Sunday, April 28, 2013

44th day, Toliara - Lazing on a Sunday...

A perfect Sunday in Toliara, starting with a visit of the ethnological museum. Once again, it’s good to have contacts – as I normally work during the museum’s opening hours, Delphin, who is a cousin of our lovely WWF driver Robert, has offered to give me a guided tour on a Sunday. So it happens that I spend about 1 ½ hours at the museum, which consists of one (!) single room, packed with ceramics, replicas of tombs, crafts and yellowed photographs on the walls. My interest in learning more about the ethnic groups living here in the South, and Delphin’s enthusiasm for his subject, make time pass fast. For the umpteenth times, I am trying to put myself into the perspective of a woman living in a southern Malagasy village. Getting married at 12, to then give birth to 8 to 13 children?! I learn that the architecture of the houses has remained the same over the last few centuries – as have so many other aspects of rural Malagasy life.

Afterwards, I don’t feel like going home, but take an extended tour of Toliara, even though the midday sun is boiling. Once and again, I am blown away by the effervescent liveliness of this town, the armies of pousse-pousses (rickshaws) hovering the streets, the multitude of fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants, live animals, pirated dvds and body care products for sale in the market and the many people populating the streets. The squeaking of bicycle breaks, discussions in Malagasy, the smell of chicken poo and grilled zebu skewers, impressions flying by, as I focus my attention on the road to avoid the potholes with my bike. I buy another specimen of the most gorgeous avocados I have eaten anywhere, and make a new friend in the market. 

After an extended “sieste” (nothing moves here between 12 and 2), a swim and a meal of sambos and bananas, I can’t ignore the sound of drums and trumpets from the festival grounds – it’s time for the monthly spectacle of “Bel Avenir”, a local NGO. They work with kids and young adults, and every last Sunday of the month, the brass band, percussion, capoeira and circus troops make the streets of Toliara their stage, paralyzing traffic, and having pedestrians stop and smile.

Friday, April 26, 2013

42nd day, Toliara - Germans, eat German bananas (K. Tucholsky)!

Here’s the challenge: Cooking a typical German dish with ingredients found in Madagascar, for 6 people, on a single camping cooker stove, all by myself! Well, my guests didn’t have any major complaints. I must admit though, that I cheated with the dessert: flamb├ęd bananas will not pass as German.

Monday, April 22, 2013

38th day, Toliara - Speleolo...whatever

Working in an organization like WWF, in a country like Madagascar, not only allows me to meet endemic animals, but also interesting people:

Today, I helped a cave researcher (or speleologist, if you want to sound smart) editing some of his maps.
He had been sent on a mission to Tsimanampesotse National Park to explore the potential for touristic exploitation of the park's extensive cave and grotto system. He spent about 1 month wandering the park by himself, frequently roping down to the bottom of a cave, 20, 50 or 100 meters below the entrance, drinking water from rivers, lakes, wells, wherever he would find some. The gentleman is 70 years old.
Cave maps often are small pieces of art, sometimes look like the head of a bird or a treasure island map, and often are labelled with terms such as "bats", "tortoise carcass" or "blind fish" to highlight special features of the particular cave.
Clearly belonging to the "old school" of his trait, he would draw all his maps by hand, and we then scanned them. When he wasn't sure about the scale of a drawing, he would hold the ruler to the computer screen to measure the dimensions.
I was amused when he said at 6 pm that we can stop for today, so as not to violate the trade union working hours - I bit my tongue not to ask if speleologists have their own trade union.
Tomorrow I will ask him how many people have called him "cave man" to his face.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

33rd day, Toliara - Back at the office, back to smiling

After the last week with the patrol in Tsimanampesotse NP left me contemplative on the challenges of aligning nature conservation and people's livelihoods, it is uplifting to find that there are good news as well:
Back at the office, I am continuing the hours and hours of analysing aerial photographs. As I finally finish looking through the pictures taken in 2011 and 2012 in the Onilahy protected area, the comparison between both years shows a decrease of the clearings that exceeds 50%!

