interest behind the decimation of the forest. There’s only hunger, and the desire for shelter and other basic necessities.

One particular incident impressed upon me the desperateness of the situation. Our last meeting on the first leg of the trip was the biggest, with about 60 people present. To accommodate the crowd, we got together at the local school. After we’d finished talking business, the guys set about cooking the customary chicken and rice. At one point, there was a dearth of firewood, so they decided to cut off one of the school’s support beams to feed the flames. Sure, there were another 19 or so posts holding it up, but I couldn’t help wondering how they could ever see that as the best option (the toaka might have had something to do with it).

Things aren’t hopeless; education, improved techniques, and outside resources can do much to help, and I’m here to hopefully play a positive if small role in that process. Affecting behavior change is always difficult, and development literature generally acknowledges that middle-aged men (who make up the vast majority of VOI members) are often the hardest to reach. Before I can even attempt to reach them, though, I need to be able to talk with them—and to learn how to ride a bike.

Biking dirt roads through the countryside, hiking the rainforest, learning a foreign language, getting to know people, strengthening community organizations, and hooking them up with training and resources. No, it won’t be easy. But I’d say the job description suits me just fine.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Plunge

Sorry for the recent dearth of blog posts, but turns out I’ll only have (crappy) internet access when I travel to Farafangana or another large town for banking/business, which will probably be around once a month. So it goes.

When last we talked, I was about to be sworn in as a PCV, and all went according to plan. The swearing-in ceremony was a hoot, and the associated celebrations at the ambassador’s residence and acting country director’s house in Tana were appropriately awesome, largely because the spreads included pizza and burgers, respectively, and a trampoline to boot.

The following day began the mad dash of “installation,” the process of getting us and our stuff to our sites around the country. I traveled with Abe, another environment volunteer posted in Iabarefo, a small village 35km to the east of me. Our PC staff “installer” was Nirina, the regional head of PC in Fianarantsoa.

We left Tana and drove ten hours south on Route Nationale (RN) 7 through Antsirabe and Ambositra to Fianarantsoa, where we stayed the night at the Fianar PC Meva. The next morning, we spent some time shopping for essentials (gas stove, spices, etc.) that would soon become scarce as we left the cities of the Haut Plateau behind. After loading up, we began our break to the coast, stopping in Ranomafana to have lunch with two PCVs from the stage (training group) prior to ours. We eventually turned south again onto RN12 and made it to the seaside town of Manakara, where we found a carpentry yard to buy our beds, tables, and chairs. We slept there at the Sidi (pronounced “seedy,” though it’s actually a nice place) Hotel, which also happens to be our regional consolidation point.

Side note: If there’s a crisis/disaster of some sort (e.g. violent revolution or alien attack), all the PCVs in a given area “consolidate” in a central location and wait for further instruction from PC. It would take me about two days to get to Manakara, which might just give PC enough time to figure out what the hell is going on before I get there.

We woke up fairly early the following morning and jumped back on RN12, continuing south for an hour and some change until we hit Farafangana, our banking town. After setting up shop in the hotel, we went to the market and met Alison and Melissa, two PCVs from the previous stage who work near and also bank in Farafangana. Over the next few days, the group of us did more buying of household goods, went to Fara’s one nightclub (the name of which the locals say in English, “Three Ten”), and tried our best to relax. I helped with Abe’s installation on Saturday, rested easy on Sunday, and then embarked on my own installation on Monday.

The road between Farafangana and Vondrozo, RN27, is a “national route,” but it’s a far cry from I-80 in the States, or even from RN12, which is (mostly) paved. RN27 is a somewhat-maintained dirt road that generally serves its purpose fine, though cyclones and incessant downpours often render it impassable to four-wheel vehicles during the rainy season. In a private 4x4, the drive takes about two and a half hours; by taxi-brousse (public transportation truck), it takes about six. We set out early on Monday morning and picked up Abe on the way. About an hour later, I caught my first glimpse of Vondrozo in the distance.

Fast-forward to now. Yesterday marked three weeks since I arrived at site. I’ve spent about half that time on field trips into the Vondrozo Corridor with Robson, a WWF agent, becoming acquainted with the village communities where I’ll be working. Otherwise, I’ve been getting settled in the spot I’ll be calling home for the next two years.

The town of Vondrozo (voon-DROO-zoo) sits atop a series of hills that roll up from the coast and gradually climb into the mountains of the Eastern Rainforest Corridor. With an area population of around 14,000, it’s the smallest district capital in Madagascar.

But it’s nevertheless a town, and, moreover, a district capital. Most environment volunteers live in villages of a few hundred people or less, but Vondrozo has a post office, a gendarmerie, district offices (and the bureaucrats that fill them), a microfinance organization, a high school, a hospital, a daily market, a city hall (which turns into a makeshift nightclub on Satudays), a cell phone tower, and an industrious Chinese-Malagasy family running two well-stocked shops and a hotely (restaurant) that serves steak and cold beer. Who would’ve thunk?

And it gets better. The original housing plan that WWF and community leaders arranged for me fell through (the District Chief decided to give the place to his driver), and the back-up option also failed to materialize (the Forest Ministry needed the building for its trainees). Enter Plan C, which has me living in the back of the WWF office in what used to be lodging for excess field agents passing through town. The building is one-story, cement, with a tin roof, and my quarters consist of three rooms (currently cast as kitchen, bedroom, and storage space). I have electricity, a water pump outside my window, a shower, and, best of all, a genuine porcelain crapper to sit on. And my door opens west to a view of the forest and mountains of the Corridor.

Granted, there are a few qualifiers: The electricity typically works from 5pm to midnight but periodically breaks down. The water in our neighborhood comes from a small tower that’s filled every day, but most pumps either have faucet heads that are broken or none at all, so when the water starts flowing (around 6:30am), it’s a race against the clock until it runs out (around 7:00am). Having a full day’s supply thus involves filling all available buckets during that half-hour, which makes it unpleasantly impossible to sleep in. Also, the shower and toilet are in an outhouse adjacent to the building, and are shared by WWF staff and the family next door. The neighbors usually fill a huge tub in the shower when it’s running, so bucket baths are still my norm—though I’ve gotten in the habit of using my gas stove to heat the water first.

All told, though, I feel like I’ve landed in the lap of luxury. True, I’ll be spending a good amount—maybe even the majority—of my time outside of Vondrozo on field trips to villages in the Corridor. But it’s nice to know that whenever I get home, there’ll be a cold beer and warm (bucket) shower waiting.