Anna Ikonen, a master’s student in Development Studies at the University of Helsinki, volunteered with the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation and Association Mitsinjo for 1,5 months in 2015. She participated in the project’s monitoring trip, collected data for her Master’s Thesis and assisted Mitsinjo’s work in Andasibe.
I did not really know what to expect when I signed up for the trip, except that it was not going to be a holiday. Reality soon proved that expectation to be right. We landed to Madagascar on Easter Monday, which was a public holiday. The citizens of Antananarivo were celebrating the day with picnics all around. Shops were closed and everyone was having a good time with their families. There were so many people out and about that it was really clear that Antananarivo is a big city. The next day all the people had vanished, to get on with their daily work somewhere within the vast city’s winding roads and alleyways. That did not make the traffic disappear however, it only returned to its normal, occasionally crawling pace.
It was also time for us to get to work, so we met the local coordinator Angela Tarimy in her office. Most of the day was spent catching up with everything that had happened and was going on at the moment, and also on planning the next two weeks and the goals of the trip. We also met Angela’s new assistant Anatolie, who would be keeping things running at the office while Angela travels to meetings and trainings.
Andasibe, getting to work
On the way to the project area, the village of Andasibe, it was interesting to see the countryside of Madagascar for the first time. Everything was green and tidy, and the villages that we passed were fairly simple, just rows of houses next to each other, with people along the side of the road selling fruit and charcoal. As for the road itself, it was in good condition, but full of twists and turns through the mountainous terrain. After three hours of sitting in a car we arrived in Andasibe. We settled in to a hotel outside the town, but within walking distance of Mitsinjo’s office and the forest.
We got to work by going to Mitsinjo’s office in the morning, and catching up with the key members of the team. There were several things on the agenda, the most pressing ones being the Torotorofotsy wetland area protection application, and the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA) officers’ visit to Andasibe. We spent the whole day pretty much on planning. The next day we had meeting about Torotorofotsy with the mayor of Andasibe, and in Moramanga, a bigger town nearby, we met the person responsible for protected areas in the district. Things were starting to move ahead on that front. On Saturday we spent the day in Mitsinjo’s office, preparing for a meeting on Monday, to which many Torotorofotsy stakeholders and Finnish MFA’s were invited.
Time off, with important guests
Sunday morning we went to the forest to see Indris (the lemurs), and to take as many pictures as we could. Our guide knew where a particular indri family liked to hang out, and we found them quite quickly. At first they kept to themselves, high up in the trees, but after we patiently waited for a while, a curious one came to take a closer look at us and the leaves that our guide had in his hand. The indri stayed close as long as our guide had some delicious leaves left, but when it had eaten all of them it decided to continue on its way, leaping away and quickly vanishing into the tree tops.
I spent Sunday afternoon reading and waiting for the Finnish MFA officers to arrive. When they came, they spent a good couple of hours with us just discussing our project, their trip, and the situation in Madagascar. They also briefly met the key staff members of Mitsinjo, who came to say hello to them. Because there were no special plans for the Sunday evening, Jean Noël, the president of Mitsinjo, suggested that the MFA ladies could go on a night hike in the Mitsinjo forest. I decided to accompany the MFA ladies on the hike, so I got to visit the forest twice in one day. Night was totally different than day, with the forest pitch black and frogs creating most of the sound in the night. We saw tiny chameleons and frogs and, just at the end of our hike, one nocturnal lemur staring at us with his big eyes.
Co-operation with the local authorities
Monday was an important day. A lot of people from different organizations gathered to Mitsinjo office to hear about the work that is done there. Local and regional forest authorities were present, along with regional Tankalamena (traditional leader), local partners from different associations, and local police and MFA officers. Part of the day’s program was a visit to the tree nursery, where Youssouf explained the functions of a tree nursery, after which each visitor got to choose a seedling that they wanted to plant. We moved to the reforestation site nearby, where everyone got to plant their own tree with the help of Mitsinjo’s reforestation team. The guests seemed to enjoy the tree planting activity, and it was a very practical way to show what Mitsinjo as an association is about. We returned to the office to have lunch together and the day ended with Titta, the Coordinator from the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, briefly presenting what the organization and the Manondroala project were. Youssouf, the vice-president of Mitsinjo and the tree nursery responsible of the project, finished it all off by entertaining the guests with stories of his adventures in Finland as a project volunteer. I believe that the day was a success and all the people invited were really eager to move forward with the protection of Torotorofotsy.
Next day we had a meeting in Antananarivo at the Ministry of Environment regarding the protection of Torotorofotsy wetland. The ministry gave us a list of activities and steps that are still required, but to speed up the process we are at least allowed to do some of the things in a slightly simplified manner. The meeting was good, but it did not change the fact that a lot still needs to be done before Torotoroforsy can receive an actual national protected area status.
First impressions after two weeks
The first two weeks in Madagascar with Titta were a very nice way to get accustomed to the country and the people. Afterwards I realized that I had a bit of a culture shock when I first arrived, but fortunately I managed to shake it off quite soon. I think the most valuable lessons that I learned in the first two weeks were about the actual work involved in development cooperation; It requires patience, flexibility, and also certain assertiveness at times.
The best part of the trip was all the amazing people that I was lucky enough to meet. The whole trip was an experience that I will certainly remember for a long, long time.
– Anna Ikonen