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.

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