Read it here! Or download the file below.
Read it here! Or download the file below.
Greetings all! I write these words from the Hotel Ambanidia in Antananarivo, my last stop before flying back home. This blog chronicles my last week in Madagascar, and my reflections on the amazing conservation work I have been honored to take part in. I have taken this opportunity to expand the scope of my writing, from chronicling my day-to-day activities to offering a summary and reflection on the full impact and importance of MBP’s work in the Kianjavato Commune. Thanks for reading!
Wednesday through Sunday: My Last Days at KAFS
On the morning of Wednesday, October 9th, I accompanied Sam II to my penultimate planting event, on a hill near the nursery of Ambodibonary (ABB). Although ABB was one of the closest nurseries to KAFS, I had never attended a planting event in that area before. Our planting site, like all of our pioneer species planting sites, was mostly scrubby roranga (scrubby, fern-dominated grassland, with very few nutrients left in the soil, what’s left after a piece of land has been under slash-and-burn farming for far too long). It was a great satisfaction to me to know that our hardworking acacia and bonary mena seedlings would be enriching this land for years to come, making it more and more fertile with every day they fixed nitrogen from the atmosphere. Furthermore, I was pleased to note some strong young acacias just at the edge of our planting site, planted by MBP just a few years ago and already doing their jobs. Beyond that, in the distance, the eye noted some lovely rolling hills clothed in savoka (secondary rainforest beginning to grow back after one or two spells of slash-and-burn farming, i.e. on land not so degraded as roranga). As is often the case in Kianjavato, the savoka was dominated by two species: ravenala and bamboo, those omnipresent pioneers indicating unused farmland working through the long process of growing back into forest. It looked like good Prolemur simus habitat, and I happened to know that it was: there were two named varibolomavo, Artemis and Hera, that had been observed around Ambodibonary.
The planting event itself was one of the quickest I had ever encountered, as perhaps twice the normal number of workers had arrived from the local association. They moved through the planting site with incredible speed and efficiency, to the point that the two Sams present had time to plant no more than one seedling each before all three thousand had been planted! After handling the normal administrative matters of writing down names and Conservation Credit Reward program numbers, we walked down to Ambodibonary village by the roadside and waited for one of our coworkers to finish taking the GPS coordinates of the newly planted trees. For the next thirty minutes or so, we watched a group of kids playing a game of football (global football, what Americans call soccer). They were fortunate among local children in that they had a real soccer ball to play with: though it was a bit threadbare, it was certainly superior to the bound-together spheres of rags and trash which are the most common soccer balls in the Kianjavato area. It appeared to be girls vs. boys, and we watched and cheered indiscriminately as both sides struggled for possession, made great saves, and occasionally brought off impressively bombastic goals, the ball whizzing through the two rocks that formed the goal line and bouncing off the sides of bamboo and wood houses. The kids knew their stuff, too, doing formal penalty kicks and other complex rules and maneuvers that I didn’t recognize, but that my companion, from a more football-conscious country, was intimately familiar with. Sam and I absolutely loved watching them, and we determined to offer them our water. The children were so shy and self-effacing that they shook their heads politely to inquiries of “Mangetaheta ianao ve?” (Are you thirsty). Knowing that they must be, after such play in the sun, I had to practically shove my two water bottles into their hands before they accepted. Once they did, they drank eagerly, sharing the bottles equally among all players with the egalitarian spirit that I have observed to be a national characteristic. I reflected that football was truly a global game, played everywhere from the fields American elementary schools to high-octane international European championships to villages by the side of the dusty road in rural Madagascar.
