A Joyful Adventurous Life Together

My photo
Antananarivo, Madagascar
VAZAHA = foreigner VAO VAO = news

Friday, August 27, 2010

Updates from Andavadoaka

Hello dear readers. Greetings from Andavadoaka! For those of you who don't remember my stint here last year, we are at Blue Ventures' research site on the SW coast of Madagascar. (Blue Ventures or BV is a small NGO.) The marine protected area (MPA) we are studying surrounds 40 km of very remote coast; Andavadoaka is the central village. Despite the temptation of diving, azure waters, white sand beaches, warm sunshine, sailing on lakanas, ... we've been keeping ourselves busy. Tom is working on analyzing the octopus landings dataset that BV has collected over the past 6 years. Octopus is the major income source for these very poor fishers, so getting an idea whether the management techniques being implemented are working is very important. I am tangentially involved in that analysis as well -- but really I will be asking different questions of the data than the biologists. While they want to show that the
reserves "have an effect" (on size of octopus, catch per day, etc.), I
want to know if the sacrifice made in closing the fishery is made up for
with the gains. My questions come next...

While Tom works on the biological analysis, most of my time is spent setting up an economic valuation exercise. This involves asking a lot of questions to a lot of people. I'm learning a tremendous amount designing this. I'm taking my time -- trying to do the best I can with foresight. Still, I know some things will go terribly wrong. I just hope that it won't be because I made a stupid mistake in the sampling or something equally preventable. If the survey team gets stranded because of weather...fine...but if I can't draw conclusions because my sample isn't representative or there is some bias, I will cry and/or beat my head against a wall. I'm in the process of testing the survey method now -- it is a complicated game where we ask people to make a series of choices across some future scenarios. Not an easy task with folks who have different values and very different time horizons that I do. For example, a Vezo saying says something like: today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow. Basically: "why save a fish from today's catch for tomorrow? Tomorrow I can go out to fish again. If the weather is bad, then the ancestors don't want me to fish...but they will provide." Designing questions that get at the essence of what I need to know without obscuring what their values really are is incredibly hard. The next month is going to be very, very busy!

So that's an update from project octopus and project valuation #1. Our other project continue to keep us up late into the night (until our computer batteries die -- the generator cuts off at 9 pm). Tom is currently cussing at his machine as he runs code to analyze data from the Rapid Assessment Program he worked on in March. He has to compile all the other scientists' data into one comprehensive report. I keep hearing the Mac ribbit-ing or whatever sound that is when something is bad. He is also, of course, immersed in about 100 projects of other folks here on site. All BV staff come to him for advice, ideas, help...of course, his teaching is a hot commodity and while it keeps him from working on his own stuff, he loves it! I have my other NSF projects -- hopefully I'll have a couple of weeks to finish one of them when my survey team here rolls out before our data comes in.

All in all, life in our decrepit hut is lovely. The weather is turning a bit warmer. We are going to dive this weekend for my birthday (I hope -- weather permitting).

lots of love, Kirsten

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

late May - early August update (= slackers!)

Months and months
I’ve gotten some worried emails from friends about our lack of updates the past months. I don't really have a good excuse...after all, Madagascar is training me to WAIT -- for everything -- thus the glacial internet to upload photos shouldn't be a hindrance to posting. Short version: everything is well.

Here is a quick summary of our lives:

The start of the month saw us both us in the northeast of the country doing different parts of the same project. Conservation International is doing a “Rapid Assessment Program” of the coastal/marine environment. Tom was on a boat most of March doing the coral reef surveys, and returned to do one more site. I passed him in the night in Diego (literally), when I went up to do 2 weeks of household surveys with a Malagasy collaborator, Ando. After that, Tom went to Hawaii to marry our good friends, Anthony and Nicole. He then headed to CA to work with his old Stanford team, and to Nantucket to visit family. I traveled to Holland for 3 weeks to work with a professor at the Free University Amsterdam to design the next project. Oma came all the way to Holland to hang out with me – amazing at the ripe age of 90 to travel across the Atlantic! We walked 3 – 5 km each day we were together, hanging out at a café newly built at the bottom of the water tower in the dunes of Scheveningen (a landmark that figures prominently in both our childhoods).

Just after Tom and I both returned to Madagascar in early July, 3 good friends from Stanford came. Erin, Andy, Kate joined us for a week-long adventure traveling part of the Route National 7 to Ranomafana national park, taking a train into a community-managed forest, and attending an exhumation just outside of Ansirabe. It was our monster truck’s first voyage. Its name is “dimy” as a result – it means 5 in Malagasy. Kate thought “dimy” meant “everyone” until late in the week because we kept ordering beers for dimy, food for dimy, … Anyway, I guess you had to be there. It was fun to see Madagascar through their eyes. The exhumation is a ceremony that highland families do every 5 years or so. The village throws a big party – 3 bands competed at the one we attended –food (rice and boiled pork, replete with hairs and a thick layer of fat. Mmmmmm!) and toaka gasy (moonshine) are consumed before a parade heads to the family tomb. Anyone who died in since the last opening of the tomb is removed and a new “lamba” (material – usually silk) is wrapped around the corpse. I was expecting a really gruesome scene, but the bodies just looked like white sausages, loosely wrapped. They were never unwrapped, so no bones and sinew.

