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The Struggle for Sustainability on Africa’s Little Green Jewel

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats.  ——— PhD student, Christian Ranaivosoa,...

Fantapera (coal-burning cookstoves) for sale along the road to Ankazobe
Fantapera (coal-burning cookstoves) for sale along the road to Ankazobe, Madagascar. Photo courtesy of Cara Brook.

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats. 


PhD student, Christian Ranaivosoa, and I were paired up through a Madagascar requirement that all foreign researchers work directly with a Malagasy student, and so far, it’s been a win-win situation for us both. As we prep for our field departure, I realize that I could not negotiate Tana business without him, while, without me, he would have no funding for his research. All foreign researchers are required to pay the costs of food, lodging, and supplies for their Malagasy counterparts, in addition to granting them a 20,000 Ariary per day salary.

As a first-year graduate student with a nominal living stipend of my own, I find it a challenging situation to be in (and I could not manage it without my outside granting agencies—thanks, NatGeo!), but there is development genius in it all—when it works out peaceably. In my case, I think it will. I smile and dream about international academic collaboration thirty years into the future as I sketch out a Susceptible-Infected-Recovered disease model and explain differential equations to Chris over lunch.

In a previous life, I spent a solid three days in Tana trying to find a place to buy a THB (the national beer label) T-shirt and then only succeeded after crossing security in Ivato airport.  “My country is crazy!” Chris explains. “They won’t even take your money when you want to spend it!”

As if in testament, we wander into a shop in Analakely to purchase black plastic for our pitfall traps, but the shopkeeper informs us that the person who can cut the plastic is not available. The same thing happens when we want a piece of rebar cut into segments—the proprietor tells us it is impossible. In the end, we find another shop for the plastic and bring our own saw to cut the rebar.

A few enterprising foreigners have taken hold of one of Madagascar’s most lucrative industries—that of mining for natural resources. Since the discovery of world-class alluvial sapphire deposits in south-central Madagascar in 1998, the country has been wrought with social turmoil surrounding the gem and gold mining boom. While tens of thousands of Malagasy have left home to try to strike it rich, most of the industry’s profits go to dealers from Thailand, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere.

I am surprised to notice the scarred hillsides surrounding the Ambohitantely forest, but the agent de fôret on site tells me that this northern region is also a hotspot for resource extraction. “Mitovtovy Ilakaka,” he says. Almost the same as Ilakaka—the infamous wild west settlement that is center of the sapphire trade in the South. “Will you leave biology to take up mining?” he asks me. “Mihitsy,” I reply. Never.

Madagascar is a different world from America, and I try my hardest to do what I think is the right thing, but I often wonder if I just make things worse. In the US, I am a vegetarian, protesting the lack of sustainability characteristic of so much of the American meat industry.

In Madagascar, I am less certain of the right course of action. I eat meat when it is offered, but I bombard Chris with questions about how far the zebu (cattle) are transported and who is making the profits. Most of the time he does not know, but he is amused that I care so much. He chuckles when I try to refuse plastic bags from our purchases in Analakely, and the shopkeepers force them into my hands anyway. “Azafady, fa tsy mila harona,” I say. Sorry, but I don’t need the bag. And they just stare at me in confusion. “A bag is like a receipt here,” Christian explains. “It’s a sign that you paid for the item.” Oh, Toto, we’re really not in San Francisco anymore.

On the trail in Kianjovato, Andy quips, “What is the ethically correct thing to do with my banana peel?” Throw it in the forest, I guess.  In Tana, I struggle with the same question and toss my akondro peel in a field rife with plastic and other trash. But a passing Malagasy businessman hisses at me, and I dive guiltily into the grass to recover the peel—I learn later that Tana, at least, has a landfill somewhere, and I find a rubbish bin in which to deposit my peel.  I do wonder, though, whether it will end up any place better than that field I first considered…

Chris and I debate the pros and cons of our cooking instruments at camp—we buy a burner and gas for our rice, but Christian insists that it will take too long to cook dry beans. “Plus, coal will keep you warm,” says Andy. I am outraged, though, to think that we’ll be contributing to deforestation, climate change, and our own lung cancer all at once—I am supposed to be an ecologist, after all.  I know that Peace Corps issues gas stoves, so I ask Ankazobe PCV, Travis, what he does for his beans. “Oh, I have a separate fantapera—coal-burning cookstove—for my beans.” Really?!

Christian at last concedes that a pressure cooker might answer our problems, but we drive all over Tana and visit seven different gas stations before we find one with an extra VitaGas burner in stock. “It’s like they want us to be bad for the environment,” says Chris. Yes, sustainability is hard, especially in Madagascar. I think I need hardly mention that a gas canister plus burner runs around 130,000 Ariary ($65), while you can get a fantapera and supply of coal for less than 3,000 Ariary.

“You certainly think a lot,” says Chris curiously. “You have a very beautiful mind.”

He is laughing as he says it, but my eyes tear up a little because that is the second time in my life that someone has told me almost exactly those same words in Madagascar. In both contexts, I wonder if it was meant as a compliment or an insult—maybe something of both. I know that I am naïve, maybe even ridiculous, but I don’t see that as a reason to quit trying to do the right thing. As my good friend from undergrad,  earnest idealist and Madagascar PCV, Kim Conner, tells me, “If you dream big enough, you’ll still accomplish great things—even when you fail.” Hear, hear, Kim; your eloquence could give JFK a run for his money.


NEXT: A New Research Site, A New Disease to Uncover

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Meet the Author

Cara Brook
My name is Cara Brook, and I am a postdoctoral fellow with the Miller Institute for Basic Research at UC Berkeley. I study the role of bats as reservoirs for some of the world's most deadly emerging viruses, including Ebola and Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, and SARS coronavirus. I bridge field ecology, cellular immunology, and quantitative epidemiology to investigate this question, at both within-host and population levels. I blog from my field site while tracking down fruit bat viruses in central Madagascar. Tonga soa --Cara E. Brook is the recipient of two research grants from the Nation al Geographic Society.