While nobody can say for sure whether this effect is entirely due to the aerial surveillance (but actually the answer to this question doesn't really matter either, as long as the situation is improving), and the question remains what the local people are eating instead, figures like this still are a reason for hope.
For us working in conservation, where you quickly get used to being on the losing side, these rays of sunlight between the clouds are what keeps us from becoming depressed, cynical or indifferent. At least that is the attitude that I have decided to adopt for myself, and I hope I will be able to maintain it for many years to come still.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

27th day, Itampolo (Tsimanampesotse NP) - Harsh realities

Among all the possible reasons why people laugh, one is fear.
The middle-aged man, dressed in ragged clothes, starts to laugh as we show him the aerial photos, evidence of the clearings of which he must have been the initiator.
The visits to the villages during the patrols always follow the same principle: After a few words of greeting, either the park manager or a local authority explains why we are here and what we are doing with the aerial surveillance. They then show the pictures to the villagers, asking them who has caused these clearings. The villagers will never admit that it has been them at this point of the ritual. They then are asked to follow us as we lead them to the clearing, using its GPS coordinates which we know thanks to the analysis of the photos.
As we get to the clearing, the man is no longer laughing. More than ever, I wish I could push a button my head that would instantly enable me to understand Malagasy. As it is, I don't understand the discussion that follows, neither the justifications and explanations, nor the replies that the park manager gives with a serious face. I am dependent on a quick summary that my WWF colleague provides me at the end.
The man in the end admits that the clearing belongs to his family. The people usually claim that they are not aware of the illegality of slash-and-burn agriculture. While this is a sure lie in all cases, it is also sure that, like any other human being, they are just trying to survive.

We have found clear answers to the need to protect this country's incredibly rich and unique natural resources, but the question about alternatives for the people is not answered as easily. I have vaguely heard about WWF projects dealing with the development of more sustainable land use concepts and education, such as regarding the use of fertilizers to allow for the land being used for more than just 2 to 3 years after the clearing. Yet, after the superficial and limited insight I have so far, the challenges that poverty, centuries-old traditions and customs represent, seem almost insurmountable to me.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

25th day, Itampolo - We call it work...

Lying on my back in the sand in front of my little bungalow, gazing at millions of stars and listening to the sound of the waves.
Oh, right...I am here for work. That's easy to forget in this picture perfect vacation setting. But tomorrow morning at 5, we will leave for a patrol in Tsimanampesotse National Park. Visiting temporary settlements in the forest, we will talk to the people who have conducted "hatsake", slash-and-burn agriculture. Then, we will lead them to the parcels they have burned, and which we have located on the aerial photos.
We - that is, representatives of WWF, Madagascar National Parks and the local village authorities. Generally, there are no further consequences that the authors of "hatsake" have to suffer afterwards - law enforcement is weak in this country with a virtually non-existing government. But apparently, the knowledge of being observed is enough to make the number and area of new clearings go down from year to year. Fortunately. It doesn't take more than one look at the villagers in their torn clothes, in front of their wobbly shacks, to understand that the sight of a GPS device and the thought of an airplane surveilling their activities must seem like pure whichcraft to them, giving them a sufficient scare to prevent them from further burning forest.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

22nd day, Mangily - Long live public transport!

I felt inspired to compare public transport in the last 2 countries I have lived in –
Swiss trains versus Malagasy taxi brousses (bush taxi):

Approximate distance travelled for 5 €:
5 km versus 100 km
Passenger entertainment:
Smart phone/Ipad/Laptop versus cheerful pop music at top volume
+- 30 seconds of indicated time versus + ½ hours to 4 hours of indicated time
Likelihood of breakdowns:
0.048 % versus 48 %
Time needed to travel 20 km:
10 minutes versus 2-5 hours (depending on breakdowns)
Additional charges:
100 CHF if caught without ticket versus ca. double the regular price because of vazaha (foreigner) abuse
Non-human passengers:
Dogs, of course with leash and muzzle versus chickens, possibly goats
Views of scenery:
Magnificent versus stunning

I’d say it’s a clear tie!