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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2006
Table of Contents
GREEN STREETS: Introduction
Great Ideas
Hall of Fame
Charlotte's Way
Flora, Fauna, and Families
Go With the Floe
Leave No Child Inside
Every Breath You Take
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
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Sierra Magazine
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Flora, Fauna, and Families
Spreading health--and love--in Madagascar
by Marilyn Berlin Snell

(page 2 of 2)

In villages without electricity, puppet shows bring vital news about family planning. Health volunteer Masy Aolia (below) is the keeper of her village's secrets.
THERE'S BEEN A BIG SHIFT since the 1990s," says Jean-Paul Paddack, who directs the WWF's programs in Madagascar. Initially, the organization focused solely on trying to protect habitat but neglected people, he says. That didn't work. Then it tried a more integrated approach but didn't include Malagasy organizations in mapping out its goals and plans.

"We tried to do everything ourselves, and it wasn't effective," Paddack says. Indeed, foreign interference was not well received in a country that was ruled by the French until 1960. The WWF's family-planning programs and other environmental initiatives were greeted with suspicion by villagers, who saw them as another colonialist plot for control.

Failure led to collaboration with domestic health organizations, with funding help from USAID. To date, the WWF's integrated program has 46 community health volunteers working in Malagasy villages to distribute family-planning information and contraceptives, another 46 serving as distributors of basic medicines, and 400 trainees in the wings. Conservation International, which has focused efforts on a sensitive biological corridor in the eastern part of the country, has also come around to using an integrated and inclusive approach. In three years, its collaborations with Malagasy groups have reached nearly 16,000 people in three districts, where contraceptive use has grown from 4 to 16 percent, and 24 percent of the households now practice more-sustainable agriculture. Their intensified rice-planting projects, for instance, produce five times the normal harvest but use much less water.

The stakes are high, as Madagascar has much to protect. For example, nearly half of the more than 250 bird species found in Madagascar are endemic. Six of the world's eight known species of baobab tree are also unique to its forests, as are five families of lemurs. Those fortunate enough to catch sight of the threatened indri, the largest lemur still living, will see a graceful black-and-white gymnast high in the rainforest canopy; it makes kissing sounds that echo through the leaves.

President Bill Clinton understood the importance of this rich legacy. In public comments to Madagascar's U.S. ambassador in 1999, he noted that the nation's species represented "a precious biological heritage and a storehouse of unique DNA." He also mentioned his delight that Madagascar's rosy periwinkle had been found to contain elements of a treatment for Hodgkin's disease and childhood leukemia.

Biologist Alison Jolly draws a sober analogy over dinner one evening in southern Madagascar's Berenty Reserve, where she's been studying lemurs for most of her life. Conservationists are confronting a survival impulse similar to the "frontier mentality that existed in the American West as we cut down all the trees," she says.

The real challenge to resource protection, says Jean Claude Rakotomalala, who coordinates Malagasy health and environment projects with Conservation International, is tavy. Slashing and burning the landscape "is in the people's blood," he says. In response to villagers who believe, as more than one conveyed to me, that smoke attracts rain clouds, the groups must convince them that more water will come from conservation measures like the intensified rice plantings than from the burning of land.

Rakotomalala gets the message out in a variety of ways. Village folklore groups use traditional dance and song to convey conservation and family-planning tidbits. At a festival put on for visitors to the tiny upland village of Ampahitra in central Madagascar, a group of dancers playfully shake their fingers at the audience as they sing, "Be careful, be careful. Don't burn the forest!" Even puppet shows proselytize. "It's easier to pass along difficult or embarrassing information through puppets," says Rakotomalala. "Plus they're a big hit in areas where there's no mass media to speak of and where most of the people can't read."

"We're now seeing positive impacts in limited areas," says Wendy Benazerga, director of USAID's Office of Health, Population, and Nutrition in Madagascar and one of the architects of the interdependent approach. "Going forward, we just need to do a lot more in terms of linking health, family planning, development, and environment. We need to scale up."

One of the champions of this approach is Madagascar's president, Marc Ravalomanana. A successful businessman, Ravalomanana was inaugurated in 2002 after years of socialist rule that left the country's infrastructure and finances in ruins. He quickly changed the name of the health ministry to the Ministry of Health and Family Planning--a move both symbolic and profound. In 2003, he pledged to triple his nation's total protected areas to 23,000 square miles within five years, a promise he's been making good on incrementally. Last March, he announced that nearly 4,000 square miles in one of the country's most pristine forests were being added to the protected areas.

The paradox for Madagascar--and for sustainable development anyplace else that contains rich biodiversity, high population growth, and large numbers of impoverished people--is that "scaling up" integrated programs is both vital to success and frightfully difficult. Specialized efforts like contraceptive distribution can quickly show a return on investment, but they ignore burning forests and vanishing water. Combined efforts are messier, more complicated to administer, and slower to yield results. USAID workers in Madagascar admit they're in "panic mode," racing against time to save what forests are left. Yet because it's more comprehensive and intimately involves the Malagasy people, the integrated, tortoise approach may work best.

Rakotomalala, who seems to work 24 hours a day, understands that the challenges are great. After a ten-hour drive on the nation's main north-south highway, where drivers must run the gauntlet of huge potholes, zebu herds, and masses of people, he looks exhausted but smiles when he says that the goal of his group is to spread love. "Love for family, love for village, and love for environment," he says. "If we can increase this love, and through it health and well-managed natural resources, we'll increase confidence in a better future."

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's senior writer.

For more on population solutions worldwide, visit

Photos by Stephen Mills

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