Jamila Lisbeth Haider

A little bit about me...

Throughout my studies in Biology and Political Science, I have always been fascinated by the link between poverty and environmental degradation. Do the poor really have no choice but to degrade the natural environment around them to survive? And if this is in fact the case, then what will they live from when their resource base runs out?
For a few years now I’ve been studying this link and searching for alternatives to this downward spiral.  WWF’s youth volunteer programme and the opportunity to travel to Madagascar—one of the poorest countries in the world and at the same time a biological “hot spot”—gave me the chance to study my theoretical queries in the “real” world.  Although I was excited to have the opportunity to travel to Madagascar and volunteer with the World Wildlife Fund, I had many doubts and reservations setting out on this journey.  I was certain from the very beginning that I would learn an incredible amount: about Madagascar, about how an ENGO works on the ground and what “roughing it” in the forest was really all about.  But I questioned whether I would actually have impact in the realm of the project I was working in. Would I be able to positively influence people’s lives around me? Would I have the opportunity to contribute to conservation in the vulnerable rainforest?  And so I set off to Madagascar... eager to learn and to make a difference but skeptical of the changes that I could actually initiate.
© WWF / Jamila Haider
Jamila profile picture
© WWF / Jamila Haider

What I learned while I was there

I came with six other volunteers to Madagascar’s poorest region, Ala Atsinanana. More specifically we came to work in the Vondrozo forest corridor. On the three-day road trip from Tana to Vondrozo, I was shocked at the change in landscape and also the transition from brick buildings—to mud houses—to Ravinala wood huts. Poor in economic terms, this region is rich in biodiversity and is home to one of Madagascar’s largest rainforests.
In an attempt to conserve the rainforest, the government of Madagascar imposed a restriction on slash and burn agriculture (known as tavy) which had been widely practiced throughout the country.  The WWF is working with communities within the forest corridor to oversee the management transfer and help communities adapt to the restrictions.

Throughout the three months I spent exploring in Madagascar, I helped the WWF forest agents in various activities.  Just as a side note… these agents are SUPER men!  They cook, they do dishes, they give traditional spit messages to heal sprained ankles, they swing on jungle vines like Tarzan, they make magical leech potion…to name just a few. So what did these activities entail? I did some zoning: which involved separating the territory into 4 zones: strict protection, utilization, rehabilitation and occupation.  By involving local community members in this we were able to raise awareness of the zones and help organizations monitor the remaining forest.  To further this goal, we also conducted a forest inventory, in which we recorded the remaining forest products available for use.  In this way, the communities are better able to manage their remaining resources in a more sustainable manner.

These activities involved some tough times, reading GPS points while pulling leeches off my feet and swatting mosquitoes out of my face, sliding down an eroded hillside with nothing to hold on to, scrambling through thick, thorny underbrush, shivering from an intensely high fever and of course walking through suspect water in goopy swamps with open foot wounds.
But these hard times were greatly outnumbered by the good—observing lemurs from the campsite at full moon, showering in a waterfall, experiencing the sting of salt water in my nostrils at one moment and enjoying a thick coating of warm sugar cane juice down my throat the next, bathing in a river at sunrise with the morning mist, the satisfaction of looking down into valley far below after scrambling up its slope and perhaps best of all, the feeling of clean feet after a hard days work trudging through a murky swamp…

Even though the fieldwork was tough at times, it was rewarding and exhilarating at others.  And not all the work was physically tough! We also prepared a social survey to assess how the Malagasy people have adjusted to the restriction on slash and burn agriculture.   This activity required a lot of teamwork and preparation, and ended with us speaking with farmers.  I spent a week in one village and spoke to over 40 farmers about their agricultural methods and also on their views of conservation and development.  I was encouraged by the fact that these farmers view the forest as an important source of water, medicinal plants and even as a climate regulator.  It was also made clear to me that the community viewed the WWF not only as a conservation organization but also as a development agency—and expected social improvements (such as schools, hospitals and roads) to magically appear with my presence.   While I felt frustrated that I could not directly provide these essential services for the communities, I do feel that along with the WWF agents, I was able to give them valuable advice on how to go about obtaining some these social improvements. 
Perhaps my favourite activity as a volunteer was awareness-raising.  We had the exciting opportunity to participate in World Environment Day activities, and do presentations in various rural communities and schools.  I feel that our presence in these rural communities reinforced the importance and uniqueness of Madagascar’s ecosystems, not only at a local, but at a global scale as well.  Stressing the importance of long term planning and cooperation, I have seen that the farmers we worked with do realize the importance of the forest for future generations.  The president of the community-based association in Tsaratanana showed me the tree plantation his community had started so that they can use firewood without degrading the forest.  This is just a small example of the potential for a more sustainable future.

Walking across the top of a 100 foot waterfall—knowing that one wrong move would result in my imminent death, depending on the light of the milky way and the full moon to guide my way along a windy path, watching a far away thunderstorm over the ocean while laying under a clear starry southern sky; these experiences have shown me the power of nature, which partly describes my passion for the environment.  On a more practical level, I observed the extent to which human life depends on the environment.  And so what about this link between poverty and the environment?  Yes, it’s true that a poor farmer in Madagascar may cut down trees and destroy essential habitat.  But just because we in the developed are often not directly faced with the effects of degradation, does not mean that we are less guilty.  In fact, even for a long-time “tree-hugger” like me, living without electricity and one cup of water a day to do all my washing has helped me realize the extent of over-consumption prevalent in the developed world.

Nearing the end of my adventure, I can’t believe I hesitated for even a second to come to this amazing country and have the experience of a lifetime.  My experience as a volunteer in Madagascar has deepened my passion for the environment and has also given me hope for a future in which humans can live in harmony with the environment.  All it takes is for people to open their eyes and hearts, make a bit of an effort and stand up for what they believe in.
This movie explores the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation in the Vondrozo forest corridor.

Contact me!

Don't hesitate to get in touch with me if you'd like to find out more! lhaider2@connect.carleton.ca

A Case Study of Community‐Based Natural Resource Management

After Madagascar?

I finished my BA in Political Science & Biology and I'm currently an Aga Khan Fellow working in the Natural Resource Management Dept of an NGO in Tajikistan.

My suggestions to those of you considering this program?

Be ready to work in a team. Everything I did, from creating the social survey—to cooking dinner—to peeing in the rainforest, was done in a team!
There will be tough times, and just when you think you won’t be able to pull through, your team will help you out.  Likewise, there will be mind-blowing experiences which will be that much more incredible because of the people at your side. 

Don’t worry about starving.  But do prepare yourself to be uncomfortably full after eating a mountain of rice and beans two or three times a day.

Try to learn as much Malagasy as possible. The more you can speak with the porters, guides and villagers, the more you’ll learn, laugh and probably sing. 

Ask questions, and when you think you’ve asked too many, ask more.  This is important advice for two reasons.  Firstly (and practically), the forest agents often appear to speak in tongue twisters and much is lost in translation; it’s important to be clear about instructions, directions etc.  Secondly (and for me more importantly), the agents possess a wealth of knowledge which should be taken advantage of!
© WWF / Jamila Haider
The Group! in Ranomafana National Park
© WWF / Jamila Haider

Come with an open mind. Whatever experience you have, it won't be what you expected. It will be more exhilarating, harder, satisfying and probably itchier than you imagined!