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Fanja: forest is forbidden

Fanja from St Luce, Madagascar - “It is amazing how a forest growing in our region can become the property of foreigners. Right now, local people need authorisation to cut down trees.”

Having had little education, 22-year-old Fanja – like her mother and most women in St Luce – makes tsihy (woven mats) for her living. She describes the “demanding”, “painful” and sometimes dangerous process: from collecting materials, to preparation and weaving, to selling the tsihy in Mahatalaky – a 15 kilometre walk away – where middlemen beat down prices.

She stresses the need for a training programme to enable the women to improve and diversify products, and attract foreign buyers. With the mining company now controlling the forest, access to materials for her work and domestic needs is severely restricted. She misses the loss of revenue from tourists previously attracted by the area’s rich biodiversity.

Despite appreciating the mining company’s support for health and water facilities, she is pessimistic about the lack of options for the next generation. She fears that any development will be reversed because “all women know nothing but weaving, and all men know nothing but fishing” – and the resources they depend on for these activities may no longer be available.

My family has always been involved in making tsihy (mats). When I was a child, I remember my mother making them… I also followed in her footsteps… It’s no wonder they could not pay for my schooling because they did not make much money… Later on, the price of a tsihy increased, but not enough to allow the tsihy makers to address their needs and meet their obligations.

I stopped [studying] just after passing my CEPE exam (elementary certificate). From that time on, I have been involved in weaving. Usually, one tsihy takes three days to a week to make. It sells for 2,000 to 3,000 ariary. The amount of cassava that I can buy for that only lasts about four days.

A demanding and painful job

Weaving is a very demanding job but we don’t have any choice…

Several steps must be followed. We leave very early in the morning to collect the vines. Every root must be extracted one by one… Then we head home with the vines around 5pm. After that, there is no break, as we have to collect tanifotsy (white sand) to soften the vines…

We dig for [the sand] at a depth of about 5 metres, as if we were digging for sapphires. The white sand helps to fade the bright green colour of the mahampy (type of reed used for weaving) and at the same time, protects it from decomposition…

It is a risky thing to do, because we have to go down into a sort of a cave to get the sand. It is possible that the roof of the cave will fall down on us. We don’t have any machines or tools to extract the sand; we have to go down there ourselves… After this, we walk home for 7 kilometres, each carrying a load of about 20 kilos. Once we get home, we [still] do not get a break. We have to start preparing the mahampy straight away, to prevent it from rotting…

We prepare a dough from the tanifotsy, just like making dough for bread. We mix the tanifotsy with water…[then] we scoop it with our hand and paint the mahampy. The mahampy becomes white, losing its greenish colour…

It takes four days to dry out… The next step is brushing and pounding to soften the mahampy, so it will be easy to manipulate… For three days after this process, we weave the tsihy. In all, it takes a week to make one tsihy… A tsihy is made up of two sides. We make each sheet first before attaching them…by thread…

It is a very difficult process. In addition, it is very tiring. I wish I had a machine to help me increase the number of tsihy I could make in a shorter time. Making it manually is painful.

Selling the tsihy

[The market] is 15 kilometres from here. We leave around 4am and we arrive at Mahatalaky around 9 or 10am. Then after selling our tsihy and running some errands, we return to St Luce around 5pm. We have to walk because there is no public transport. In addition, we only get lunch on our return to the village…

Even though the price of tsihy went up to 1,200 ariary, the current price does not correspond to the increase in the cost of living… [when] 400 ariary is the price for 1 kapoaka (one kapoaka equals one-third of a kilo) of rice…

I can only get 2 kapoaka of rice because the remainder is used to purchase kerosene and coffee. In the past, when a tsihy sold for 200 ariary, a kapoaka of rice only cost 10 ariary.

[I sell to ‘middlemen’, who] are Tandroy women. They…resell the tsihy in their region [of Androy]. So far, no companies have expressed an interest in buying our products. I wish foreigners would buy our tsihy because that would guarantee that the price would be higher…and our hardships would be lessened… [Our buyers]…drive the price down and they are the ones who make more money…

Uses of tsihy

We can make and create many things… This is something we learned from generation to generation and still practise today. We use tsihy as a carpet…[or as] wallpaper. The most popular use of it is for baskets, plate mats, and as a trunk where we can store our valuable goods and clothes.

We use tsihy in our daily life to replace a mattress. We cannot afford foam mattresses therefore a tsihy is sufficient for us… Tsihy replaces chairs at home. So you see that mahampy has an important place in our life…

The desire for training

If we had lessons or if there was a training programme for us to participate in, tsihy makers would improve the quality of their products… It would not take any time for me to gather my friends together if such an opportunity arose. I know they are all interested in such improvement…

Potential buyers are fed up with the styles, colour and quality of our products… People lose interest due to the monotony of what we make… Tsihy makers have to make a tremendous effort to convince buyers to purchase our products. In the end, they agree, but at a very low price.

If we cannot improve our products, I fear that the buyers will drive down the current price.

Lack of leadership

We have not tried to establish an association. Life is too expensive and people do not have time to invest in establishing such a group… We would have liked to have an association of women to facilitate and seek benefit for all members. We would also like to have received some equipment and money to allow us to work as an association. Because we don’t have a leader, people continue to work on their own.