I had a week to get a lot of work done before our next round of guests arrived. Gina and Hannah (Tom’s aunt and cousin) flew in to help us with our fieldwork. They joined us and Ingrid, a master’s student from Holland who is working with me this year, on another voyage along the RN 7. This time, we drove all the way to Tulear. We again stopped in Ranomafana to visit the rainforest and our friendly lemurs and chameleons. Then we headed south of Fianar to a community-run ring-tailed lemur reserve nestled in mountain canyons. Hannah was especially popular with (human) children as she perpetually had a bag of candy with her. We spent two nights at a luxury hotel in the Malagasy Sedona. The good news is there are no Sedonans there. Gina, Hannah, and I spent the afternoon riding through Bara villages. The Bara are a tribe best known for the habit of stealing cattle. In order to get married, a man has to steal cattle. A kind of coming-of-age ritual, I suppose. And since the people with cattle are also Bara, I suppose what goes around, comes around…

The week-long journey brought us to Tulear in the southwest. I split from the Dimy-travelin' crowd to fly back up to Tana to attend a workshop at WWF with the park managers from Nosy Hara (my next field site, in the north of the country). I’m 2/3 of the way through the workshop now, and very glad I came. Aside from meeting everyone, I have a good idea of what climate change adaptation measures the park is considering integrating. On Friday I will discuss with WWF about my next steps to help their project move ahead. WWF is enthusiastic, but the trick is going to be to get Madagascar National Parks excited. They are the association in charge of running the park day-to-day. They are over-worked and swamped with bureaucracy. I can imagine that they roll their eyes at a foreign researcher with all sorts of ideas about ecosystem services, their values, and how important they are to quantify!! I think I’ll focus on wooing a senior woman who seems open to new approaches. If I attack the park manager with my research ideas, he might keel over…

Saturday I fly back to Tulear, and 4x4 up to Andavadoaka. Tom, Ingrid, Hannah, and Gina are already there (although no one has called or texted me to let me know they made it – grrrrr.) Blue Ventures is also holding a workshop this week which I needed to miss because of the WWF one (wouldn’t you know it!), so Tom and Ingrid are representing me there. Ingrid and I kick off our big Total Economic Valuation exercise this week. It will run through the end of September at least. Tom has been hired by BV to do the statistical analysis of the octopus landings data. Finally, FINALLY I might have some data to finish my study from last summer. If you hear some frustration in my tone, … well, let’s not go there. Nothing good will come of a rant right now.

So, as you can imagine, there has been little time to catch our breaths. Nor to write blog posts. Still, I’ll try to be better…the next 2 months I’ll be out in the boondocks but supposedly there is now a cell phone network so I might be able to post some updates.

Rest of August and September:
Andavadoaka! Visitors will include: Bob, Danna and Anton, Eline and Natascha, then...our parents in October! As I said to our friends in an email last night, I think Tom and I alone are responsible for doubling Mada's tourism figures this year...

- Kirsten

Friday, May 21, 2010

security update

Everything has calmed down. There are varying reports of 2 to 5 dead. The 30 mutineers have allegedly been captured. So have a number of DJs of the radio that broadcast messages from the protesters. Allegedly the government doesn't know the whereabouts of the leaders of the ecclesiastical cult that joined the protests. I think I'd be in hiding, too.

This morning I had a meeting in the Ministry of Environment buildings just next door to the Fort where the fighting took place. There were still burned out dumpsters and some large boulders in the middle of the road, but the taxi-bes, taxis, pedestrians, and other travelers took it in stride - taking turns going around, flashing their lights or waving in thanks. This is the Madagascar I know.

Our lovely weekend plans to go on a 3-day bike ride have been disrupted. We're hatching new plans, though. Off to a local lake with some new friends...for a piquenique.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Birthday Conflict

Hey all -- I wanted to thank each of you for your birthday greetings, and update you all on some of my birthday goings-on.

What did Madagascar give me for my birthday? A little inter-military clash! [See the BBC story]

Yesterday was actually pretty quiet, but it set the stage for a pretty eventful morning. Kirsten had an early meeting today, and returned to the house around 9:30 AM, carrying newspaper reports of a stage set for a conflict. Essentially, a small group of military forces (FIGN - the 'gendarmerie') loyal to the previous president (Ravalomanana) barricaded a street outside their Fort yesterday and arranged a large demonstration this morning. The military forces (FIS) allied with the current 'transitional' government tried to stop the demonstration and barricade this morning. [For those of you new to the political scene here, the 'transitional' government came to power via a military-backed coup last February]

From our high vantage point in Andohalo, we saw trucks loaded with soldiers heading to the other side of town (where the fort is located). We could see the soldiers move across the hill, but could not see the actual conflict. The noises of automatic weapon fire and tear gas launchers echoed around the hills of Tana from about 10 AM to noon, when everything fell quiet. Reportedly, the soldiers were primarily firing into the air to disperse the protesters. By 1:30 PM it was announced the the FIGN (the opposition's military force) had surrendered, and that 5 people (unclear whether civilian or military) had been admitted to the hospital. We've recently heard that they haven't surrendered, but are now just at a stand off. While editing this post, sporadic gun fire has started again.

The shops down-town closed their doors and everyone is a little shaken, but life goes on here. Maman'angie is making beans for dinner, our neighbor Marie is helping our other neighbor, Jean-Cristophe, to decorate his house with new curtains - and she's more worried about making the design 'too female' for the bachelor than she is about the fighting across town affecting her life directly.

Folks here who lived through the actual coup last February saw much worse fighting. Even then, the combat was mostly just between soldiers and was very localized. The attitude is essentially, "You live your life around them -- everybody knows where they are, and you don't go there." A local editorial that Kirsten found puts it very well: “Il faut rappeler qu'il y a une différence entre la vie de tous les jours, plutôt calme, et la vie politique, plutôt très agitée.” [local editorial, Sobika.com] = “One must remember that there is a difference between everyday life, often calm, and political life, often very agitated.”

