By Sylvia Paulot and Kate England, Blue Forests Team, Blue Ventures.
After winding its way west, Madagascar’s Tsiribihina River splits into a maze of tributaries entwined in mangroves, finally emptying into the Mozambique Channel. At the end of last year, Sylvia and Kate of the Blue Forests team made their way north to the Tsiribihina Delta, meeting with WWF Madagascar, local partners, and communities who have all worked together on mangrove conservation there since 2011. Our goal was to initiate a relationship with these communities and start a feasibility study for blue carbon in Tsiribihina – and what a place to do it! The locals of the Tsiribihina Delta truly live a mangrove lifestyle – from fish and wood to storm protection – the people here are linked with the mangrove forest at every turn.
While still teaming with life, the degradation and outright deforestation of the mangroves of the Tsiribihina Delta is obvious to local people, and they are acting to stop it. Communities here have formed forest policing groups and have even reforested former mangrove areas. While we were so impressed (it is impossible not to sing their praises) that’s not what this blog is about. What we want to tell you about is a tiny village, tucked away in the mangroves of the Tsirbihina Delta, and the women living there.
While the villagers were all smiles, life in Antanandahy is tough. A glimpse shows you that the community has only the sea, the mangroves and the river channel to survive; there is no clean water, no market, and no access to health care. There are few income opportunities here and there are no signs of modern life, apart from a few people with mobile phones. Like many other villages in the Tsiribihina Delta, bandits attack regularly, robbing the locals of their hard-earned cash from selling fish and stealing whatever possessions they have in their homes.
In this dry, hot, and risky place, the women of the village are courageous, independent, and active. Antanandahy village has a large mangrove forest, and like the men in the village, the women use the mangrove forest to make a living – hiking through the mangrove to fish, catch crabs, collect mollusks, harvest mangrove honey, and collect fuelwood. One can easily see that the women are at home, as they nimbly hop through the mangrove prop roots and never misstep in the deep mud.
During the three days we spent in Antanadahy, we observed a few training sessions with the local fishers association, Lalanda, and the Ministry of Elevage (Ministry of Livestock), which had been organized by WWF at the request of the villagers. Training included techniques for improving methods for salting fish and keeping ducks. These activities are expected to lessen the pressure on natural resources by supplementing household incomes. The highlight came when we realised that although the salted fish training was intended for men, the audience ended up being mostly women. While salting fish is traditionally a man’s job, the women of Antanandahy are actually in charge of making the salted fish in many families.
When not busy harvesting mangrove resources, salting fish, caring for children, weaving palm baskets, or cropping cassava and potatoes, these women are looking out for the mangrove forest. When we raised the topic of mangrove conservation, we saw a special light come into the women’s eyes. They spoke enthusiastically of the measures they take to protect the forest: they voluntarily collect mangrove propagules, pick areas to be reforested, and journey through the delta in pirogues to plant new mangrove trees. Not only are women replanting mangroves, but they play a vocal role as mangrove custodians, inciting the men of the village to replace the mangrove they cut by planting new ones. During group discussions, we were amused and pleased to see women calling out the men who weren’t entirely honest about the ways they used the mangrove forest.
Striving to create their own future and better livelihoods, the women of Antanandahy tried to form a women’s association, aimed at cooperative vegetable farming and duck rearing. However, a disagreement about task-sharing brought an end to the project. When we asked how this happened, one woman frankly answered that they need more training on running an association in order to make it work. Few women here can read or write since the only school in the village was built just a few years ago. The women recognized that this was a barrier to their empowerment and wanted to do something about it. Unsurprised by their candour, we thought, while fish-salting and duck-farming were important, these women also need training in governance, which would allow them to play a critical role in the management of their local resources, which they know and use so intimately. We felt safe concluding that if the women of other villages in the Tsiribihina Delta were anything like here, that they would be a great credit to a mangrove carbon project. As we look to a year ahead of project development in the Tsiribihina Delta, we can see that a little capacity building will go a long way for a group of women with so much wit, assertiveness and heart.