by Pam Le Noury
I just returned home from a mammoth journey around Madagascar. I was scouting for an upcoming cruise season and also looking for projects to support. I discovered that Madagascar is larger, more deforested, more peaceful and more basic than I expected – with a lot of positive stories and people to discover.
10 domestic flights, 13 hotels, 8 national parks, 4 private parks and a few ‘eco-parks’ – I really got around and have some trees to plant in carbon off-set!
With 23 million people, 90% living hand-to-mouth on under $2/day, the land and water are under immense pressure from sustenance farming and fishing. The food de rigueur is rice and Zebu (cattle). Rice requires slash-and-burn practices to clear large flat areas of land, requires a lot of water, and the 2 crops a year literally feed the families that harvest them manually. Every year, just before the rainy season the fields are re-burnt to make them more fertile. The Zebu also require large areas of grazing; slash-and-burn to begin with then annual burns to get those soft new grass shoots emerging. The final reason to chop and burn wood is for coal and wood fire – a daily requirement for most. Many of these fires run wild, doing more damage.
So, unlike the animated movie would have you believe, Madagascar – like many developed countries, has pushed the wildlife back into national parks and the rest of the land is being utilised for anthropogenic needs. The national parks in Madagascar are well run; excellent trails and great guides. The wildlife is, in some cases, habituated and appears well protected. The primary forests refresh the atmosphere, the chameleons hover, the lemurs prance and a myriad of its creatures, 90% of which are endemic, enjoy a natural eco-system in vast tracts of national parks.
People loosely expect and hope to see much more wilderness, much more primary forest and of course lemurs running amok teasing chameleons on every baobab branch – so the reality of the recent land transformation to human-use can be a bit alarming, and has received much press attention in the past decade (‘red rivers bleeding into the sea’). But as we point fingers at the man collecting his daily fire wood, three fingers are pointed back at us, for our lands are already, by and large, converted, and our carbon foot pints, living in developed countries, is far greater every year then these sustenance farmers will be in a lifetime. By way of comparison, France has roughly the same land area and 3 times the population.
There are many wonderful projects going on in Madagascar, many great people volunteering and working hard to protect the very unique wildlife, of which 90% is found nowhere else, as well as provide education, healthcare and support to the communities. In the best of cases these ideals are combined and many projects are community-partnered conservation initiatives that are working extremely well for all. In these parks the wilderness and its’ inhabitants have become much more valuable alive than as dinner or fire wood, and the funds provide jobs and infrastructure to the community.
Seeking out a project that my company could support was more difficult than I expected. The ideal project should support both wildlife and communities in the areas we are visiting, our donations should make a calculable / visible difference that donors can easily access, feel confident about and understand. Donating $50 towards a community-conservation project is not ideal because you don’t know or can’t see where that money goes. A project like WWF and Durrell’s ‘adopt a lemur’ allures with an iconic and charismatic creature, provides a more finite figure that could add up (‘200 lemurs adopted’) and a more defined destination for the funds raised – but it’s also such a limited cause in a country with no many needs. There are reforestation projects under the Voluntary Carbon Standard and Clean Development Mechanism Gold Standard – so tourists can offset their carbon footprint for their journey. There are many voluntour programmes for student internships and regular tourists to do research or help out with rescue / rehab / reforest /research / education / healthcare, etc. The most impressive voluntour programme I happened upon was, award winning, Blue Ventures.
I had many long drives during my visit; 5 hours from Toamasina to Soanierana Ivongo, 6 hours from Diego Suarez to Ankify, 12 hours from Tana to Mahajanga, and 13 hours non-stop from Morondava to Tana. I enjoy road journeys and found myself photographing and pondering throughout – that’s what journeys are for! One of my particular interests is renewable energy, and in road game akin to “I-spy-with-my-little-eye” I had hours of solar-panel spotting and photographing fun. I discovered that there is no panel and no hut too small!
There were some drives / areas completely devoid of any panels, and other areas where I could not photograph every little panel I saw. Mostly small panels, no bigger than a pizza box, would be self-mounted on thatch huts and humble homes in small villages with no electricity, and sometimes even in villages with electricity. Speaking to people I gathered they are considered expensive (small panel priced at $18) and without warranty or service plan BUT panels had lasts years so far and the point is that once you have one small panel you have lights and radio and TV powered ‘free for life’. No more candle bills, candle fire hazards, reading over paraffin lamp and fumes. So I could see how if one’s neighbour is getting free lights and radio every night, word-of-mouth advertising spreads this pattern across villages and along major routes.
It is the private sector that is driving the demand for solar panels, and it is the people without an existing electricity infra-structure that will drive it first and furthest.
For these people a solar panel is life changing. A small panel is lights and radio powered free ‘for life’, and a larger panel is a 2 plate stove or a fridge – cooking and preservation of food ‘free for life’. In addition to being a life changing upgrade to a poor community, it alleviates pressure on the environment. A 2-plate stove means you don’t have to collect fire-wood or burn coal. A fridge means you can keep your fish or Zebu meat for longer and not revert to bush meat.
So after my journey, I decided the best project for my company to get behind is solar. Donors can buy a whole panel or part thereof and we can raise money for solar panels, that we can understand and see, to be donated and installed at various clinics, schools and community centres.
The private sector will lead the way, underdeveloped nations will leap frog over fossil fuels into renewables and big business will be inspired to join in the bright future of solar panels.