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Zanaboatsy: needing the forest

Zanaboatsy from Petriky, Madagascar - “All my belongings are sold in order to take care of my family, and I still cannot provide enough for them to eat.”

Zanaboatsy, who is 58 and from Petriky, has two adult disabled daughters still living with him and is responsible for them and their children. He feels strongly that the impact of mining activity on the environment has robbed him of any opportunity to “provide a better future for my family”.

Petriky Forest was the “source of life” for the surrounding communities, providing food, medicinal plants, wood for constructing houses – even a special wood for coffins – and sheltering the rivers and fish within them.  Now access to the forest is being controlled and mining activity has had a detrimental effect on the health of the rivers.

Rainfall patterns, he says, have become so unpredictable that farmers can no longer plan their farming year. Despite these problems, he hung on to the cattle he had bought with earlier good harvests, which “saved my life”. He sold one to pay for school fees and to start a small business, which now “looks promising”.

I am a farmer and I have seven children: four sons and three daughters… Despite the fact that my daughters are married, [two] still live with me, along with their children, because my daughters…contracted a disease that renders both of them disabled. My first daughter has three children and my second daughter has two… I am the only one who takes care of them all…

I want to voice my feelings because with my own responsibilities, and the impact caused by the bain-tany (literally ‘wound of the earth’, Tanosy rural expression meaning a time of hardship and deprivation) – I am talking about QMM (QIT Madagascar Minerals – subsidiary of Rio Tinto mining for ilmenite) when I say bain-tany – I have no opportunity to succeed in life and provide a better future for my family.

All my belongings are sold in order to take care of my family, and I still cannot provide enough for them to eat. In addition, I have to pay for my children’s education both in Manambaro and in Fort Dauphin. If only the rains would come, I would be able to farm and harvest to feed my family.

[QMM] took advantage of our situation, of us being too weak to oppose them. In addition, we are mostly uneducated people; therefore we had to accept – against our will – what they [proposed].

In life and death, the forest provides

We used to live off the forest in Petriky whenever there was not enough rain for farming… The forest was our source of life… In terms of food, we used to collect lots of fruits from there and it helped us during difficult times… We collected construction wood to build houses.

In addition, if our children or even adults were sick, we went to search for remedies in the forest… We consumed the fruits of vahipiky (a species of vine) and we used the vine itself to make baskets and fish traps. We used tombok’akoa (another vine species) as well… We sold the baskets and the money was used to buy food for the family.

The forest grew along the rivers… After searching for forest resources, we would fish… There were two sources of water: the Eloha and the Andragnasy rivers… We sold our catch…

If we needed to bury someone, we cut down a special tree from the forest to make the coffin… There are four villages that have a close relationship: Mokala, Loharano, Agnala Mahasoa and Karinoro. Whenever there is a death in one of these, the four villages gather together near the Eloha river, to decide on what to do…and divide the tasks assigned to each village, before they enter Petriky Forest in search of the special tree…

They also assign four people, one from each village, to slaughter and divide the meat that is needed to feed the villagers that day. After this, people enter the forest to search for the wood. In the meantime, the meat is barbecued… After [sharing the meal], people go home to make the coffin and prepare for the funeral. This is an old tradition but of course things have changed now… Nowadays people build tombs with cement and stones, since access to the forest has been prohibited.

The extent of loss

Given that these tremendous resources at our disposal have been taken away from us, it is not surprising if I call QMM the bain-tany. Why do I call them bain-tany?  Because the drought, known to be so bad at killing plants on earth, is as bad as QMM… Actually, QMM can kill not only things on land but also living species in the river…

With the forest disappearing, there is an impact on the fish because their natural environment is destroyed. There will not be as many trees to provide shade on the river… Since there is electricity in Ilafitsignana now, which casts light over the river, fish will move to the ocean, because they do not want to live in a lit-up river…

Even if they let us have access to Petriky Forest to fish, the impact of their work will chase the fish away – because of the noise generated by their machines.

A critical safety net

There are three young people in our village working for QMM. [They] were recruited to plant fruit trees, supposedly to replace the trees damaged [by QMM activities]… I do not believe that trees can still grow in Ilafitsignana…

I feel bad about these people because sometimes they are laid off and then they have to pay QMM recruiters 20,000 ariary in order to be recruited again, for the same job! It amazes me that an employee has to pay in order to get his job back, instead of getting paid for what he could accomplish…

They (QMM together with the local forest service) have started putting in place forest service agents to guard the forest and to delineate a zone that would host the remaining species of animals. The rest of the forest, outside the delineated zone, will be exploited by QMM. They don’t care even if they delineate taboo lands or rice fields to be part of their zone.