Even if we had a women’s association, we don’t know where to go to purchase seeds for farming…

Farming is a secondary activity for me. I have a hard time finding money to purchase green vegetable seeds. Any time I make some money I don’t want to spend it on seeds, because I need to buy food for the family…

Besides, I lack the necessary equipment such as a wheelbarrow, sprinkler and fertiliser. I only use chicken waste as fertiliser. As for watering my vegetables, I do it manually. As a result, I cannot plant many…

“Now the forest is a forbidden place”

Things would have been different if I had someone who could help me; I am single. I have to collect sticks from the forest to fence the vegetable garden [and stop] domestic animals grazing or eating the seeds. But collecting sticks has become a problem because the forest belongs to the foreigners (QMM – QIT Madagascar Minerals – subsidiary of Rio Tinto mining for ilmenite).

It is amazing how a forest growing in our region can become the property of foreigners. Right now, local people need authorisation to cut down trees. The worst thing is that we have to pay to get the permit. ..

We did not have to purchase firewood [before]… Men went to collect construction wood and brought back the amount they needed to build a house. Women took advantage of free firewood and made a small business of selling it to other people… In addition, people did not buy medicines. Medicinal plants were available to us from the forest…

I still rely on the forest to supply my needs, especially to collect mahampy for my occupation… In [the past], if I could not collect mahampy, I could switch to collecting firewood and make a little bit of money…

Now, everything has changed. The forest is a forbidden place… If such restrictions continue we will fall into chronic hardship.

We were asked to plant eucalyptus. So I wonder why QMM doesn’t take over this eucalyptus forest? Instead they take over our dense forest, full of resources. Eucalyptus trees are not suitable for construction because a month after a eucalyptus post is planted into the sand, it starts rotting…

People have expressed their views but could not prevent QMM’s plan to work in our area. The thing is we do not know what to do, where to go or who to talk to.

Lost benefits of biodiversity

Whenever foreign tourists came here to view animals such as lemurs, they paid some money to the local community, as an entry fee… Our forest contains many biodiversity species that attract a lot of tourists; unfortunately, their visits are prohibited by QMM. QMM does not accept tourists paying fees directly to the local community…

All we want is for the forest to be used to generate income for our community, because the forest grows in our community. Because of our care, that is why the forest is still alive… We love the forest, that is why we have cared for it until now…

To me, it would be better to bury all of us – because taking these resources away from us means killing us. It will be sad to lose the glory of St Luce as a tourist village, located between the littoral forest and beautiful beaches… The biodiversity is unique around here, in the sea and in the forest.

“Going to the health centre is not free”

[QMM] built wells for the local community…and a health centre… Before, pregnant women…had to go to Mahatalaky to deliver their babies. Bringing a woman on a stretcher [on foot] to Mahatalaky was not easy… Now, a pregnant woman can go to the health centre in the village. [So] I am grateful that there is a health centre available to us now…

[But] I run into hardships when my children are ill. I don’t have money to buy medicines. Before, I could go to the forest to collect medicinal plants to treat my children. Now, I have to bring them to the health centre. QMM forgets that going to the health centre is not free and that medicines are expensive.

Fishing in decline

In the past, selling lobster was a prosperous activity… People could purchase cows, build houses and raise their children through lobster-catching. A fisherman could catch up to 15 kilos of lobsters per day. Today, it is rare that a fisherman catches a few hundred grams; most of the time it’s about 100 grams. I never understand why the volume of their catch has decreased so dramatically…

In addition to this, the price is low. With the decrease in supply, I think keeping the price high should compensate for the loss of income… Unfortunately, everything works [the buyers’] way and thus fishermen and their families suffer.

The buyers’ strategy

The problem is that fishermen do not have buyers who can pay a higher price for the lobster… companies in Fort Dauphin purchase them through their middlemen. People try to bargain with the middlemen to bring up the price of lobster but the middlemen’s excuse is the high cost of petrol and car parts… We don’t use motorboats, so we have no idea [of the facts] when they use petrol price as a factor influencing the price of lobster.

The strategy of the lobster-buying companies is also to send just one buyer to the village and therefore the law of supply and demand takes effect. Fewer buyers and many suppliers drive the price down…

The middlemen also forget that fishing is not safe. How many times do accidents at sea happen? I think they just don’t care…

Local communities are in charge when there is an accident. The government does not have anything to do with it. We have a distant relative as a middleman. When an accident happens, he makes a contribution to lessen the burden of the local communities, for example he donates some rice.

Little hope of “positive change”

I don’t want St Luce, which was among the first villages trying to develop, ultimately to become among the last to do so…

Now, all women know nothing but weaving, and all men know nothing but fishing. If the missionary school had continued, people would have gained many skills and our lives would have been different. They taught English and French, as well as cooking and weaving, and much more. If such training had continued, many of our children would have had the opportunity to improve their lives…

[But] our children are becoming illiterate… The main occupation that our children do after they drop out of school is: girls follow their mothers’ footsteps in making tsihy; boys fish like their fathers do. Then together, they farm… There are no other jobs…

I can see only misery. What to expect? Nothing! Making tsihy and fishing are not the kinds of jobs to bring a positive change… Unless people receive other kinds of training, it is almost impossible to imagine that the lives of future generations will ever improve. I even think they will suffer more…because the resources they need will be gone.

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.

Project

Fanja: forest is forbidden is produced as part of the Pushed to the edge oral testimony project.

Testimonies

Constand: middlemen control everything

Olina: money talks

Fanja: forest is forbidden

Sorahy: education is crucial

Kazy: rains aren’t coming

Zanaboatsy: needing the forest

Sambo: life goes on

Jean-Claude: we are not livestock

Rosette: story of change

Bruno: hotter and hotter

Say Louise: when hardships started

Sirily: working for foreigners

Key themes

Background to the region

The project and partners

Rivers and the sea

Forests

Land and compensation

Farming and food security

Environmental change

Livelihoods

Economic conditions

Health

Cultural and social change

Communications and power relations

Local development

The future