So, if you read about the scary events in Madagascar, please know that we're safe and as informed as we can be.

Tom and Kirsten

Monday, April 12, 2010

Fombas and finoanas

Today, I went to a funeral in my slippers.

Saturday night's all-night party at the neighbors, and the singing I disparaged in my Facebook post on Sunday, were to mourn the death of our neighbor. Mourning involves an all-night singing session. This morning, Madame Bernadette, the self-proclaimed 106 y/o nun (maybe 86 but who am I to say), asked me to meet at the end of our street at 6:30 pm. The 'gasy custom (= fomba), it seems, is for neighbors to stop by to offer condolences and a collection. I was immersed in editing octopus when she came to get me -- I darted out the door only to realize that I had fuzzy feet. No problem on the dark street, but when we were in the family living room, all in a circle, with eyes cast downward, praying, well, I thought I might die. (Maybe they think it is a vazaha custom?!)

What other customs might there be? My favorite so far is the ingrained belief (= finoana) in ghosts and witches. Witches, in particular, are a real problem. So much so that our language/'gasy culture teacher did not want to teach us about them. Eventually,she capitulated, but we had to plan the lesson to avoid Wednesdays because that day is when you can/are more likely to see them. I'm not sure anyone has ever seen a witch, but the say, "They say that witches..." and continue the rumor. Witches are often possessed and suffer greatly, and if you allow them to touch you, they can pass on the evil spirit to you. They dance on graves (of course). If you see a witch, you much talk first or you will be turned into a horse. Luckily, you can identify witches by their messy hair and "alternative" clothing. And you can keep them out of your house by putting some voangabory (my favorite bean here) on the doorstep and window sills. You can also indirectly accuse someone of being a witch by feeding them voangabory -- apparently witches can't eat them, so you know right away. (Much nicer than Salem!) But now I know to make a joke when I ask Juliette to make us voangabory -- she was minorly offended the first time.

Witches are kind of handy when you think of it -- when things go missing or creepy things happen (someone breaks into your hut, for instance) -- you can blame a witch. This way, you don't need to confront anyone. It fits in well with the tendency of 'gasies to avoid conflict.Witches can be male or female, and are different from witch DOCTORS, who can cast nasty curses to, for example, kill your competition for your paramour. Witch doctors are a legit business. Um, calling. They use herbs and spells...and have immense power. (I wonder if I can give nasty peer reviewers bad diarrhea??)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New photos posted!

I put up photos from biking, Andasibe, and other fun things.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Research updates...

Once again an apology for the lack of communication. Busy, busy with gasy lessons (a upcoming blog post will detail some interesting 'gasy fombas (customs) and finoanas (beliefs) about WITCHES and CREATURES. Look for it...), research, and fun. For the moment, let me try to tell you why we've bad bloggers.

The octopus saga continues, dear friends. Last month -- it seems so long ago! -- we had 2 biologists from Blue Ventures living in our house for 3 1/2 weeks. Tom taught them statistics. A surprising realization for both of us was that biology training in the UK does not include stats. But Sophie and Haj worked their tails off, learned basic stats and a hardcore computer coding language called R, and are now well equipped to run some analyses on the enormous datasets that Blue Ventures continues to collect. Tom volunteered for a month to teach us. (Really in the end, my octopus problem became his octopus problem. Fetsy aho! (= sly I!)) We now have biological results about the successes and failures of the reserves. WOOHOO! Let the economics begin (a year late)!

But in case you think that is all we were doing last month, not so! Tom was preparing for a "Rapid Assessment Program" of biodiversity and ecological health in the northeast. While he is paid for the work by Conservation International, he worked days and days off-contract to gather materials, herd cats (a.k.a. the other marine scientists), confirm the methodologies, etc. He sat on our patio cutting and assembling quadrants...try explaining THAT in 'gasy. A wonderful coincidence of the RAP is our first friend visited Mada -- Sea flew in the night before the expedition. I got to spend more time with him than planned because Air France kindly left all his luggage in Paris (including enormous amounts of gear for the expedition that he schlepped). Lovely for me!

(News flash: Tom is well. He's in Vohemar, the infamous shipping port town from which all rosewood is being illegally exported. In fact, a friend of mine told me that this morning 'gasy radio reported suspicion of the RAP boat -- CI team are illegal exporters of rosewood! They clarified that the boat was full of SCUBA divers, and they had no idea what they were up to. So much for the communications push CI did -- Tom was on TV before they left.)

I have been working (for Blue Ventures) on a funding proposal for a UK call regarding ecosystem services. It was a nightmare -- the proposal was 2 pages, but the call included 36 pages of instructions. And then their online systems kept adding up our budgets incorrectly. Finally we gave up and left the sum 2000 pounds off, only to receive an email weeks later acknowledging the mistake and asking for spreadsheets. (The best part was that ALL the applicants were copied on the email, so now I know who else has applied -- Gretchen, Peter Kareiva, and a bunch of other usual suspects! Tough competition.)

Back to octopus, I've been developing the economic models to value the marginal benefit of the marine protected area. It bends my brain a bit. Lots of fun, though, now that I have data to work with. Unfortunately, sometimes I can't break my connection to my model (just one more adjustment! one more run!) and I don't sleep until the wee hours of the morning. I'm hoping to have a rough draft to vet with some folks here by the end of this weekend.