This is why we were trying to protect our resources. The forest sustained our lives, like parents caring for their children. When there was a hainandro (drought) we went and sought shelter under “our parents’ wings”. [Thus] instead of selling our livestock to get money, we go to see our “parents” and collect the fruits of the forest. We could fish in the rivers and sell our catch instead of selling our cows.

Medicines from the forest

We need the forest because that is our source of medicine. Most forest plants are useful to our bodies. Diseases in the past were not the same as the ones that currently exist, because people travelling from abroad may have brought diseases to our village – and the diseases may have mixed up, rendering treatment difficult.

In the past, a disease could be treated easily using someone’s knowledge of medicinal plants. [For example, they] used vahironto (a species of vine) to treat a cough. We gave a massage to the chest of a sick person using honey, which we collected from the forest. Alongside this, the sick person drank a tisane (tea) of vahironto. These are examples of why the forest is important to us, and why we are sad that QMM restricts our access to these resources…

We will suffer for sure. Since we don’t have a hospital we will face a difficult situation. Manambaro and Fort Dauphin are too far to go to buy medicines… Doctors are only available in Manambaro and Sarisambo, far from our village. Even if we bring a sick person on a stretcher to a hospital, the people who carry the sick person [face difficulties] due to the bad conditions of the road…

The local communities around here gathered together to repair the road but since we do not have enough equipment to execute the work, we were not successful. QMM helped us with it. People had good intentions to work together but due to the problems encountered by many people in sustaining their families, they did not commit further to take regular care of the road… [They] don’t have time for it. Instead, people need to spend time searching for food for their families.

Drought “happens every day”

Before QMM came to our region my life was good and prosperous. Even if there was a hainandro (drought) in the past we still had rains when the season came. These seasons are not valid any more; drought happens every day. It has been worse since QMM arrived here…

In the past, our ancestors knew when the rain would come or if hainandro would happen… We used to be able to predict…where the rain would come from, from the ocean or from elsewhere. People could tell if the rain would come during any given period. People made decisions [to farm their lands] based on their knowledge of the rainfall periods… They could even skip a season of cultivation and wait for the next one if they judged that to be best for them. This is not the case any more.

A few benefits

Since QMM has built the road from Manambaro to Ambovo, our cassava and sweet potato plantations have survived…[and] we don’t have to make an effort to guard our crops, because the wild pigs have run away! They are afraid of the sound of the machines used by QMM.

In addition, QMM build a cistern for us where we are supposed to get clean drinking water. But our children do not respect the cleanness of the water; they throw rocks and garbage in the cistern. I think QMM should have covered it, in order to filter out anything that may pollute the water. But even if our drinking water is polluted, at least we have a source of water, thanks to QMM.

Some of us understand the need to protect our drinking water but many others do not realise the importance of it, not yet. People were using their buckets with leftover food in them, and scooped water out from the cistern. The leftovers remained in the water and polluted it. QMM said that they had already given us full power to manage the cistern so it was our responsibility.

“The teacher thinks we are unimportant!”

QMM built a school in our village. The school was successful in the past, but now, because of the teacher in our village, children are not willing to study with him because he is interested too much in politics instead of teaching. Furthermore, he doesn’t respect the parents, because he thinks that we are unimportant and dirty people… He is also severe on the children, especially when a child doesn’t get a haircut. For example, he said to one child: “Did your father and mother die, and so could not give you a haircut?”…

In the past, as far as I know there used to be a monitoring service…every month, an inspector followed up on the teachers’ performance. Now since CISCO/ZAP (department of Ministry of Education) manages the system, there is no inspection. Teachers can do whatever they want. Whenever there is an election for a mayor or a deputy, our teacher and his wife are always candidates. They do not teach, but spend their time on politics and campaigning…

Our hope now is to expand our school so that CEG (secondary level) [can be taught]… Due to our limited resources, we are obliged to tell our children to stop studying. We cannot divide the limited resources we have to support the family in the village and also finance a child’s stay in Fort Dauphin [to continue their studies].

Hope for the future

I harvested my crops and I bought cows with the income I generated. I invested all of my money in these cows. So if something happened to them, I lose all my money. In other words I drown. But I hung on to my cows and actually they saved my life when I faced financial problems.

I sold one of them to pay for my children’s education, their tuition and books, and the remaining money I used to open a small business, a store selling small items for the villagers’ daily needs. Currently, my small business looks promising… I could build a house made of tin sheets with the profits from my business.

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

Zanaboatsy: needing the forest 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