Helsinki-based journalist Fran Weaver visited Madagascar in autumn 2012 to investigate Finnish-funded environmental and development projects including FANC’s Manondroala Project – and to fulfil his dream to see lemurs in the wild!
“Madagascar” is one of those places whose name immediately conjures up a sense of exoticism and unique natural beauty. So of course I jumped at the chance to visit and write about a couple of environmental and development projects in this remote land – until now familiar only from old pirate stories, David Attenborough’s delightful documentaries, and crazy 3D cartoons.
As a nature-lover I was already aware of the country’s unique lemurs, but after starting to read up for my Mad adventure I soon learnt that almost every creature you encounter there can be found nowhere else. I also found out about the serious deforestation and soil erosion problems that afflict the country and its impoverished people.
Already flying into the capital Antananarivo you look over a landscape scarred with erosion gullies exposing the red tropical soil, and dotted with plumes of smoke where local farmers are burning harvested fields or scrubland and forest to create new fields for temporary cultivation. It was shocking to read quotes from astronauts orbiting the Earth who reported that the huge island of Madagascar appears to be bleeding to death as its red soils are washed into the Indian Ocean.
FANC’s Manondroala project aims to map Madagascar’s precious remaining natural forest habitats and replant native tree species in green corridors between their scattered fragments.
We particularly visited the project’s forests around Andasibe, three hours east of Antananarivo, to see reforestation sites and a native tree nursery located in the vicinity of a cluster of nature reserves that are amazingly rich in wildlife.
Though the project activities felt small-scale in such a massive country with such huge deforestation problems, to grow a mighty tree you need a tiny acorn (or should that be a tiny Malagasy rosewood tree seed).
In the nearby nature reserve we were thrilled to encounter beautiful and exotic animals from black and white indris – the largest surviving lemur species – to spooky primeval-looking leaf-tailed geckos and chameleons. The nature guides who work for FANC’s local partner organisation Mitsinjo are incredibly skilled when it comes to spotting creatures whose evolution has made camouflage into a fine art.
In Madagascar it was impossible not to be struck by the warmth and happiness of the Malagasy people, even though many of them live in appalling poverty. It sometimes feels as if visitors and organisations from rich western countries are more concerned about the country’s primitive primates than the members of our own species who live there. But we also visited another project that focuses on helping people who have suffered after losing the opportunity to use natural resources from forests now closed off to them for the purposes of nature conservation.
After crossing a ramshackle bridge over a raging river and traipsing for two miles along a muddy path through banana groves and rice fields, we reached the village of Andafy atsimo – a cluster of humble mud-brick houses just outside the Ranomafana National Park, apparently populated by hordes of lively children. Villagers here are being helped to earn new income from activities such as beekeeping, and to grow new crops that will make their diet healthier. The Tany Maitso (Green Land) project receives Finnish funding through the non-governmental organisation Dodo. It also aims to improve literacy and empower local women.
The villagers welcomed us warmly and were happy to talk about their lives and how the project has helped them. Such initiatives also help towards nature conservation goals by making local people feel more positive towards designated protected areas. It’s vital not to neglect the interests of local people in nature conservation schemes.
The communities around Andasibe and Ranomafana also clearly benefit from increasing nature tourism through jobs (as nature guides and hotel staff) and income (from the sale of local foods, handicrafts and souvenirs).
The projects and the beautiful forests that we visited in Madagascar gave us a glimmer of hope that this unique country’s rapidly vanishing natural treasures can be preserved to the benefit of local people, as well as visitors from faraway lands.