My climate change policy analysis project is cooking as well. I hired a fantastic research assistant (a law/environmental policy student) who is helping me gather the myriad documents and understand the legal/institutional context of marine conservation here. People in the NGOs have been incredibly generous with their time and with information. Soon I'll approach government agencies for interviews, which is going to be a whole new can of worms...

Tom and I have narrowed our potential sites for fieldwork, I think. I'm going to meet him up north the end of next week to check out two of the sites. One on the NW coast is an existing MPA where WWF is working on climate change integration. The other is on the NE coast, a new MPA co-managed by Conservation International. Projected climate impacts are quite different in the two sites. I don't know enough about the sites and management regimes yet to know if they offer interesting contrasts.

Then there are all the extraneous things going on that an economist can sink her teeth into. Commenting on World Bank policy notes, discussing environmental impacts of ginormous mining projects, debating export policies, tracking down facts about illegal concessions being sold by a corrupt government...

We've also been having a lot of fun. Amend that. I (Kirsten) have been having a lot of fun. While Tom taught octopus, I went to scope the marine parks on Masoala Peninsula (and hike for 4 days). Masoala is the largest remaining standing forest in Mada (its protection is run by the 3rd big NGO here, Wildlife Conservation Society). Unbelievably fun. I'll blog soon about that trek. While Tom herded cats the weekend before last, I went mountain biking through the rice patties about 3 hours outside of Tana. I suffered a bloody knee (I didn't realize we were supposed to bike on the tiny dike, I guess, and literally went INTO the rice patty). I have some great photos I will upload (of the landscape, not the bloody knee). Then this past weekend (Easter), I joined a group of folks to go back to Andasibe to worship the lemurs. We got up close and personal with indris and Goodman mouse lemurs (OMG! Like, SOOOOO CUTE!).

The inter-tubes have been clogged recently, so this is probably all they can handle. I'll post again soon!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

"Le responsable..."

The silence in our posting, dear friends, has been due to "les responsables." All of my energy has been dedicating to discovering who "les responsables" might be, other than a concept. I talked to many a "le responsable" who passed me on to another "le responsable" until we quite literally held the "non responsable" hostage in our house. Then, miraculously, the internet was turned on. Yes, dear friends, one month to the day after delivering 2 hand-drawn maps in duplicate, copies of our passports and residence certificates, and signing a 10-page contract in French that probably promised our first born to the imperial powers, we have internet at home. I think I should leave this story here - I had thought about writing an entire, long post about the joys of dealing with a combined Telma (the landline monopoly) and Moov (the cable internet monopoly), but I already feel my blood pressure rising and it is early in the morning, so I think I might just move on...

In the meantime, though, we have been making great progress organizing and analyzing 6 years of octopus data. The biologists from Andavadoaka have been living with us and we have been pushing them pretty hard to get something done (ah, ha, there is a hostage theme here I now realize!). We have all been learning an amazing amount from Tom - he is a great teacher of databases and the statistical/analytical software "R". There just might be a couple of great papers at the end of this tunnel. It will take another 6 months to see them as the lead author is going back to her beach life in Andavadoaka on Monday...sigh...

Tom is busy preparing for his big expedition - leaving in 3 weeks to go live aboard a 28 meter sailboat. That deserves its own post. Besides, I am green with envy. However, last night a friend of mine invited me to join an expedition to Masoala Peninsula. I leave TOMORROW! I'm dropping my research for a week to go to the park. As Tom said, "this is why we are here" -- I still feel a little odd, but I will put my research assistants onto tasks that don't require my presence. And I'll think of this as a scouting trip - after all, I am considering Masoala as one of my possible field sites so it is totally justified. So radio silence from me until I'm back in a week...

- Kirsten

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Andasibe National Park and Mitsinjo Reserve

About 3 ½ hours outside of Tana by road, or 4 by train, is a delightful national park called Andasibe-Mantadia. Our 2-day adventure began on a whim. Early for a meeting with Sidonie, our language teacher, we wandered into the newly refurbished train station at one end of Avenue de l’Independence. Our impression from the posted guards, chic bistro, and upscale shops was that the gare is for the exclusive enjoyment of those with money. Had we not had 20 minutes to kill, we probably would have avoided the place out of principle for our entire time here. Thankfully, we wandered in because we discovered the train. (Note: K thinks there is a lesson here somewhere.)

Madagascar’s passenger train service has been defunct for a while according to all the reliable sources – indeed our Bradt guide book definitively states “no trains run at the time of writing”. But Madarail has opened a very limited service to passengers with money to spend on comfortable travel. The train we took, dubbed the Micheline, runs on tires specially adapted to railroad tracks. A very soothing – if not odd – ride. While we continue to try to find the balance of authentic Malagasy life versus catering to our limited capacity for severe discomfort, we opted for the high life this weekend. The other option, the taxi brousse (bush taxi), can take a day to make the trip we made in four hours because unfortunately you have to wait for: (i) the taxi brousse to fill up; (ii) random stops along the way to pick up who knows who or what from where; (iii) break downs; and/or (iv) the risk of not finding a ride for the final 25 km of the journey from the brousse station in Moramonga (the end point of the line originating in Tana). Even if we had the time, being crammed into a 15-passenger van with 30 other people for hours, careening down curvy, rain-slicked roads somehow lost out to the luxury train, despite being 5% of the ticket price. “There is plenty of time for bush taxis,” we told ourselves. We’ll see. (K: I REALLY liked the train!!!!)

