The Challenges of Life in a Malagasy Village

This is the second blog in a three-part series from Rachel Neugarten’s recent visit to Madagascar. Read part one.
I bumped along in the backseat of a four-wheel drive Toyota pickup truck, along a road that was no more than a sandy track. Outside, arid scrub land flew by, punctuated by the occasional fat Pachypodium tree with white flowers and large, heavy pods. Black birds with long, ragged tails and wispy mohawks flew ahead of us, and occasionally zebu (humped cattle) would lazily watch us pass from a shady spot beneath the brush.
I had been in Madagascar for a week, sitting in offices and meeting rooms, getting to know our local staff and partners. This was my first trip to the field, and I was accompanied by two CI staff. Ismaela Ramanantoanina, tall and talkative, wore brightly patterned shirts and spoke so clearly that even with my grade-school French I could mostly understand him. Patrick Jomazandry (Joma) was a small-framed field agent who spoke so fast I could never keep up.
Both were from the region we were visiting, Antsiranana, on Madagascar’s far northeastern tip. We were headed to the nearby Ambodivahibe Marine Reserve.
Two Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) inventories have turned up globally significant biodiversity in the bay, including coral reefs, mangroves, sea turtles and critically endangered species of fish. Currently, CI staff are working closely with the four villages that surround the bay to establish a system of locally managed marine areas (LMMAs), through which management and enforcement of the protected area will ultimately be in the hands of the communities. (Learn more in part three of this series.)
By the time we had reached the first village, Ambavarano, we had been on the road for over an hour, although the distance is not far as the crow flies. The entire village was there to greet me, including their president, Justin, who wore a CI cap.
The villagers led me past wood and thatch houses to a brand new building with a cement floor and aluminum roof, which was financed by CI as a community meeting space. They showed me the large wooden boat that CI had provided to help them patrol the protected area, and for fishing and transportation. I also saw a new well and pump that CI had installed, which flowed with clear water, and the murky pit that used to be the town’s water source.
My hosts also showed me chickens that CI had provided to help supplement household income. A woman was seated on the ground, smashing two pieces of termite nest together, while a flock of chicks roiled beneath her, eating the insects as they fell.
The community then arrayed themselves before me, and I was given the opportunity to ask questions.
In halting French, that Ismaela then patiently translated into Malagasy, I tried to explain that I was a scientist from CI in Washington, D.C.  I told them that I was in Madagascar to try to understand the relationship between nature and people, in order to make a national-scale map of places important for ecosystem services. They listened politely, but I realized it all sounded pretty abstract.
I tried to ask some questions that might support mapping, about how large their village was, and where they got the materials from for building their homes, but my questions seemed absurd. One only had to look around to see that everything came from their immediate surroundings.
So I tried a new tactic. I asked them about food. Did they have enough to eat? Well, they said, they had food, but not enough to make them feel full. What about water? Thanks to CI, they had the new well and pump for drinking water, but it hasn’t rained in over a year, so there is no water for planting rice, manioc, corn or other staples they usually relied on between fishing seasons.
Was there a doctor? No, the nearest doctor was an hour away in Antsiranana by car, and no one had a car. The people suffered from diarrhea, fevers and coughs. My heart went out to them, having myself recently experienced the joys of food-borne illness — though in my case, with modern plumbing and medicine to help.
What other problems were they facing? Now they really got going. They don’t have electricity, so they cannot refrigerate their fish for sale. The nearest market is 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) away, so the villagers must get up at midnight to walk or bicycle there. The only purchaser who is willing to travel to the villages gives them a low price.
One gentleman shyly explained to me, in French, that he knows how to read and would like to start a school in their new community building, but there were no blackboards, no chairs for the students, no materials save a single French dictionary.
The challenges went on and on. As we began our journey to the next village, I wondered whether CI’s work could ever begin to solve such enormous conservation and development problems.
Rachel Neugarten is the manager for conservation priority setting in CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans. This is the second blog in a three-part series; read part one or continue on to part three.