This past weekend at the Fetin’ny Variky (Lemur Festival), hundreds of people gathered. They walked from nearby villages, or crossed the river delta from Maroantsetra in boats so heavily laden with supplies that water lapped over the gunnels. They came to celebrate, to eat rice and kill cows, to party all night long. They came to welcome the vahiny (the white strangers from afar) and to show off their local environment, the MaMaBay Landscape, which is thought to contain more than 1% of the world’s biodiversity. To go ahead and forestall any potential disappointment though, I should tell you now: there were no lemurs at the lemur festival. Why would you be silly and expect something like that?
Along with twenty kids from our not-so-recently-concluded environmental course (you would also be mistaken to think anything actually ends in this country) we crossed the water in our own heavily laden boat. As part of the festivities, the students performed skits on lemur poaching, gave informational sessions on deforestation and climate change, and even led an impromptu discussion forum. Also, lugging out a projector and facing extreme danger of electrocution, we ran it off a generator to show the BBC Madagascar films to a large and eager audience. Having finally gotten our hands on an elusive Malagasy translation, we were able to be part of something incredible: showing people their own country for the first time. For people in rural Madagascar, especially in the isolated environs of Maroantsetra, rarely go far. Their homeland features countless things of which they cannot conceive: spiny forests, vast deserts without rain, stumpy baobabs, and spiky tsingy. And that is not even including the wildlife, which must be pretty fantastic to warrant its own television series.
To see the captivation, even the disbelief on the faces of those who watched, to repeat over and over “yes, this is all in Madagascar,” was an awe-inspiring experience and a big part of the reason why I stuck around for another year. Yet, the whole weekend raised a question which lurks always in the back of my mind: the question of conservation in this country. Yes, all these people gathered; they sang songs to the lemurs; they spoke passionately of their love for the forest, of the need to protect Madagascar’s treasures. It was a lot of fun and there was, as with any Malagasy event, a great deal of pride in culture and homeland, in showing off to the visitors, and in being with each other. Yet, when it came to the conservation aspect of the weekend (Save the Lemurs!), I could not help but think it was a largely a show.
Yes, cynical, but let me explain. Generally speaking, I support conservation’s various efforts across Madagascar and believe that they have been integral to preserving most, if not all, of this country’s natural beauty and biodiversity. But it is worth considering whether conservation is merely grafting an ethic onto Malagasy culture, and if it is, what this means for the sustainability of the effort. While there are individuals who defy the rule, Malagasy culture is largely bent on conquering nature, on containing and subduing it. This is logical for a small population living under constant threat, beating the forest back from the fields, caught by cyclones that appear from nowhere. It was the nature of life in Madagascar for nearly two millenia, from its settlement to the population boom in the early 20th century. And it is this mentality which led Madagascar to its current state of near environmental collapse: keep in mind that this is a country that destroyed more than 90% of its forest with very little foreign influence. This is not the Amazon being systematically logged by multinational corporations. Environmental destruction in Madagascar is piecemeal and extraordinarily pervasive. To convolute a term: it is grassroots.
“Appreciation” of the environment, of natural beauty and heritage, is thus largely a foreign concept: not completely absent, but damn rare. Recognizing the tremendous ecological value of this country, does conservation thus have a right to impose its worldview? To take land and preserve it: for the world’s sake, for heritage, for future generations? This is the crux of the conservation question that lurks always at the back of my mind.
A good place to begin addressing the question is by asking another: whose land is this? The answer throughout much of rural Madagascar is: technically no ones, as only a small percentage of is legally owned by anyone, including the government. Yet- even in the island’s remotest corners, even on land that appears barren, deserted, or totally wild- there exists an intricate web of ownership. It is land passed down through generations, traded, bought and sold in a perfectly legitimate, if not government sanctioned, system. Though it may not be legally owned, it is undoubtedly spoken for. Yet, with the creation of the Makira Protected Area in 2007, more than 350,000 hectares of land, over half of it considered occupied, was transferred to the protection and jurisdiction of Wildlife Conservation Society. Whose land was that? It is a question that no one seems willing or able to answer.
In Makira and the other protected areas of the MaMaBaie Landscape (Masoala National Park and Antongil Bay), enforcement of protective laws is a result of top-down pressure, carried out by local police. There are beatings of accused poachers, incarcerations for land burnt or logged, confiscation of illegal fishing nets, and a crackdown on gold mining. White people in the countryside are rumored to be scheming after land not protected by title. In an economy where people hang by a thread, this threat to land and livelihood, engenders a resentment that runs deep and very strong. Often, I am advised when traveling around the countryside to not publicize my position with WCS, and I consider it wise to follow. A few years ago, a man appointed to confiscate illegal fishing nets died in a motorcycle accident in the city. When news of his death reached the small fishing villages up and down the coast, there were parties for days.
This backlash, tangible and tense, gives me pause and makes me wonder. What is right in conservation? What is the role of enforcement and intimidation? If protection of this land is not forced, would it ever happen? My instinct tells me that in Madagascar, it would, but too late. When the forests are leveled and the hills bare, when the oceans no longer yield fish, when a world’s treasure trove of biodiversity is lost and future generations have arrived with nothing to live on.
This is what I was thinking as I watched the Fetin’ny Variky, the celebration, the show. Malagasy culture has not embraced conservation, though it goes through the motions. Seeing the desperation of poverty and the mindset that says “think of today, and worry about tomorrow when it comes,” it is understandable why it has not taken hold. But conservation’s efforts are hardly futile, especially when it comes to fostering appreciation of and pride in the local environment. Maybe that is the thing with grafting: at first its foreign, but in time it can take hold, can become a genuine part of cultural consciousness.