The blast-from-another-past train experience brought us to the center of Andasibe, a small village in the eastern lowlands (900 m altitude or so). We visited the smaller of two national parks (Andasibe - 800 hectares) as well as a reserve managed by a local NGO (Mitsinjo - 700 ha), leaving the 10,000 hectares of Mantadia for a trip when we have more than just a weekend. The parks are covered by rainforest criss-crossed by rough paths. Jumping off the train, we walked the 3 km to the park entrance, bought our tickets, and arranged for the mandatory local guide. We checked into a hotel with thatched-roof bungalows, grabbed some vary sy tsaramaso (rice n beans, baby!), and trekked for the next day-and-a-half.

We leave it to the photos and videos to help give you an impression of the wondrous natural richness we saw, smelled, heard, and felt (including jumping leeches and vicious mosquitoes!). (See the link to our Picasa on the right for more!) In short, we were some lucky trekkers: 6 of 10 local lemur species, 4 of 6 local chameleon species, an amazingly difficult to see leaf-tailed gecko, endemic boa, endemic birds, loads of endemic flora/mushrooms (sorry botanist and mycologist friends, K groups those all together) and an endemic spider family with reaaaaaaaally long bodies. Wicked cool. And to think, if you come visit, you too could see all of this! (Note that I can't get the videos to load, so they will be forthcoming hopefully!)

Love, Kirsten and Tom

PS Kirsten apologizes for the misspelled scientific names, miscategorizations, lack of reverence to flora and mushrooms, and any other thing at which biologists/ecologists might take offense.

Click on this to go to Picasa:

Leaf-tailed gecko during the night walk

Parson's Chameleon

Common brown lemur

Kirsten the Colonial

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Brief History of the most Notorious Suppliers to Plundering Pyrates, Literal and Metaforical

Happy Thursday All! Our week continues with extended morning Malagasy lessons and afternoons spent planning our next few months and catching up on the thread of of lives that followed us over here. In between, we managed to throw together another Malagasy history lesson -- we hope you enjoy it. Oh, and sorry for the walls of text and so few photos. We're hoping to get out into the "field" this weekend -- we'll bring back some photos!

[All credit for historical information herein goes again to Mervyn Brown’s A History of Madagascar, from which we’ve lifted the vast majority of the historical material. The more modern information mostly comes from a series of reports by Rhett A. Butler & Rowan Moore Gerety that you can find at mongabay.com and wildmadagascar.org. Other tidbits spring unreferenced from either Tom’s memory (unlikely) or the all-knowing series of tubes (highly likely).]

In our recently departed homeland of Northern California, it’s common wisdom that when the goldrush comes, the smart money is in the service sector. As the hordes are racing to “them-thar-hills”, the best bet is to skip out on the sluicing yourself and get rich supplying the ambitious forty-niners with the all the picks and beans they’ll need to waste their lives in search of the Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

In 1848-49 in San Francisco, even with all the thousands of goldminers digging for the American dream, the first million to be made from the goldrush didn’t go to a lucky strike, but instead to Mr. Samuel Brannan, an enterprising excommunicated Mormon. Brannan learned of the original gold strikes at Sutter’s Mill first-hand when a millworker in Brannan’s drygoods store paid for his purchases in gold dust. Instead of rushing to the mill alongside the growing stream of hopefuls, Brannan quickly bought every shovel in San Francisco. The city still has a street named in his honor.

This same lesson comes to us from the early days of European involvement in Madagascar, when the large, remote island was a pirate paradise. In the late 1600s all the pieces fell into place to make Madagascar an ideal location for pirates to exploit “local resources”. Such resources included: highly profitable trade routes passing from India to Europe around the nearby Cape of Good Hope; a refreshing lack of a far-reaching European naval presence, given the paucity of permanent European settlements; and plenty of water, anti-scorbutic fruit, large wild game, and accommodating women. Add easy access to guns and booze and you’ve got heaven on earth for a murdering, sea-going bandit looking for R & R.

Some of the stories sound as if they were plucked from the pages of A Princess Bride. Writing under the pseudonym of Captain Charles Johnson, Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) penned A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. In his non-fictional account, the fictional Capt. Johnson describes the utopian community of the Republic of Libertalia. Set in the world-class Bay of Diego Suarez (now Antsiranana) in northern Madagascar, this pirate’s republic prided itself on a far-ranging liberal egalitarianism. One hundred years before the United States began their bumpy experiment with equality, Libertalia was philosophically founded on “democratic representative government, equal sharing of profits, abolition of slavery, and equality for all races”, and economically founded on murder and theft. This paradise was not only eventually overrun by less-philosophically inclined Malagasy natives, but was, sadly, also probably entirely fictional.

For a pirate society that rests on more solid historical ground, we have only to look a few hundred miles to the southeast, along the coast of eastern Madagascar, to find Ile St. Marie. This small coastal island became a favorite retreat for the gleaners of the East India trade, and an excellent place to restock water and food, as well as powder, shot, and booze. These latter commodities did not spring forth from the earth, but were instead provided by enterprising merchants like New York’s Frederick Phillips. As the then-governor of New York, Lord Bellamont, reported to the Admiralty in 1699:

"'Tis the most beneficial trade, that to Madagascar to the pirates, that was ever heard of, and I believe there’s more got that way than by turning pirate and robbing. I am told this Shelley (a captain of one of Phillip’s ships) sold rum, which cost but 2s per gallon at N. York for 50s and 3 pounds per gallon at Madagascar, and a pipe of Madeira wine, which cost him 19 pounds at N. York he sold there for 300 pounds. Strong liquors and gunpowder and ball are the commodities that go off there to best advantage.” –A History of Madagascar

One Mr. Adam Baldridge of New York lived for just shy of ten years on Ile Sainte Marie and served as Phillip’s local representative. Baldridge grew rich on his trade, built himself a heavily fortified house on a small island within Ile Ste Marie’s lagoon, and began trading locally in cattle and slaves taken from the native populations. In 1693 one ship of many arrived with a great diversity of goods to trade, ranging from “6 dozen of worsted and thread stocking”, to “some books, catechisms, primers” etc, and of course “5 barrels of rum, 4 quarter casks of Madeira wine, … 3 barrels cannon powder.” From this single ship Baldridge made “1100 pieces of eight and dollars, 34 slaves, 15 head of cattle, 57 bars of iron.”

