Friday, July 9, 2010

Cold Rain, Hot Water

The sun just came out for the first time in three days. It's been nothing but cold, driving rain otherwise. Such is Malagasy winter in the mountains of the Corridor.

I’m staying with my friend Mike and a few other PCVs at his house in Masomanga, a village near Ranomafana National Park. We’re here for about a week to learn about and help with an erosion project underway on one of the hills overlooking the town. In March, Tropical Depression Hubert dumped a huge amount of water on the southeastern part of the island. One side of the hilltop here collapsed as a result. The landslide didn’t threaten any houses or the town itself, but it was seriously problematic for another reason: The collapse begins at the base of a massive cell tower.

So now Orange, the provider that built the tower, is paying for an erosion control project that involves terracing the hilltop where the collapse happened, planting vetiver grass—a species from India being used more and more widely because it grows quickly, is a survivor, and puts roots down seven meters—and hopefully saving the cell tower structure from toppling down the mountainside. The project director told us that it’s the most difficult operation he’s undertaken, and one of the terraces gave way two days ago, complicating our schedule a bit. We’ve surveyed the site and learned about the control process; hopefully we’ll be able to help more on the hill and plant the grass over the next few days.

In addition to the work we’re doing, we’ve found time to explore the area, which is one of the most popular national park destinations in Madagascar. Ranomafana means “hot water,” the region taking its name from the hot springs nearby. During colonial times, the French constructed spring-fed thermal baths, a pool, and a hotel complex. The hotel has since fallen into disuse and disrepair, but the baths and pool are still maintained, and we made visits to both (and spotted white-faced brown lemurs in the trees overhead). We also went on a guided hike in the national park itself, during which we saw a troupe of golden bamboo lemurs and a single, critically-endangered greater bamboo lemur (there are only four in the park; our guide kept repeating how lucky we were to have found one), and trekked to a waterfall in the forest. Another waterfall nearby has a hydroelectric installation, so we hiked there and toured the facility, which produces about 5.6 MW for the surrounding towns and the cities of Fianarantsoa and Ambalavao.

I was also here for the Fourth. It wasn’t quite the same as a cookout back home, but we celebrated properly with a hearty lunch of beer, barbeque beef, and fries. That night, Eileen, the director of Valbio Center, a world-class research facility close to the park entrance, had us and her American and Malagasy coworkers over for drinks. Afterward, we walked to the nearby Hotel Manja for dinner. The food was great, the company better. It was a particular and unexpected honor to meet and talk with Dr. Pat Wright, a famous primatologist who discovered the golden bamboo lemur here in 1986 and was the driving force behind the creation of Ranomafana National Park. This area has become a model for conservation and sustainable development, largely because of her dedication and force of will. The few stories she shared were entertaining and encouraging, and I hope our paths cross again in the future.

I also talked at length with Eileen and Pascal, a Malagasy researcher, about work they’re doing in the Vondrozo Corridor (my neighborhood) to train local VOIs and other forest villagers in conservation monitoring techniques. They should be making a trip down later this month and are scheduled to come back in August with a team from National Geographic.

Needless to say, I’m hoping to tag along.

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