That afternoon, a milestone came which I had been both looking forward to and dreading-my last English class, the end of weeks and weeks of one of the most rewarding projects I have ever undertaken. We had had a sort of exam that Monday, and so I decided that this class would have more of a party atmosphere. To that end, I bought twelve of the delicious madeleine-like muffins made by the bakery at the (proprietor, the awesome Madame Hanitra) and distributed them among my students and myself. We focused on the word “afaka,” a rough counterpart to “can” or “may,” and made an abundance of sentences out of it, from “Afaka mandeha Kianjavato rahampitso isika?” (Can we go to Kianjavato tomorrow?) to “Afaka mahita ny gidro izy ireo ve androany?” (Can they see the lemurs today?). In the last few minutes of the class, I formally introduced Sam II, who had with great kindness volunteered to continue my Basic English classes on Mondays during his stay at KAFS. Previously, I was the only one able to teach Basic English as I was the only volunteer who spoke Malagasy, but Sam II is learning Malagasy rapidly, and my students now speak and understand a good deal of English. I’m certain that they’ll have a great learning experience together. Overall, I have immensely enjoyed teaching English, and I feel and hope that I have left a lasting positive impact on my students’ lives by equipping them with the conversational basics. I am very glad that these classes will be able to continue in my absence.
Thursday was a milestone day for me: the last day I would be joining the Prolemur simus team, the last day I would go to Sangasanga, and the last day (on this trip, at least!) that I would see a lemur in the wild. Claire, Kate, and I joined Mamy and Rasolo for a survey of the five studied groups in Sangasanga Forest. It was a beautiful journey, a final tour to view these incredible creatures in the wild. I feel at this point, there is little I can write about the greater bamboo lemur that does not reiterate what I have covered before. They were beautiful. They leaped through the bamboo and branches with sublime grace, seemingly embodying the forest around them like dryads breaking through to reality. The knowledge that there were only a few hundred left in the world made me give thanks for the incredible privilege I have had in working with them and contributing in some little way to the efforts to protect their best remaining population strongholds. I feel I would do almost anything in my power to keep Prolemur simus in the world, and if MBP or any other group is ever in truly desperate need of assistance to save the species, I will be there.
Once I returned to KAFS, there was literally no work for me to do: all the new volunteers had settled into their teams perfectly, leaving the old cohort to spend the last few days at the research station with an unaccustomedly high degree of leisure. In the early afternoon, I decided to assist the single moms in their tasks at the KAFS nurseries. I spent a pleasant hour or so with five of them sorting through compost and soil that were soon to be the growth matrix for seedlings, removing stray rocks and bits of plastic that would take up space but provide no nutrients. It was simple, meditative work, and a good opportunity to practice my Malagasy. I realized to my pleasant surprise that I could carry on a fairly simple conversation even with interlocutors who spoke no English at all, and moreover convey complicated concepts like “Malahelo aho noho handeha alahady izahay, faly noho hahita fianakaviana aho” (I’m sad because we’re leaving Sunday, but I’m happy because I will see my family).
Later that afternoon, I had my last one-on-one tutoring session: English irregular verbs with Herman, an aye-aye team employee and my old companion of the all-night follow. Herman knew most of them already, even the illogically difficult ones like “slept” for sleep and “drank” or “drunk” for “drink”. I complemented him on his memory and intelligence, and we said goodbye. There were far too many goodbyes in these last few days at KAFS, and I shall not dwell overmuch on them, except to say that I have taken my leave at KAFS of many extraordinary people, who I have been honored to work with and who I shall always remember.
On Friday morning, I attended my last planting event, with Sam II and Dakota on a hill near the nursery of ATB. It was a great one to end on: there was a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside, the event went slowly so we all got a chance to plant a lot of trees, and I happened to run into Lidada, one of the aye-aye team members, and say farewell to him. It was a very hot day, and I noted to myself that in the age of climate change, the spring and summer days would likely be hotter still in the future. The trees we were planting would help with that, both providing shade and cooling the surrounding area by releasing water vapor through the stomata in their leaves, a process known as evapotranspiration. Around the world, planting trees is one of the best possible ways to respond to climate change: not only does it help sequester some carbon, it helps local humans and wildlife adapt to warmer temperatures.