However, Baldridge’s Malagasy estate was not to last. After years of suffering their herds to be stolen and their people captured and sold into slavery, the local Malagasy violently took Baldridge’s island and all the possessions he stored there. Baldridge himself happened to be away trading, but upon hearing the news, he left his island behind and headed home to New York without his horded wealth.

In more modern times, the metaphorical guns and booze take the form of harvest permits and loans, which, given the right political winds, can easily be had. Madagascar’s few remaining forests (less than 10% of original stands) hold not only a host of highly endangered organisms only found in Madagascar, but also tropical hardwoods easily worth upwards of 100s of millions of dollars. The trade of those hardwoods represents a potential bonanza for timber companies, but such trade has been heavily regulated due to very valid fears of over harvesting. Until recently that is:

“The transitional authority led by president Andry Rajoelina, who seized power during a military coup last March, today released a decree [dated 2009 Dec. 31] that allows the export of rosewood logs harvested from the Indian Ocean island's national parks. The move comes despite international outcry over the destruction of Madagascar's rainforests for the rosewood trade. … More than 200 containers — worth at least $40 million — are said to be awaiting shipment. The first pick-up may come as early as Friday.” (Madagascar sanctions logging of national parks; wildmadagascar.org; Jan 11, 2010). “Immediately following the decree, reports on the ground indicated an upswing in logging activity in Masoala and Makira National Parks. In the midst of a cash-crunch, Rajoelina's government was apparently selling out Madagascar's forests to finance an election that it hoped would validate its seizure of power.” (Coup leaders sell out Madagascar's forests, people; Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com; Jan 27, 2010) An American diplomat here confirmed that cash flowing from hardwood exports are “funding the current government.” Some funding source had to fill the gap: after the coup, most international finance pulled out.

The current ‘transitional’ government holds the exclusive power to grant permits to specific timber interests and aggressively punish unpermitted operations. But like a 49er’s shovel in San Francisco, such permits are unlikely to come cheap. Cautionary tales in the form of unpermitted shipments seized by government enforcers have recently flashed across Tana’s daily newspapers, reminding logging interests that they need to get their permits. While no evidence of explicit bribery has been exposed, the power plays around rosewood exports strongly suggest a pay-to-play environment. Similar tales are emerging in the marine world. We have heard of permits granted to international fishing giants to trawl Malagasy seas. Internal and external critique rained on the previous president’s plan to lease an immense swath of agricultural land to Daewoo, a South Korean company. Perhaps divesting land evokes a more visceral reaction than fish, but both result in the export of Malagasy wealth for pennies-on-the-dollar.

Unfortunately, it’s not only the local government that appears to be one-degree of separation away from the current plunder. Just as a successful pirate needs to be well capitalized in balls and powder, logging efforts start with a pretty hefty price tag. In an uncertain regulatory environment, access to capital is crucial to finance these operations, and apparently a number of French and Dutch financial institutions were more than happy to oblige Madagascar’s illegal logging operations.

“Down payments for illegal lumber exports are seldom more than 50% of final sale value, making cash flow a problem even in such a lucrative industry. With so much capital tied up in existing stock, timber traders have come to rely on banks to finance their exports and their ongoing logging operations. … Even as foreign governments condemned the surge in illegal logging last year, many--either directly or through institutions they support--are shareholders in the very banks that have financed the export of illegal lumber from Madagascar's SAVA region.” [The article goes on to specifically name the World Bank, and both French and Dutch governments as part-owners of banks that have financed Malagasy timber operations]” (World Bank, European governments finance illegal timber exports from Madagascar; Rowan Moore Gerety, special to wildmadagascar.org; January 11, 2010)

In short, today’s lesson is, if there’s risky pillaging to be done it’s best not to get one’s hands dirty, at least not directly. There’s safer money in selling the means to plunder than in taking part in the questionable activity itself. With first-world funding and explicit assent of the currently unelected government, Madagascar’s natural wealth is being stolen from the nation’s people to enrich the Adam Baldridges of the world. And, with law of international economies being not unlike the navy-less expanse of the seventeenth-century Indian Ocean, it's a pretty safe bet that these 'Notorious Suppliers' will sail safely home when it's all over.

- Tom and Kirsten

Friday, January 29, 2010

Kung-Fu vs. The Despot

As ma femme did an excellent job catching you all up on the week’s news, I thought I might share a great story that got churned up in our week of getting to know our new city.

A few nights ago, Kirst and I were out to dinner with the local British Boy’s Club (BBC) – an unofficial group of erudite ex-pat brits (with one white Zimbabwean to spice up the mix). Present were Rich Lough, our neighbor the Retuers stringer, who, after covering last year’s political crisis, is currently moving his family to Nairobi; Ryan Walker, a tortoise biologist headed south to Tulear to map the populations of two species of endangered tortoise, both of which turned up living happily in our landlord’s garden; Garth Cripps – our Zimbabwean – who’s just completed the traditional 1000 mile seasonal migration with the Vezo fisher-folk of the west coast; and finally Mr. Billy Head, a colorful raconteur working on the great Malagasy novel.

