Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Good Leaves

In Malagasy, ravina means leaves, and tsara means good. Taken together, you get ravintsara—literally, the good leaves. Back to this later.

In a post from last October, I recounted the figurative kick in the groin I received while attempting to lead my first solo trainings in the field. Improved cookstove buiding was the topic I’d selected, even though the initial community socioeconomic survey legwork I'd done hadn't indicated that firewood scarcity, smoke inhalation-related health problems, or cooking time were priority issues for local people. Why’d I pick it? Well, it was a simple, straightforward enough thing to teach; the necessary materials were readily available; I felt confident enough with the vocabulary to be used; and the benefits, I thought, would be easy to discern.

The kicker came as I was trying to organize a session with VOI members in Ankazomaneno, a village to the south of Vondrozo. I’d sent prior word that I was coming, but the VOI president was in the forest looking for precious stones, so nothing had been arranged before I arrived. Regardless, I told the folks I was staying with that I could still build a cookstove with whoever was available. One of the members smirked a bit, took me aside, and said:

"Mila sakafo iahay. Mila vola. Tsy mila fata mitsitsy." We need food. We need money. We don’t need cookstoves.

It was hard to hear at the time, but I’m certainly glad he said it, because it left an indelible impression on me--and taught me perhaps the most important lesson I've learned about development work to date. If community members don't understand what you're doing as an effective response to a recognized need, they're very unlikely to engage with you, get involved, and take your (and their) work seriously.

Case in point: October is the height of the dry, hungry season in southeast Madagascar. And there I was, essentially saying: “Don’t have enough rice to fill your kids bellies? Well, here’s a cookstove!” Project and priorities—mismatched. So taking his words to heart, I began to look for ways to orient my work around the two issues he’d mentioned: food and money. What I eventually came up with—thanks to much collaboration with WWF and local VOI leaders—were two tree-planting projects that will likely be the meat of my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The first is with moringa (Moringa oleifera), a species that has stupidly nutritious leaves. In Survival and Subsistence in the Tropics, Frank Martin refers to moringa leaves as “one of the best plant foods that can be found.” Thanks to constant repetition from VOI meetings and other encounters, I’ve got the stats down pat: seven times the vitamin C of an orange; twice the calcium of milk; four times the protein of yogurt; three times the potassium of a banana; and four times the vitamin A of a carrot. The first folder of information I got handed on Vondrozo after site placement included several documents that identified southeast Madagascar as a high-priority intervention area for many NGOs and government agencies due to two paradoxical factors: favorable agricultural conditions and high rates of chronic malnutrition. As I reflected on project ideas for improving community and environmental health, permagardens were what initially jumped to mind. But gardens are labor- and water-intensive, require constant upkeep and seasonal planting, and usually involve the introduction of many new types of plant/food, which can considerably hinder adoption.

Enter moringa. When I was up in Antalaha last December, Marie-Helene—a successful Chinese-Malagasy businesswoman and former PCV Annah’s counterpart—joked with us that she’d have to shut her pharmacy’s doors if everyone in town started eating moringa. Moreover, moringa cultivation circumvents many of the problems gardens pose: it's simple to plant, requires little care, is a hardy survivor, produces constantly, and packs a nutritional punch that no other single vegetable species (in my available arsenal, at least) can match. I decided to buy a kilo of seed while passing through Tana in March, discussed the idea of a moringa "reforestation" project with WWF, and received a remarkably enthusiastic response from VOI members. Just like that, we were off and running.

I’ve now trained members of seven different VOIs in moringa nursery building, maintenance, and transplanting. So far, the total number of potting bags filled and seeded is nearing 6,000, and I’ll do a formal count of trees planted after the next round of transplanting trainings. My goal is to have 15,000 saplings in the ground by close of service. In a great stroke of luck, I recently got word that the project is being endorsed and funded by the $10 Club (an association of RPCVs and others who give small grants to support PCV projects). Special thanks to Crystal Thompson for that one.

The second tree-planting operation I’ve got going is with is with ravintsara (Cinnamomum camphora), a species in the camphor family whose leaves can be used to manufacture a high-retailing essential oil. Ravintsara (“good leaves”…remember?) is wildly popular in Madagascar these days; indeed it’s the one tree species that just about anyone and everyone is falling over themselves to get a hold of, making seed absurdly expensive (about $90 per kapoaka/cup). But the opportunity for a significant return on investment is real—a kilogram of ravintsara essential oil currently sells for just over the equivalent of $100 in Madagascar (and even more abroad)—and thanks to the generosity of friends and family (and friends of friends and family) back in America, as well as incredible logistical and financial support from WWF Madagascar, we were able to lock down 30 kapoaka/cups for nursery building with four targeted VOIs. The first-stage nurseries have now been built, the seed has been sown, and initial reports regarding germination rates have been encouraging.

On a quick aside: I probably solicited most if not all of the people reading this blog for donations through the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) in support of the ravintsara project, so let me say once again: THANK YOU! I was utterly blown away by your willingness to help, and I promise a fuller update on our progress soon.

The overarching idea with both the moringa and ravintsara projects is that VOI members learn to build and maintain tree nurseries and transplant trees; reforestation helps improve the local environment in a myriad of ways; and local people have a new, highly nutritious source of food, or a novel source of income from the sale of tree products. Food and money.

And that VOI member from Ankazomaneno who clued me in? He just proudly showed me a nursery of 200 moringa saplings his groupement planted on their own after one of my recent trainings. Seven times the vitamin C of an orange; twice the calcium of milk; four times the protein of yogurt...

Well, I’d say those are some pretty damn good leaves, too.