I never thought I’d find myself teaching conservation by cooking. And yet, here I am doing just that in rural Madagascar.
I have mentioned several times that we headed into the field these past three weeks to accompany Malagasy WWF agents in “sensibilization”and “conservation awareness-raising”activities in the COBAs adjacent to Vondrozo, but I think the time has come to explain our actual work in more concrete terms.
World Wildlife Fund is working with COBAs in the Vondrozo Forest Corridor of southeasten Madagascar to take ownership of their natural resources and adopt both environmentally sustainable and economically viable development projects. As I write, I am reminded of Partners-in-Health guru, Dr. Paul Farmer, who spoke to students my freshman year at Stanford; Farmer told us that, “The only cure for malnutrition is food.” Like Paul Farmer, WWF recognizes that ecological conservation must be paired with community development and support. And so, we teach conservation by cooking.
Throughout the past months, we have moved from village to village, aiding the fulltime WWF field agents, Florant and Augustin, as they give information sessions describing a variety of different sustainable development initiatives. We teach villagers how to plant and cultivate beans and vegetables, how to build more energy-efficient mud stoves, and how to cook with these bizarre new ingredients and tools. The rural Malagasy don’t garden nearly as much as one might expect, though many familiar vegetables seem to grow well here if tried—it is a strange thing, indeed, to watch a Malagasy man smile with pleasure and surprise when he tastes his first carrot or to teach a village woman how to cook with cabbage when she has never seen the vegetable before.
Our favorite recipe by far is as close to cake as you can really get in the Vondrozo Forest Corridor—a banana, egg, manioc, peanut mélange called “gena gena” which we make in a pan lined with caramelized sugar and sliced bananas and steam over the open fire. We learned the recipe in our first week of work “sur terrain” and have prefected our method as time has gone on. True to our western roots, we find it tastes best with extra bananas and lots of extra sugar. Sometimes, though, cooking with an audience can get a little stressful, and it is at times like these, that our language confusion—between English, French, and Malagasy—can get the better of us. Kuni asked me for an extra plate (“finga” in Malagasy) during our last cooking lesson, and I exclaimed in frustration, “But we don’t have une autre finga!
WWF monitors the impact and successes of their information sessions with focus groups where we ask the villagers what lessons they have already received and to what extent they have incorporated those lessons into their lifestyles. Success varies greatly amongst the different communities, but many admit that they are too unmotivated to plant the crops they hear about or change a style of cooking to which they are already accustomed. Others explain that they miss information sessions periodically because they are not notified in sufficient time to travel to nearby villages where they are being held, and others still claim that it is difficult for them to share information gleaned from one session with friends, neighbors, and communities that were not in attendance. So many challenges, I think, are much the same the world over—a WWF focus group in Madagascar is not so very different from a Students for a Sustainable Stanford meeting debating how to best raise awareness for compact fluorescent lightbulbs or on-campus composting.
WWF strives also to gauge the opinions of all members of a given community, though gender divisions are nonetheless rampant. In the village of Amboangy, the town was shocked to hear that the WWF agents wanted the village women present at our first meeting. One Malagasy man even cried out, “Why do we need the women here? We are not like white people!” Interestingly, our foreignness—and specifically, our whiteness—grants us a certain liberty in the Malagasy countryside. While a Malagasy woman might be ignored or excluded from a conversation, we white women are treated with respect bordering on admiration. We honor certain gender customs—Sergio, Ranto and Brian give the cookstove construction lessons, while Henintsoa, Christa, Kuni, and I teach cooking—but we women are welcome to observe and take part in traditionally male tasks, and vice versa for the boys. It is almost as if being a vazaha takes you out of the gender social structure entirely.
And so it is that with cooking we accomplish conservation. Madagascar sits at a fascinating and terrifying point in its socioeconomic history, and both the risk and possibility for its environmental future are painfully evident. In so many ways, I see the beginnings of ecological tragedies that have already run their courses in much of the rest of the world...When we arrived in the village of Antaninary, we found that much of the town’s population was absent on our arrival because they were off panning for gold—the gold, silver, and gemstone rush is the new, lawless, and dangerous economic frontier in Madagascar today. I asked Florant if anyone used mercury to extract the gold, and he said “no” with a curious and questioning look. My mind ran ahead to the gold rush and ensuing bioaccumulation of toxic mercury in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon, and I felt like Madagascar could go there, too...or that it could still be saved.
I felt similarly as we taught information sessions about “Système Riziculture Intensive” (SRI), WWF’s method of intensified rice cultivation which uses a combination of natural fertilizer application and precise plant spacing to maximize rice production...How soon until someone thinks to add chemical fertilizers? How soon until eutrophication, toxic algae blooms, and dead zones like that found in the Gulf of Mexico materialize? Madagascar is at great risk...but there is also great possibility.
And so, I come to understand the term “sustainable development” for the first time in my life. I realize that there is the possibility for this country to avoid the mistakes of those that have been in the same situations before. There is great risk, too, of repeating history, but it is organizations like World Wildlife Fund that give me hope that such an end can be avoided. Conservation must be coupled with cooking, for only by considering both the environment and the people, can we hope to steer Madagascar into a green twenty-first century future.