That afternoon, I had a most pleasant and completely unexpected visit. Three of my former English students, Fabrice, Matthieu, and Innocent (although Innocent speaks English so well she’s really more like a co-teacher), arrived at KAFS specifically to thank me for my work in teaching over the last few months. They brought as gifts for me some chips, cookies, soda, and juice, as well as a hat of the local Tanala design. Touched to the heart by their gratitude and kindness, I of course insisted that we share all the food among ourselves. For the next hour or so, we did just that, eating, laughing together, offering some of our snack food largesse to passersby, and taking advantage of the fortuitously strong local Internet connection to play and sing along to some Bob Marley and Shania Twain songs. It was an absolutely lovely little party. I said farewell to them all that day, but I shall always remember their kindness.
In the evening, I was called over to the edge of the dining hall to see a site somewhat rare even in the wildlife-blessed lands of the Kianjavato Commune. Not one but two lowland streaked tenrecs, both positively tiny compared to the adults I had seen earlier, were rootling around in the leaf litter by the dining hall. They were exactly the same size, and given their apparent friendliness, we determined they must be from the same litter, tenrec twins (jumeaux in French, kandana in Malagasy). As I stared at them digging for their invertebrate food, I reflected on the ancient ancestry of tenrecs, their deep ties to ancient lineages of insectivorous mammals. Humanity’s ancestors had been insectivorous little shrew-like mammals like that once, back in the Mesozoic when dinosaurs ruled the earth. And fifty or so million years ago, in the Eocene period, fifteen million years after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, our ancestor was a prosimian creature that today might be classified as a lemur, perhaps something similar to the lemur-like fossil Hotharctos. In a way, Madagascar is even more than an alternate-world with its own unique life-forms: it’s a shadow of a lost world, a window into deep history, with tenrecs and lemurs reiterating, in a way, part of our own evolutionary past. (Pictured: one tenrec in the foreground in the right half of the image, the second dimly visible in the left half of the image).
Little occurred on Saturday: myself and my cohort-mates spent the day sleeping in, packing, and saying goodbye to the nexus of research, wildlife, human development, ecotourism, and adventure that is the Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station. That evening, we had a final going-away dinner, with Madame Hanitra baking us a specially ordered cake with all of our names on it. It was delicious. At the dinner, Fredo played “Fambolena Coco,” that leit-motif song of my sojourn, and I spontaneously got up and danced my heart out to it, to the great amusement of all my fellow diners. That evening, I also said goodbye to Romuald, my dear friend, the clever wit who had had me roaring with laughter many a time, and the hardworking companion of many happy days on the Reforestation team.
On Sunday morning, we awoke early, finished our last-minute packing, and said goodbye to the KAFS staff and remaining volunteers in a flurry of hugs and good wishes. I said goodbye to all the next cohort, Mack, Sam II, Kate, Nate, Ana, and Shannon, to Nicolas, the friendly visiting grad student, to Christine the cook and Haingo of the groundskeeping staff, and to Faranky, leader of the aye-aye team, my dear friend and leader of the night follow. Finally, I said goodbye to Fredo, the leader of KAFS, one of the most hardworking men I have ever known and a model of leadership who I hope to emulate in years to come. Soon after that, I said goodbye to Theoluc, who I had served as the assistant of for five weeks on the Simus team, and who has a profound passion to protect these incredible animals. The Malagasy leaders of MBP’s operations in KAFS are the true heroes of this story, the people who work every day to forge a better future for the humans and the lemurs of Kianjavato. The highest goal of my work during my volunteer placement was to be of service to them to the greatest extent possible.
The mood was melancholy as the MBP car spirited us away on the twelve-hour drive back to Antananarivo: we all knew that these three months had been a special time in our lives, that we had been working in a truly extraordinarily landscape, with wondrous animals and incredibly good and kind and passionate people, and that that time had now come to a close.
