A guest article by
Aili Pyhälä

It is the 18th day of our expedition*, and the time has come for us to go and stay with one of the local communities surrounding the Ranomafana National Park in Southeastern Madagascar. We have already scoped out a possible community that is suitably located: just outside the border of the park, far enough from the road so as to be fairly "isolated", but close enough for us to access in a few hours. A few days earlier, I have already paid a visit to the village and spoken to the chief and representative elders in order to obtain their "free, prior and informed consent"; in other words, to introduce myself and my team, to tell them of our study course, and to ask if it is alright with them that we visit their community for some days. After all, we are quite a herd: about 30 people altogether, students, teachers and assistants included. They have given us their sincere welcome.

Madagascar National Park placard.
The community is called Amboasary, located at about a two hours’ hike from the roadside, and on either side of a stream that runs through irrigated rice fields. Rice is the main staple crop of these villagers. In fact, so much so that sometimes rice is all they have to eat, and sometimes not even that. Hence, understandably, most of their time and energy goes to tending to their rice fields. They do cultivate a handful of other crops, such as beans and cassava, some of which they occasionally sell at the nearest market in Ranomafana in order to get just enough cash to pay for their basic necessities (i.e. salt, cooking oil, medicines, etc).

Our first day goes to setting up our campsite on a flat patch of land that we've spotted just outside the village. For the next five nights, we will all be sleeping in tents, eating mostly rice and beans cooked over an open fire, using our self-dug outdoor long-drop, and basically blending in with the elements of nature. Our "shower" is a pristine, precious waterfall and clear-water pool about 1 km walk from our campsite.

A woman fetching water.
The main reason we have come here is to better understand how local people live, so that our natural science students can get a deeper and more experiential understanding of the local realities behind biodiversity conservation (and threats), and introduce them to fundamentals (approaches and methods) in social science. By getting to know the local villagers, their livelihoods, and their relations to their environment (including the national park), our students are also given new perspectives on what conservation planning needs to take into account. 

We are curious to know what drives local peoples’ everyday choices and behavior. What knowledge do they hold with regards to their ecology and ecosystem? What are their needs and preferences? What kinds of values and belief systems do they hold? And how do all these factors affect their surrounding environment, and hence, ultimately, their own future, health, and wellbeing? 

On the second day, we are invited by the village to attend a traditional rum ceremony, an official meeting commonly held in Malagasy rural villages when outsiders come to visit. The ritual involves asking for protection from the ancestors. In honour of these ancestors – and of each other – a very strong local brew of rum is shared. Speeches in the local ethnic language are first given by the village elders, and thanks and respects are paid to the ancestors. The glass of rum is passed around, and with this gesture (i.e. all of us drinking from the same glass) we show that we are all equal and open to sharing. This opens the door to trust, a fundamental point of departure for ethical social research, and gives us the official welcome to work in the village over the coming days. With this trust, and blessed and protected by the spirits, we can start our work.

Our days consist of waking up at the crack of dawn, and spending long days (and sometimes even part of the night) doing biodiversity inventories of the local fauna and flora, but most importantly, getting a glimpse into local realities. The next few days we split up in groups, and while some are out in the forests measuring trees or in the rivers counting frog species, others are meeting in small focus groups with local villagers. We gather with women and men, elders and youth, and sit with them for several hours, hearing about their lives. Fortunately we have our Malagasy students to help translate for us! We are particularly interested in knowing about how aware they are, and how they feel about – and relate to – deforestation and biodiversity loss.

That said, what is most mind-opening and rewarding for us is just allowing them to share whatever they want to share, and in each meeting we learn something new. It is deeply humbling to listen to these local villagers open up about both their challenges and their future aspirations, from a people that have been ranked amongst the “poorest” in the world. Madagascar has consistently over the past few years ranked amongst the top 10 poorest countries in the world, and this community is undoubtedly one of the “poorest” in Madagascar, if measured in monetary or income terms, but also in terms of food security and nutrition.

Our campsite.
We are all deeply touched by the way the local villagers have received and welcomed us into their community and into their lives, and shared with us so much of their knowledge and insights. Even over the course of only five days, we feel we have made new friends. Despite enormous differences in lifestyle, culture, and language, we feel that something connects us. We now understand that little bit more genuinely what drives local people to do what they do, even when it comes to slashing-and-burning their last remnants of surrounding forest that outsider conservationists are so desperately fighting to protect. Yes, because only some 5% of original forest cover still stands in Madagascar, and that forest is home to some of the world’s most threatened species endemic only to this nation island. 

Meanwhile, the local mothers and fathers we speak to are struggling to feed their families. With such limited resources and in tremendously challenging conditions (ever more so with climate change), they are often able to think only one day at a time, concerned only with how to get enough food on their plates that day to keep themselves and their children alive. 

The day before our departure, we are asked whether we will come back next year. The villagers would like us to set up a research station in their village, and have more students and researchers like us visit them and stay with them, so that they can learn more from us, and us more from them. They also tell us that they would very much like to have a proper school, where their children can learn more about things most relevant and useful for them - including environmental awareness, but also English language.

Students at work.
We leave with opened hearts and minds, eager to share what we have learned with the local organisations and project teams who are better placed (than us, anyway) to work more closely and continuously with Amboasary and other local villages. Two days later, we extend our learnings and reflections to the local development and conservation organisations, and hope that we are taken seriously.

We hope that we have played some instigative role to help Amboasary become one of many villages with thriving environmental education and local initiative not only to combatting poverty, but beyond: to locally and sustainably managing natural resources and thereby also becoming more self-sufficient in terms of health and wellbeing.

* These were my notes from one of many expeditions carried out for the annual RESPECT course. For close to 10 years now, University of Helsinki has been running the course in Madagascar, bringing together an inter-cultural exchange amongst students from the University of Helsinki, and two Malagasy universities: University of Antananarivo and University of Fianarantsoa. The aim of the course is to train students in conservation science, but also in related socio-economic aspects such as the interaction between conservation priorities and the needs of peoples living in and around protected areas. The highlight of the course comprises 5 weeks of fieldwork in Madagascar to bring to light the on-the-ground reality to the theory learned. During these 5 weeks, one important component is the visit to a local community to understand the social drivers of forest loss, local use of resources and the interaction that local villagers have with their natural environment and conservation strategies.

Aili Pyhälä is a Senior Lecturer in Development and International Cooperation at Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä.

Photos © Aili Pyhälä.