Madagascar? Why Madagascar?

It’s a reasonable question. One I received a lot before leaving on my trip.

Most people come to Madagascar to see its strange and wondrous creatures. Perversely, what brought me to Madagascar is the environmental degradation. Most of the country’s mammals, insects, and plants have been driven into, or are under threat of, extinction. The main reason? Deforestation. Ninety percent of the original forest cover of the island has been lost to the slash and burn agriculture required to support its population growth.

On a certain level, you can understand it. When someone needs to feed their family, clearing a few acres of forest to plant rice or graze zebu or make charcoal to cook with seems completely reasonable. If there is no other source of food or income and no government to provide any alternative, people will do whatever it takes not to starve.

It’s a theme that keeps coming up on my adventures.

Its first appearance was during a late-night conversation, sitting in moldy, rickety chairs in the rain forest, with a man who spent his life traveling throughout Central America trying to stop the illegal harvesting of sea turtle eggs. It was after midnight on New Year’s Eve and everyone else had gone to bed. He had been raucous and laughing most of the evening, but as the liquor washed away his bravado, his voice softened and he quietly shared his shame with me. In the remotest villages, he explained, asking the men not to dig up the eggs was effectively asking them not to feed their families. Sometimes it led to violence. He would continue to protect the turtles, he promised, as he poured himself another drink, but it was getting harder and harder for him. His eyes slid toward the glass in his hand, acknowledging the courage the liquor provided.

To my surprise I have noticed similar issues throughout my travels, in Costa Rica, the Arctic, and Alaska.

Slowly I have started to understand that for conservation to succeed, the health of the environment must be tied to the health of the community, so that interests are aligned, and both can thrive. If people participate in the richness that a vibrant environment provides, they will engage in its protection.

Last fall, during a hiatus in my adventuring, I was wandering around on the internet researching this concept, looking for a way to get involved. Google was watching. After a while, up popped an ad for Blue Ventures.

It totally freaked me out.

It was way too Big Brother for me. I steadfastly ignored the ad for two weeks, despite the fact that the ad kept coming up. Again. And again. And again.

Finally, I gave in. I thought “Get over yourself, Sal. There’s no harm in looking.” So I clicked on the ad. Damn it. Google was right. I hate it when that happens. Turns out that Blue Ventures, a non-profit organization based out of London, has been working at just that intersection of conservation and community that I’d been pondering. The more I read, the more fascinated I became.

Andavadoaka is a small fishing village dependent on the sea for sustenance. But the number of fish being caught was declining, primarily due to overfishing. So the founder of Blue Ventures started scuba diving along the reefs just off shore, creating a database on the fish and the coral reefs that support them.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Instead of providing the data to the government in the hope that the government will enact some sort of regulation and enforce it from afar, Blue Ventures provides the data to a committee of local elders. The elders use the data to help inform their decisions about how to manage their own fisheries.

When an area seems to be suffering, the Committee temporarily closes it to fishing for some length of time to allow it to recover. As a result, the environment is healthier and the villagers are healthier— when the area is reopened to fishing, they have more fish to eat. The Committee has also established a permanent reserve on a particularly important stretch of reef, where fishing is never allowed. The recent data shows that there are more and bigger fish in the reserve. The data also shows that the areas just outside the reserve, where fishing is allowed, has more and larger fish as well.

One of the coolest things is the octopus closures. I have to admit I love octopus. I think they are amazing. Intelligent. Clever. Kinda creepy, in the best possible way. I can sit and watch them slither around in the Academy of Sciences aquarium for hours on end.

When I found out that after fish, octopus is the next largest source of protein for the villagers, I was intensely conflicted. But I’m not here to be judgmental. I’m here to learn. I’m trying really hard not to see things through my western lens.

I agreed to go out octopus gleaning with the women, to wade in the low tide and watch as they coaxed the octopus out of their hiding places in the rocks with long metal-pointed spears. The day we were scheduled to go, however, the weather wasn’t cooperative. I think the fates were being kind to me, but it meant that many families in the village ate only rice and beans that night.

A few years ago, the villagers started noticing that they were catching fewer and smaller octopus. Blue Ventures started to monitor the catch, counting and weighing the octopus the villagers brought back in. And the suspicions about the decline in the octopus population were confirmed. The Committee decided to try an experiment: they closed an area for two months when the octopus were reproducing. The result was astounding. When the area was reopened, there were over one hundred times more octopus. One hundred times. The success of the closures has been so remarkable that communities all along the coast have adopted the practice for themselves.

This is exactly why I came to Madagascar. Not just to participate in conservation but also to see the interaction with the local community. There are 500,000 people in Madagascar who depend on the sea for survival. There are 1.4 billion people around the world in similar situations: resource dependent coastal communities, where there is no effective centralized government. Between overfishing and climate change, without active management of the fishery, the coastal peoples may well lose their source of food. Locally managed efforts like this provide the hope of a better future.

This is turning out to be one of the hardest things I have ever done. The isolation of being decades older than everyone else, the physical demands of the heat and humidity and having to haul my sorry ass out of the water and up over the side of the boat after our dives, the intellectual rigor required to pass the species identification tests before I can begin underwater surveys, and the discomfort of witnessing the harshness of existence here, mean that every day, many times a day, I have to shake my head up and down, and give myself a pep talk. I won’t lie and tell you that I haven’t been reduced to tears a time or two.

It is also one of the most enlightening things I have ever done. It is one thing to know something intellectually, like the oceans are warming or people are hungry. It’s another thing to experience them. To feel how hot the water is, to see the dying coral, to eat my third meal a day across from someone who is eating their first, and only, one.

Last weekend, we did a “homestay” with a family in the village. One of the other volunteers and I sat on a woven mat on the sandy floor of a ten by ten foot hut. The faces of the family, dimly lit by a single LED lantern, watched us from all sides as we served ourselves rice and beans and fish from the communal bowls placed in the center of the mat. It was intensely awkward and uncomfortable. We had a cheat sheet of phrases in the local dialect that was supposed to help us make conversation, but in the darkness it was impossible to read. So we fussed over the babies, and tried to find a balance between eating enough to show how truly delicious the food was and not eating too much. We knew full well that every bite that was left over would be a boon to the watching eyes. It was also the night I came to understand that using the beach for a toilet has reasoning behind it. Twice a day, every day, the tide comes in and washes it clean.

My days are full of activity. Waking in the dark to ‘kit up’ by headlamp for a 6 a.m. scuba dive, science lectures before lunch, teaching English in the afternoons, species identification exams in the evenings. Every night I go to bed weary in brain and bone, hoping for a breeze to reach through the mosquito net and tickle my skin.

A game I play while settling into a shallow sleep is trying to decide which one word best describes this experience. So far the lead contenders are “challenge” and “endurance.” But each day, as I learn more about how our efforts are empowering the community, “hope” and “growth” are coming up fast behind. I’ll let you know the winner when my trip is over.

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