Responsible tourism in Madagascar

Responsible tourism in Madagascar


Travel right in Madagascar

There are many dichotomies in Madagascar. A veritable oligarch in terms of natural riches, it is still one of the poorest countries in the world. It has a culture which is profoundly informed by Ďancestryí, yet still struggles with an ability to protect resources for the living and indeed, generations to come. It has an impressive system of protected landscapes, yet still does not protect its children from exploitation. Deforestation is stripping the country bare and yet Ďslash and burní or Ďtavyí is central to local culture, as a way of growing rice. And it is with rice, the product of the deforestation, that Malagasy people welcome guests into their homes.

People & culture in Madagascar


RESPECTING TRADITIONS & PROTECTING CHILDREN

Ancestry and taboos


Malagasy culture revolves around ancestry, or Razana, as it is called locally Ė the dead inform the living, and are seen as a life force even. Although this sounds vaguely creepy to many of us, it is just the way of life here. Malagasy people are friendly and welcoming, humble and warm. It is a fascinating culture, and worth reading up on before you travel. Local people are uncomfortable about their culture, however, and donít quite understand why we, as visitors, might be fascinated by it. They have a complex taboo (fady) system, with different taboos in different villages. In one village, it is taboo to wear swimming goggles, for example. Really. Also, Malagasy people do not like confrontation. It is part of their culture of 'fihavanana', meaning Ďconciliationí.
 
What you can do:
 
Always ask about taboos when visiting a local village Ė itís much better to check than to offend people accidentally. Do what you can to avoid confrontation, however small Ė fihavanana translates into tourist language as not getting uppity at the check in desk, bumptious about breakfast being a few minutes late or having tourist tantrums about trivia.

Child sex tourism


Prostitution is everywhere in Madagascar, and can be a shock for many. Even more unthinkable, however, is the growth of child sex tourism here, with children being forced into the industry because of extreme poverty. Although the government has signed up to ECPATís Code of Conduct, it still goes un-policed in many areas.
 
What you can do:
 
Always report any suspect activities with regards to children to local authorities and, in particular, the tourism locations which are allowing it to happen. You can also give feedback to ECPAT. It is encouraging to see Air France has shown inflight films on the subject.
 
Support reputable charities working for sustainable change in Madagascar. There is a list here. Helping to break the poverty cycle in Madagascar is the first way to create change, whether that is in deforestation, farming or child abuse. And if you are inspired, go back and volunteer with a responsible volunteering company next time. And finally, spread the word. Madagascar is the size of France, but there are only 300,000 tourists. It has a lot of room to grow as long as we help them do so sustainably and safely.

Madagascar's wildlife & environment


DEFORESTATION & DIVING

Nurturing nature


The rivers have, notoriously, turned red in Madagascar due to soil erosion caused by deforestation. Despite an impressive amount of protected land, over 90 percent of the countryís forests are gone, half of them since the 1950ís, and with over 90 per cent of their endemic species dependent on forest, the future is certainly not rosy. In fact, it is still a very strong shade of red. Even among the famous lemur populations, an estimated 17 species of giant lemur are now extinct. However, before we judge and spurn those who slash and burn, it is important to know that this technique goes back a long way in Malagasy farming practices, and is considered by many local people to be the only way to grow rice.



Nearly 80 per cent of Madagascarís population lives under the poverty line of $1.25 per day, so maintaining food supplies is fundamental for them, no matter what the method. By supporting the local economy while you are there, for example using local guides and local activity providers, you are showing people that they can support their families through increased tourism revenues. And that nature can, indeed, nurture.
Before we judge and spurn those who slash and burn, it is important to know that this technique goes back a long way in Malagasy farming practices.
What you can do:
There is little infrastructure in Madagascar, and so it is best to organise your trip through a reputable, responsible tour operator. However, many of these work with standard packages, using the same European-ised hotels again and again. Ask if it is possible to have a package that goes Ďoff pisteí a little. Do some research first, and if you find something that appeals, such as a community run hostel or a different guide, then suggest to the tour operator that they adjust your itinerary to include these new aspects into your trip. They might be reluctant at first, but tell them that you are keen to share the money around different communities and they should be able to support you in this. Or support the work of prolific charities like WWF which work with the government to increase the amount of protected landscape, but also with local communities to find suitable alternative farming methods and incomes. Or go out of your way to visit conservation and research centre Centre Valbio, supported by Stony Brook University in New York, located beside Ranomafana National Park.