Billy, in bursts of notebook scribbling, was trying to capture our first impressions of the city as outsiders. Kirst spoke of the chaos of the main drag and markets, contrasted by the relative refuge of Andohalo, our neighborhood on the hill. I mentioned watching a lady-like ex-pat’s flash of horror as she noticed a man lying unconscious on a downtown sidewalk, displaying his genitals to the world. What really impressed me, though, was the speed with which her horror was immediately banished by the clang of her iron-clad wall of composure snapping back into place.

We talked about the TaxiBes (Big Taxis) – the hundreds of jitney vans that serve as the city’s public transportation. They all have specific numbered routes, some of which are twice as long as others, but all fares on all TaxiBes are the same: 300 Ariary, or about 15 cents. Gas costs are really high in Madagascar (higher than the UK), so the longer and hillier routes have got to be vicious to one’s profit margins. As the TaxiBes appear to be an entirely self-organizing system with little governmental control, we wondered about the ‘negotiations’ among the teams of drivers and their fare collectors (they always seem to be two-man teams). We can only imagine that the lobster gangs in Maine got nothin’ on the TaxiBe teams of Tana.

It might have been this speculative imagining of TaxiBe on TaxiBe violence that spurred someone’s recollection of a hero’s story from Madagascar’s political past. I’m still trying to collect details, but there might be a hell of a movie in this one. (Chris or Erik are you listening?). Actually, we’d have to work pretty hard to find a happy ending, but I’m sure the addition of a fictional American youth and focusing on the eventual fall of the despot might work… The version I’ll lay out is a mix of well-supported fact from Mervyn Brown’s History of Madagascar, strongly asserted hearsay from a collection of half-drunk ex-pats, and my own romantic rendering.

The year was 1984, and the USSR-supported ‘president’ Admiral Didier Ratsiraka (Rat-seer-ak) was entering his most paranoid period of his long reign. His secret police, the Direction Generale d’Investigation et de Documentation (DGID), was given clear instructions to root out and punish anti-government “plots”. To fulfill his charge, DGID’s headman (the president’s brother-in-law), hired gangs of unemployed youths with a history of violence but some loyalty to the repressive socialist government. This collection of thugs actually had a ‘union’ at the time: the Unemployed Youths of Central Madagascar – locally called TTS. In the name of ‘securite’, the DGID and the youthful storm troopers of TTS began a violent campaign of extortion, assault, and political repression.

Enter the story’s ill-fated hero. My research has yet to uncover a name, but my sources assure me that this humble Malagasy spent 20 years studying Kung-Fu under the direct tutelage of the Shaolin masters in a monastery in deepest China. After returning to his country, he left behind the village of his birth, and headed for the capital – Antananarivo (Tana). There he founded the Tana Centre de Kung-Fu and began teaching the youth of his country the great tradition of Chinese self-defense.

To counter the rise of the secret police and their well-paid thugs, the Tana Kung-Fu center organized vigilante groups to patrol the streets and defend the downtrodden. These bands were at first primarily comprised of incensed and romantically inclined sons of bourgeois families. But as news of these defenders spread around Tana, the movement gained attention and more and more folks began showing up for both Kung-Fu instruction and patrol duty.

Like any good repressive, paranoid government, in September of 1984 Ratsiraka’s administration banned the practice of Kung-Fu entirely. With the ruling, the battles between the thugs and “Kung-Fu” reached a fevered pitch, resulting in the December 4th Kung-Fu riots. What were minor skirmishes between small knots of thugs and Kung-Fu patrols became a single broiling war as the crowds of youths engaged in hand-to-hand combat took over the Avenue de Independence and the Gare, the crumbling colonial train station. By the end of the day, 50 young men were dead. As my history book is not specific, I leave it to artistic license to decide which movement suffered more.

Whatever the relative body count, Kung-Fu’s battling produced results that peaceful demonstrations had not. In February 1985 the head of TTS was removed, and soon followed by the head of the DGID. Apparently, even the president’s brother-in-law was not immune.

That success was short-lived, however, as Ratsiraka’s paranoia was further inflamed by these very public concessions to an opposition group. Seen as a “serious threat to the regime’s authority”, Kung-Fu needed to be destroyed. On August 1 1985, Ratsiraka directed police and army units, all heavily armed and supported by tanks and artillery (!!!), to attack the Tana Centre de Kung-Fu. In the fighting that followed, the building was razed to rubble, over 20 youths were killed and over 200 arrested.

The historical account does not include the personal story of our Kung-Fu instructor, but my ex-pat sources insist that our hero fought bravely in the face of rolling tanks and artillery shells, and managed to evade capture by his enemies. He returned to the small village where he was born, to hide out and regroup. Tragically, Ratsiraka’s assassins tracked him home, and soon after the brutal attack in Tana, they shot the Kung-Fu master down.

The attack on Kung-Fu brought to an end to Ratsiraka’s public support in Tana, and he was forced to move out of the city, retreating to a heavily fortified villa, built by North Koreans (!), referred to as “The Bunker”. I’d love to write that the uproar following the attack brought his regime to a swift end, but he held on for seven more years, and wasn’t ousted until 1992. The events did end any fantasy that he was a well-loved leader and fed his self-reinforcing paranoia. After the events of 1985, Mervyn Brown writes, “his political strategy could be summed up in one word – survival.”

That’s the story – if you’re sitting down with the execs any time soon, you could pitch it as “Enter the Dragon” meets “Last King of Scotland.” Or maybe “Karate Kid” meets “Red Dawn” if they’re not Bruce Lee fans.

