A week ago I tagged along on an expedition with the health team and two medical students from stony brook medical school to see the other side of the work done at Centre Valbio. We visited a small remote village about three hours walk from the road, situated right on the edge of the national park itself.
Ranomafana National Park has more than 100 villages in its peripheral zone with over 25,000 residents in total. Most of these are subsistence farmers, mainly growing rice, cassava, coffee and sugarcane. The health team visit many of the villages and hold regular clinics where they diagnose and give basic treatment where possible.
As well as a health team Centre Valbio also has an education team which visit schools in these villages to explain about the importance of biodiversity and conservation and a team of dental students runs a yearly clinic in Ranomafana Village. Centre Valbio also works closely with Pivot, a healh NGO based in Ranomafana.
The purpose of this particular expedition was to collect information about a relatively unknown disease called Mycetoma. This disease manifests itself in a similar way to elephantiasis with excessive swelling of the limbs however it generally only occurs in the feet and usually only one. The village we visited, Ambodivoangy, apparently had three cases of this disease.
After the three hour hike across rice paddies and through a couple of other villages we arrived at Ambodivoangy which turned out to be a group of three smaller villages with a school in the middle. We set up camp at the school and went for a visit to the president of the village. There was barely enough room in this house for all of us but with the help of the Malagasy health team the purpose of the visit was explained.
The next morning four people with apparent Mycetoma turned up along with the rest of the village and lots of children. One of the cases was almost certainly elephantiasis as the patient also had massively swollen testicles but all four were given a questionnaire and samples were taken.
Mycetoma can be caused either by fungal or bacterial infection and is treatable if caught early however the swelling cannot be reversed and surgery or amputation to remove the infection may be the only option in the worst cases. Mycetoma is found throughout the tropics and is normally associated with communities who walk around barefoot, particularly agricultural workers. For this reason the majority people at risk are extremely poor hence why this disease has been so little studied.
After the morning clinic we went for a short walk around two of the three villages. I really wanted to get some more images of people and village life but I found it very difficult to get natural images as the appearance of a group of “vazaha” was obviously a huge spectacle and people would just stare. I would have liked to stay longer a let people to relax and get used to having a camera waved around but it was not to be. The skills needed to photograph wildlife do not so easily transfer to photographing people and it certainly puts me out of my photographic comfort zone!
After visiting the villages we were lead off the path, through a patch of sugarcane until we stumbled upon people in the process of distilling “toaka gasy”, the traditional Malagasy moonshine. A barrel of fermented sugarcane was set on a smoky fire attached to a condenser made from a hollowed out log and fed with cold water from a stream via a bamboo chute. Of course we sampled some toaka gasy which was still warm from the distillation process!
For me this trip really opened my eyes to how conservation projects need to include people to be successful. Most of the time conservation appears to be focused on a particular threatened species or area of habitat however real conservation in a developing country such as Madagascar is as much about people as it is about rainforest and lemurs.
Without people there obviously wouldn’t be any need to conserve nature however simply setting aside reserves and not allowing people in rarely works. This is especially the case in developing countries, such as Madagascar, where there are little or no resources to enforce such rules and a rapidly growing population hugely dependent on wood for fuel and building materials and requiring more and more land for slash and burn agriculture.