Part 3: Conservation and the Vezo
I promised to talk more about the Vezo people, whom I lived amongst for three months, in my last post, so here we go…
The Vezo are known to be the best fishermen in Madagascar. The name ‘Vezo’ translates to, ‘ROW!’ (Literally the imperative form of the infinitive verb ‘mive’, so it’s the command ‘ROW!’), which is apt, as they may well be the best seafarers in Madagascar as well!
(See more of Sandy’s beautiful photos here)
Living a hand to mouth existence as they do in Andavadoake, is a hard life. It begins before sunrise and ends when you have enough fish to feed your family, and on a good day you might have a little left over to sell as well.
The ocean and the seafood it provides is vital to the Vezo as the main source of protein in their diet and a crucial source of income. The sandy soil that surrounds their homelands make agriculture near impossible, so the sea really is their food bowl and therefore, needs to be managed in a sustainable way. Not to mention the inherent cultural value that the ocean represents for the Vezo.
Who are we, coming from rich, developed countries, to tell these subsistence fishermen what they can and can’t fish and what sizes they should be? The people of Andava (and beyond) don’t have the luxury of being choosy when it comes to their catch. They don’t have the luxury to be able to afford to throw things back if they don’t meet our conservation standards.
However, with a booming population (the village of Andava doubles in size every 10-15 yrs) comes increasing pressure on the once abundant food bowl; the sea. And what about the national and international (Europe and Asia) fleets that fish these waters as well? This has amounted to huge pressures on the inshore reefs and eco-systems that feed so many.
Blue Ventures (BV) recognized the challenge facing the reef and its people and seeks to engage and educate the community not only on the issues of overfishing and destructive fishing practices, but also to assist in developing strategies that will help fishers fish more sustainably (BV’s efforts are not solely focused on the marine environment. Take a look at their website to learn more about their integrated approach to conservation, incorporating community health and education programs! I simply cannot cover it all here). This has seen the adoption of temporary and permanent Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMA’s) and the development of aquaculture projects such as sea cumber and seaweed farming. Aquaculture is growing rapidly, generating alternate incomes for families and also getting women more involved in income generation and importantly, management of these industries.
BV’s establishment in the area came via an unlikely hero… Octopus! They’ve had incredible success with this lucrative fishery, which I believe, cemented the relationship between BV and the wider community. After the first temporary closure of the octopus fishery on one small section of reef in 2004, the community saw amazing results with unprecedented catches, and an increase in number and size of individuals. This strategy has been reproduced up and down the coast over the following years, and has now gone countrywide with communities in the northwest and northeast of the country using the same model, and Madagascar’s government establishing an annual national closure!
On the back of this success, many of the fishing communities saw the benefits of marine reserves and created their own network of reserves called the Velondriake (means ‘to live with the sea’ in local Vezo language) which comprise 640 sq km of protected area. It encompasses 25 villages and representatives from these villages establish and protect their marine reserves under the LMMA structure. BV volunteers collect data on both reserve and non reserve locations to help with the decision making and build a stronger case for the implementation of marine reserves.
Sustainability is key to the Vezo’s survival – what more of an incentive does one need to protect the Great Reef? And coupled with the adoption of aquaculture projects and other alternative income activities, such as eco-tourism, are showing this community that there is hope for their future.
My experience in Andavadoake told me that yes, conservation is a luxury, and yet it is necessary for the survival of fishing communities, not only in Madagascar. It was amazing to see so many people in this community willing to make sacrifices in order to mitigate the challenges they face with food and income security. It’s inspiring to see a community so focused on a common goal, which will not only benefit them as a people in the long term, but the environment upon which they rely, as well. Win, win!
So what did I learn/what have I taken away from the experience?
I’ve learnt to appreciate living a day-to-day existence, rather than always looking to the future for the next big thing – though whether I can maintain this back in the fast paced, developed world, remains to be seen. I’ve learnt to be more mindful of our oceans, what we’re taking from it and what we’re doing to protect it. I was inspired by many of the staff and volunteers I met along the way and am grateful for having made some great connections with people I know will be my friends for many years to come.
People always ask me, “what was your favourite part?” This is such a difficult question, but I guess my answer would be: Having the opportunity to live with the people of Andavadoake. Learning (sort of!) their language, listening to their stories, meeting their families, observing and participating in their way of life. Having that sort of context overlaid on the volunteer work we were doing, was for me, the best part. I wasn’t just counting fish, I was contributing to building a sustainable future for the people I met along the way.
On the whole, it was eye opening, enriching, challenging at times and a whole lot of fun. It gave me an appreciation for what it is to live in a remote community and the challenges they face each day and it gave me perspective on my own life.
And I saw the boababs and lemurs that had lured me here in the first place!