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.