I'm dying to hear more details of this story -- if anyone knows more, please email at tom.andrew.oliver [at] gmail.com.


One week in…

…and what do we have to show for it? Well, first of all, we have a home. We rented a lovely old house in a district called Andohalo (pronounced An-dooo-ah-loo). There is plenty of room for visitors, as promised. Every room has a view; the house is situated half way up the largest hill in the city on a narrow pedestrian walkway. The neighborhood is calm and leafy, seemingly far away from the hustle of downtown, yet within easy walking distance of bars, restaurants, and many street markets. We have some pets: gekkos and golden orb spiders. Luckily, only the former come inside. (One of our friends has a baby chameleon in his garden – about an inch long!!)

We also have a lot of official stamps, with more on the way. The worst of French bureaucracy took firm hold here, including the need for every transaction to require numerous official-looking stamps and signatures of VIP. Our registration with the Fokontany (city district) resulted in three red stamps and one black one; the notary on our lease: one red and one black on each page of the lease and a big blue one on the receipt; the official copy of our passports (handy so that we don’t have to carry the real ones around): a big red one and two signatures; the receipt from the telephone company: a black one; the receipt from the internet company, another black one; even the receipt from the office supply store: a black one and a signature. I think you get the idea…But each receipt represents progress in arranging our lives here, so I am content.

And if you think that is a lot, today we also had out first Malagasy lesson. We now can greet people, introduce ourselves, have a polite (SHORT!) conversation asking about each others’ health and well-being, and say goodbye. Oh yeah, and we can say “Excuse me!” and “Where is a bathroom?” Both very important things for bumbling vazaha. Between 90 minutes of daily ‘gasy class (and at least that much of practice), along with an hour or so of French, our work days are quite full.

Research forges ahead as well. We’ve already had meetings with Blue Ventures, Conservation International and REBIOMA (an NGO with wonderful habitat maps). I’ll let Tom tell you about his amazing junket with CI coming up in March (think: chartered sailboat, diving each day on reefs, all-you-can-drink-wine, getting paid for it…He’ll kill me for posting that it is a junket because of course it isn’t but I am just jealous). Suffice it to say that the first field season is coming up very soon. Tom will be on a sailboat SCUBA diving. I’ll be visiting flea-infested villages doing socio-economic surveys. HOWEVER, I will be speaking Malagasy and learning about the north-western culture, and Tom will be with boring ex-pats, so who has the better deal?!?!

Life feels pretty settled already. Our home (and home offices) are taking shape. We landed in a partially furnished house, so we have some places to sit and to sleep. Aside from good pillows and perhaps a duvet that is the same size as the mattress (Tom and I fight over a single one), I think we brought just about everything we need. Our new neighbor Rich, a Reuters stringer, is moving to Kenya (sadly), so we are buying a lot of his furniture. Luckily, he has a “real” mattress (= Chinese = the springs pop out sometimes). The one we inherited with the house is foam. Our shoulders fall asleep and when Tom rolls over I bounce into the air. Rich also has a cookstove that doesn’t throw flames, unlike ours which ejects gas so forcefully that it blows itself out – not the safest situation in a wood house. In fact, cooking with it is terrifying. So I wouldn’t catch the house on fire or burn dinner EVERY night, I splurged on cooking pots and pans from the immensely over-priced French supermarket. We’ve made regular trips to the immense market downtown (Analakely) to haggle over towels, cutting boards, colanders, woks, etc. Tom likens the experience to ocean bait balls – where a school of fish gets attacked from below by tuna and above by birds. I think we are the lil’ fish in this scenario.

Our social lives are also amazingly active already. The British crew associated with BV and Reuters seem to have dinner and/or beer and/or tea and/or do exercise circuits nearly every day. We have met some of our neighbors, and we hope that as the language barriers diminish, we will have more to say to them! We have yet to meet another American, but our priority is to socialize with some of our Malagasy colleagues/friends (and to make more).

All in all, we’re doing really well. This weekend we are going to explore someplace (maybe even leave Tana) – I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Voyage part 2: planes

Tom and I are relaxing in the garden of my friend Al's house, overlooking the city of Tana. We have yet to switch from tea and water to beer, but that won't be far off.

The trip was long but relatively easy. We managed to check in 340 pounds of luggage while only paying $400 in overweight. Not bad. (The trick: a SCUBA bag costs $200 and can weigh up to 70 pounds. As opposed to a normal bag, which costs $250 and can only weigh 50.) Our 11 hour lay over in Frankfurt was spent visiting with a lovely friend (Christian) touring Mainz. On all our flights, we had multiple seats so we could lay down to sleep. All in all, not bad!

We are thrilled to be here. Tomorrow at 10 am we will meet with our potential new landlord. But for now, I just wanted to let you know we are safe.

We (and our bags) arrived!

Tom and I are relaxing in the garden of my friend Al's house, overlooking the city of Tana. We have yet to switch from tea and water to beer, but that won't be far off.

The trip was long but relatively easy. We managed to check in 340 pounds of luggage while only paying $400 in overweight. Not bad. (The trick: a SCUBA bag costs $200 and can weigh up to 70 pounds. As opposed to a normal bag, which costs $250 and can only weigh 50.) Our 11 hour lay over in Frankfurt was spent visiting with a lovely friend (Christian) touring Mainz. On all our flights, we had multiple seats so we could lay down to sleep. All in all, not bad!

We are thrilled to be here. Tomorrow at 10 am we will meet with our potential new landlord. But for now, I just wanted to let you know we are safe.