Diving responsibly


Madagascar is not a country for people new to diving, although with very few tourists and Toliara coral reef off the southwest coast being the third largest coral reef system in the world, this is diving to die for. Not literally, however. You need to be an experienced diver here as infrastructure is thin on the ground - as in no coastguard, no chamber and pretty much zero emergency services. Equipment can be out of date and unreliable. In fact, it is still considered relatively pioneering to dive here.



What you can do:
You need to know what questions to ask before you come and recognise poor equipment when you see it. Be sure to check how new the equipment is, when it was last renewed, if they have enough oxygen and what are their evacuation plans. If you want more information on diving, read our specialised guide.

However, typically, dive operators are responsible at protecting the marine environment here but always ensure to use a diving company that has a good track record in environmental awareness.

Responsible tourism tips


Travel better in Madagascar

  • Poverty is the biggest issue in Madagascar. Without tackling this, nothing will change. So make sure you get out and experience the real Madagascar and share your spending money with real people. Shop at the markets, use local guides and buy local food. It does make a difference. End of.
  • Support the National Parks systems and donít resent the park entry fee. As long as local people, from government to grass roots, can see that conservation equates with burgeoning coffers, they will have a reason to protect the land and the species that live there.
  • Malagasy people are keen to be involved in conservation and tourism projects, meaning that organisations which truly engage with local communities have been welcomed with open arms. Seek out tourism organisations which are not only working with local people, but teaching and supporting them to create their own sustainable ways of living.
  • If you want to volunteer in Madagascar, do your research properly. There are plenty of chancers out there. Facebook and TripAdvisor are great for gaining feedback on the charlatans. Any volunteering organisation which offers the same package in 20 countries is less likely to have truly sustainable engagement with local people. As a basic starting point for your research here are our 10 questions that you should ask when looking to volunteer.
  • If you are one of the many bird watchers flocking (sorry) to Madagascar, become a member of the African Bird Club, which funds conservation projects and works very much hand in hand with local communities.
  • It helps to speak French to order a beer, but there is still a difficult ex-colonial relationship between the Malagasy and the French, so better to learn at least a few words in Malagasy. The people are so friendly here, that just being able to say Manahoana (hello) will open up many doors.
  • Get to grips with local taboos (fady in Malagasy). They vary from village to village, so always ask what is and what isnít acceptable where you are staying.
  • When shopping locally beware of anything made of illegal hardwoods such as rosewood, and also anything made from shells (including tortoise), coral, fossils or snakeskin. To get your message across to the vendor tell them it is fady (taboo) for you to own these items.
  • Sapphire mining has gone crazy in Madagascar since 1998 when a seam of high-quality sapphires was found in the Ilakaka river valley. If you are tempted into buying some locally, you should be aware that children are used to source sapphires, often sent into deep narrow tunnels.
Mark Jacobs, from our supplier Azafady: "People get obsessed about Madagascar once they visit. The first question they ask us is: how can we help? It is very hard to get information on reputable charities because it isnít a commonwealth country and it is often seen as Franceís problem, so it falls into a funding gap. The usual charities donít work here."
Richard Nimmo, from our supplier Blue Ventures: "If diving, always think about where you are spending your money. If you just want to go out and snorkel or fish, ask a local fisherman if he will take you for a reasonable fee. Yes, you are going at your own risk, but just check they arenít going out too far. If you are experienced swimmers and want to relate to local people, you will have much more fun this way and local people will benefit hugely from your fee. Madagascar isnít about having a smooth, high quality packaged holiday - thatís why itís so wonderful."
Photo credits: [Diving with fisherman: Natalie Sangster, Frontierofficial] [Slash and burn practise: Wikipedia] [Marine life: Andrew Hamilton, Frontierofficial ]
Written by Catherine Mack
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