However, my mind was not entirely on what we had left behind. As my time in Madagascar draws to a close, I am thinking more and more of my own homeland, the forests and townships of Maine. G.K. Chesterton said that the object of travel was not to set foot on foreign land, but, at last, to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land. I will of course be extremely happy to see my wonderful family again, and I look forward intensely to that joyful reunion. In addition, I feel that upon my return, I shall see the landscape of my home state in a new light and appreciate to a new extent the marvels that had hitherto been part of the daily background. I daydream of red-winged blackbirds flying over cattail marshes, maple syrup with blueberry pancakes, the scent of snow on eastern white pines, the view over Casco Bay from Portland’s Eastern Promenade, the chatter of gray squirrels in white oaks, the great psychedelic kaleidoscope in orange, red, yellow, and gold that is a forest floor covered in fallen autumn leaves, and the thousand and one other things that make up the multisensory tapestry of Maine. I’m ready for new adventures back home in the Pine Tree State.
Kianjavato: An Imperiled Landscape on a Rising Road
Kianjavato Commune is to a profound extent a landscape in transition, with both the local ecosystem and the human population undergoing many changes. The human population, at least, is on the long road of development, beginning to emerge from the grinding poverty and want of a subsistence agriculture economy. A study published in 2018, coauthored by Dr. Edward Louis of MBP, Dr. Cortni Borgerson of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and several others, surveyed 1267 Kianjavato residents, including members of 336 households, to form a picture of the income, health, nutrition, and use of natural resources prevalent among members of this community. Their results were sobering. All households reported farming as their primary occupation. 47% of the population was sixteen years old or younger, indicating rapid population growth. 91% of the population relied on firewood for cooking, and 99.7%, all but one household, reported collecting traditional medicinal plants from the forest. The median income was 50,000 ariary, or US $21.74. Malnutrition was epidemic: more than half of households had malnourished kids, and a fifth had wasted kids (extremely malnourished to the point of greatly stunted growth). Sadly, I saw evidence of this on a daily basis during my stay at KAFS: many of the citizenry, especially children were extremely short and thin to the point of emaciation. Disturbingly, the study also found that 16% of the households reported obtaining meat by hunting forest animals, often illegally, such as tenrecs, bats, mouse lemurs, and, worst of all, eight Prolemur simus individuals. If the IUCN 2016 estimate of 500 Prolemur simus left in the world is correct, that’s 1.6% of the global population. Notably, this practice was statistically associated with the presence of underweight and wasted children, possibly indicating being driven to bushmeat out of sheer desperation.
The local ecology is also at a tipping point. There are four basic land types in Kianjavato Commune: agricultural and otherwise human-occupied land, such as rice paddies and houses, rainforest fragments, such as my old study areas of Sangasanga, Vatovavy, and Tsitola, and the two intermediate categories of savoka (secondary rainforest on degraded land) and roranga (grassland on extremely degraded land). The remaining forest fragments in the area host nine species of lemur, including the critically endangered Prolemur simus and Varecia variegata and the endangered aye-aye. These are treasures, that in a just world would result in Kianjavato receiving massive international aid simply to allow these unique creatures to live in peace. However, the forest fragments are small and encircled by savoka and roranga, and tavy (slash-and-burn farming) is ongoing, still chewing away at the forest. Given the expanding, hungry population of Kianjavato, it would be very easy for it to fall into the vicious cycle of unsustainable expansion, with the last bits of forest cut down piece by piece for tavy to feed the people and burned again and again until all the nutrients were gone from the soil, all the lemurs vanished from the land, and the community was left with a waste of roranga and increasingly unproductive farms. This very thing has happened many times in many other parts of Madagascar and the world, and might have already happened here, were it not for the tireless work of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership.
MBP’s work affects the Kianjavato Commune at every level. Starting with the lemurs, MBP’s amazing guides have obtained gainful employment that uses their incredible forest skills to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge on these uniquely Madagascan primates. They have become ambassadors for the species, working with the community to spread the word that lemurs are a valuable resource, present only here, and are more valuable alive than dead. Increasingly, the lemurs of Kianjavato are attracting scientists and tourists from around the world, opening the door to a historically highly lucrative new income stream for this desperately poor community. I’ve already seen a plethora of tourists come through KAFS, doubtless paying fees to support MBP’s conservation work (and thus, many local employees). Next year, Kianjavato will be listed in Bradt’s travel guide for Madagascar, perhaps opening the floodgates to a new age of ecotourism for the region, and new economic shields for the happily unknowing lemur groups peacefully living their lives in the forest glade. Already, Sangasanga and Vatovavy are unmolested by tavy or hunters, a truly astonishing achievement given their lack of legal protection and a testamented to the foresightedness of the community.
