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Thoughts from Madagascar

The first thing I noticed about the coral reef was the sound. A constant clicking of countless fish pecking away at algae and coral polyps, and perhaps even at each other. I want you to imagine if you took a walk in a forest and could hear the insects and rabbits munching leaves. It would be absolutely nuts. But on the reef in Toliara, Madagascar, life sprang out of gaps in the coral with such abundance silence would’ve been stranger. Sea stars, fish of all stripes, slender seahorses like paper straws, and, my personal favorite, giant clams with purple insides. It was the first reef I’d ever seen, and I became so enamored with the vivacity of life among the coral that I’m determined it won’t be the last.

The Toliara barrier reef isn’t in very good health. Climate change and sedimentation have exacerbated coral bleaching, and less than half the corals I saw were alive. The rest were cracked, grey, mossed over with algae and seaweed. Not to mention that over 2,000 fishermen throw their nets over the reef and the lagoon every day. They go out in beautifully painted wooden pirogues, and don’t take anywhere near the haul that a larger fishing boat might, but the pressure adds up.

The big fish are gone. And the smaller fish might be next. Our study abroad group visited a seaweed farm, one of the sustainable solutions touted by international NGOs. Two pirogues took us out to the lines of seaweed. On the way, we saw two men dragging a net across the seafloor by foot, muscles straining from the effort. We were passing over seagrass, a nursery for baby reef creatures. The very next day, I found a baby moray eel while snorkeling in seagrass; Its relatives could’ve ended up in that net.

A researcher inspects a drying seaweed harvest, Toliara Madagascar

“This practice is forbidden by the village,” our professor from the local marine institute told us. “But it is never enforced. The people who drag the nets like this are from inland, they don’t have boats. But they come here for food. What can the village do? You cannot tell someone who is starving not to eat.”

Droughts in the Southwest of Madagascar have caused food insecurity for half of the population. Over the past two years, crops have failed en masse, leaving subsistence farmers desperately foraging for anything edible. For a visitor like myself, a famine is not visible immediately. People living along the main roads are generally better off, with access to markets where imported food is available in times of shortage. Small images tell the larger story of the plight of Southwest Madagascar: the men dragging their net through the surf, a sky speckled with migrating locusts, and bone-dry riverbeds everywhere.

The dry riverbed of the River Fiherenana

Experts squabble over whether the drought is climate change related. Certainly, this part of the country goes through climate fluctuations, and in a more developed country with irrigation infrastructure and access to markets, a drought wouldn’t be a catastrophe. California, for example, has been limping along for quite a few years now. But when we drove over the dry Fiherenana River, a pit grew in my stomach. The riverbed was as wide as the Wisconsin or Ohio rivers in the US, but it was empty. It seemed unnatural, even martian. Maybe the river empties during the dry season, but our visit coincided with the fruiting of the baobab trees: right at the end of the wet season.

Baobabs in the spiny forest of Ifafy, Madagascar

I think it’s easy to romanticize subsistence farming. In my classes back in college, this happens all the time. Polyculture! Agroforestry! Heirloom seeds! Freedom from the cudgel of global markets! The sad truth is that when the drought strikes, all that is left are bags of low-quality Thai-imported relief rice. We take for granted our immense American food surplus, and forget that education, innovation, and community building are impossible unless there is food on the table and more in the granary.

Not to say that I have a magical “famine fix” in my back pocket. I can’t say if a food system pumped with fertilizer and pesticides would help the people of Madagascar, or just inflate corruption and inequality. Advocates of sustainable development would push for the expansion of Madagascar’s tourism industry, but that business went through its own drought during the pandemic. In the meantime, the people of Southwest Madagascar do their best. Selling off a few more zebu, selling handicrafts by the road, immigrating North or East.

Rice terraces in Madagascar: the country that consumes the most rice per capita

Everywhere pressure will increase on the natural bounty that makes Madagascar like no other country in the world. I’m headed East myself next week to document one tiny part of that bounty. I have a 20-day research project looking at five species of frogs that live only in the leaf axels of a specific tree. These frogs have hardly been studied, and something touched me about their strange life cycle. A whole life spent on one tree, like an island in the rainforest. What happens if the water in the leaf axels dries up? If the whole tree is cut down? After all, we aren’t so different from the smallest of frogs.

Ring Tailed Lemur, Isalo National Park

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