Our adventures throughout the past month sur terrain have taken us through rainforest, under waterfalls, over ricefields. Already, I have waxed philosophic and gushed with religious fervor about the complexity of the ecosystem, the beauty of the landscape, the conservationist dreams that I entertain daily. And while it is true that interactions with the natural environment of Madagascar formed the basis of our ecotourism research over the past few weeks, we would have been neglecting the “holistic” component of sustainable development had we not also spent considerable time investigating the customs of the people we encountered along the way. Ecotourism in the Vondrozo Forest Corridor means changes for both animals and people that inhabit the jungle.
And so we were anthropologists as well as ecologists this past month in the field, taking an hour or two in each settlement’s tranobe to talk with the COBA president, the village elders, or the panzaka—a “king”of ancient Malagasy custom. In every locale, we learned about the origin of people, name, and village, about the religious customs and traditional festivals practiced in the region, about the crops cultivated, the animals raised.
We started our trajectory in the haute plateau region of the Betsileo people, masters of riziculture, then crossed through the forest and headed southwest into the land of Bara and Antisaka. We did our best to keep the changing dialect in mind, calling out the Arab-influenced greeting, “Salama,” in Betsileo territory before giving way to the more familiar “Akoraby” as our feet carried us towards the coastal southwest, our home.
In the commerce town of Moroteza, three ethnic groups met on Saturday market day to make an exchange of goods. The Betsileo came from the western towns of easy highway access, bringing oil, petrol, and manufactured products from the cities of Amabalavao and Fianarantsoa. The Bara came from the south, bringing products of the forest—honey, zebu, and the sugarcane moonshine, tokagasy. The local Antisaka subgroup, Tanala, added rice, manioc, and café fary to the great exchange.
In addition to these more innocent staples of food and drink, however, market day in Moroteza bore witness to a trading venue for golden flakes and ten thousand ariary bills. I have already mentioned something of the Malagasy mining craze in previous blogs but have yet to fully explain this new and worrisome social development.
In 1998, the discovery of sapphires in the southern frontier region of Ilakaka, Madagascar resulted in some one-hundred thousand Malagasy leaving home for the mines. One can hardly blame a population, the majority of which lives on less than one U.S. dollar per day—digging for sapphires is some three to five times more lucrative than the traditional livelihood of farming. In the Vondrozo Forest Corridor, discoveries of gold deposits within the past few years have only extended the influence of this nationwide search for quick and easy money. Increasingly, local residents abandon the rice fields to pan for gold; meanwhile, more red earth is removed from the forest and washed into the muddy rivers.
It is hardly surprsing then, that when we continue our Message in the Bottle project, asking the question, “What aspect of the environment of Madagascar is most important to you?”, some people answer, “vola,” or money. They sell lambas, which proudly proclaim, “Ny vola no hozatriní fianana”, which translates roughly as, “Money is the muscle of life.” Christa bought one such lamba by accident—its colors were very pretty!—and was horrified when Ranto informed her of its meaning. She now folds it artfully to conceal its superficial message whenever she wears it; indeed, she was forced to half-undress, so I could copy the words down for this blog entry.
For many people, the idea of “tontolo iainana,” the Malagasy translation for “environment,” is a difficult concept to swallow, and Ranto often has to elaborate and explain his word choice. Other Malagasy that we encounter, however, are not so disillusioning, and everywhere, in our anthropological pursuits, we hear thanks for the work that WWF is doing in the region and concern about Madagascar’s environmental future.
Philomene, president of the women’s group in the small village of Tsaratanana, tells us, “Thank you for asking me this question. You learn things from hearing our responses, but we learn things too from thinking about and answering your question.” And that, in a nutshell, is precisely what we had dreamed for.