This would already be an amazing enough accomplishment, but MBP has a second major thrust of their mission, with immense value to the very land of Kianjavato itself: its reforestation program. With over two and a half million trees planted since 2012, and at least six thousand planted every Wednesday and Friday, MBP is growing a better future. Pioneer species like bonary menas and acacias are preventing erosion, cooling the landscape, fixing nitrogen to replenish the nutrients of the tavy-impoverished soil, and offering cover for animals. Forest species planted in the shade of grown-up pioneer species are the next stage in establishing a rainforest, and will form the canopy of the habitat for the next generation of lemurs. MBP’s long-term goal is to create a great network of forest corridors stretching from Tsitola through Sangasanga through KAFS to Vatovavy, across the Kianjavato Commune, a living green network of lemur habitat and ecosystem services-providing forest. In pursuit of this glorious goal, their (our!) planting events and nurseries provide a multitude of jobs, and nurture many other subsidiary programs: compost initiatives that spread the word of an alternative way to get nutrients for crops, commercial crops from coffee to cashews to chocolate grown in the MBP nurseries and sold to local farmers to diversify from rice and offer a new income stream, a Conservation Credits Reward program distributing helpful items like bicycles and fuel-efficient wood stoves to those who contribute by planting a given number of trees. And, of course, all of this tree-planting effort is not just a breathtakingly effective plan to restore the local ecosystem, it is a highly effective way of combating the greatest threat of our time, climate change. Each tree planted builds itself out of complex sugars obtained through photosynthesis from the base material of carbon dioxide drawn from the air, and millions of trees planted (and the associated changes in the soil) begin to make a substantial impact. Restoring tropical forests is widely known as one of the best ways humanity can work to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and begin to achieve a stable climate, and MBP is doing just that in an exemplary fashion.
Another far-reaching benefit of MBP’s involvement is the fact that it has brought, directly and indirectly, some degree of employment to hundreds of women in the Kianjavato Commune. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist and development expert Amartya Sen pointed out, empowering women, particularly through increasing women’s literacy rate and paid labor force participation rate (the latter of which MBP is doing) has profound and positive ripple effects in a society. Sen noted that women getting jobs didn’t just increase their own income, but, by giving them greater freedom of independent action, had been shown to reduce childhood mortality rates as well as the average number of children per women. As both of these factors are extremely important for a society to reach a high standard of living, Sen wrote that “Nothing, arguably, is as important today in the political economy of development as an adequate recognition of political, economic, and social participation and leadership of women.” From the single moms working half-day shifts at the nurseries, to Innocent’s Fikambanam-Behivavy association weaving baskets and hats for sale to tourists brought in by the lemurs, to the hundreds of local women across the commune who earn extra money for themselves and their kids by taking part in planting events, MBP is opening up new freedoms for the women who will build their communities' future.
In sum, the work of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership in the Kianjavato Commune directly addresses many of the most important issues on Earth today. MBP and its leaders, staff, volunteers, and day laborers are working to protect critically endangered species, restore highly biodiverse tropical forest habitat, replenish the nutrients of degraded land, build an ecotourism revenue stream for the future offer jobs to the citizenry of an impoverished village, empower the women of a still-patriarchal society, and combat climate change through carbon sequestration-and all at the very same time, with each positive effect dovetailing beautifully with all the others. Even though I feel ready and indeed excited to return to Maine, I will forever treasure these three months at KAFS, where I was a volunteer research assistant participating, in a strong way, in an enterprise as noble and as important as any other in the world. I shall not always be in Madagascar, but Madagascar will always be with me.
Read it here! Or download the file below:
Read it here! Or download the file below:
I'm Sam Matey, an environmental scientist and University of Southern Maine graduate. I founded The Weekly Anthropocene because I believe the world needs a succinct, accessible rundown of environmental news.