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Malagasy Adventures By RPCV Linda Lyon
Malagasy Adventures By RPCV Linda Lyon
Is Traditional Culture a Tool for Medicinal Plant Conservation with the Antanosy of Madagascar?
By Linda Lyon with Sandra Martin
Vol. 23 Number 2, 2002
I attended Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. I was a biology major and was planning on going to veterinary school. I had worked all through high school in a veterinary hospital, but by my sophomore year at Hartwick I realized I didnít enjoy the laboratory aspects of my studies. Dr. Robert Smith was the Chair of the Biology Department, and he became a mentor to me. He was a plant taxonomist, and I took classes from him and did some special projects, and thatís where my keen interest in plants developed. My goal became to conduct tropical forestry research.
I looked for a graduate program in forestry. I knew I wanted to come out west and I also wanted to incorporate a stint in the Peace Corps with my Masterís degree program. There were only a very few universities that were involved in the Peace Corps program, and Washington State University (WSU) was one of these. I applied to WSU and several other programs, but when I talked to Linda Hardesty [Associate Professor of Range Ecology at Washington State University], I found her so personable and encouraging that I was immediately swayed to attend WSU.
I wanted to use the Peace Corps as a way to get overseas and get some field research done in tropical forestry. Although I was more focussed and pragmatic than many ďstarry-eyed Peace Corps volunteers,Ē the Peace Corps ended up being a great program for me in many ways. I stayed in my program for almost four years, well beyond the required two-year stint.
I was overseas from August 1994 until July 1998. I spent three of those years in a village in the Tamboro area in Madagascar, near Ranomofana National Park, and spent the final year in a small city working on several urban environmental projects with groups that were established there. In that last year in the city I was working on my floristic inventory, and I could always go back out to the countryside near the village where I had conducted my field research, and double check something if I needed to.
The people in the village speak Malagasy, and thatís the language I used to conduct interviews for my research. In the city, both Malagasy and French were spoken. I speak both languages now, but I did not before I went to Madagascar. I studied French in high school and for a year in college but thereís no comparison to being immersed in a culture where you have to learn the language and use it, or else! And so, I truly learned French in Madagascar, as well as learning Malagasy.
When I returned to the U.S. from Madagascar, I took a year to finish my Masterís program at Washington State University. I received that degree in 1999, and immediately plunged into a doctoral program at WSU the same year. Iíve spent the past two years working on my Ph.D. My field work has been completed during two more trips to Madagascar. On my final trip, begun in December 2001, I led a group of undergraduate students from Hartwick College. That trip did not end as planned, due to political unrest in the country. All the students eventually returned home safely, even though their trip lasted more than a month longer than anyone planned.
Hartwick College sends students abroad to many places around the world as part of their undergraduate education. The students enroll in a course and receive credit for their travels, their experiences, and projects they work on while overseas. I arranged with the Biology Department to help offer a course in Rainforest Ecology and Natural History of Madagascar. I worked with Dr. Alan Crooker of Hartwick College to take 25 students for four weeks. My husband, Dinesh Badouraly, came along and assisted with the trip, too. I met Dinesh in Madagascar when I was there with the Peace Corps, and we married shortly after he and I came to the U.S. in 1998.
The plan was for our student group to tour some national parks and other reserves and study the plants and animals of Madagascar, which is home to some of the most unique species in the world. The course explored ecology, natural history, ethnobotany, entomology, and marine science. One focus was on development and conservation, and how these are interlinked with the local populations. We started by spending about a week in the southeast part of the country, visiting some parks and the offices of the Worldwide Fund for Nature to talk with staff members. We then visited the village where I worked in the Peace Corps. After that, we traveled to Tuleare, on the other side of the island. Southeastern Madagascar is evergreen, montane rainforest and Tuleare, in the southwest, is more of a savannah forest. We visited a national park and studied some marine biology there. Then we traveled by bus to the capitol city, and so were able to see the central portion of the southern part of the island, too, which is high plateau. We visited a number of eco-tourist sights in the capitol. We didnít travel to the northern part of Madagascar, but did travel all over the south.
We provided instruction in field biology in our course. At Hartwick College, the Biology program focuses heavily on molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. The students donít often get out into the field with their on-campus courses, so we used lots of field techniques in our course in Madagascarófield identification of plants; sampling, collecting and mounting specimens; how to keep a field journal; and other techniques. Thatís the fun stuff, and itís exactly what got me hooked when I was an undergraduate student!
After the students left, I planned to finish my doctoral research in a two-month period, then return home to WSU to write up my dissertation. Unfortunately, travel was very much curtailed in the country in January, after a dispute over who won the presidential election led to near-civil war in the country. Thousands of people went on work strikes, and much of the country came to a stand-still. Blockades around the capitol city, which is a port, resulted in strangling the flow of gasoline and fuels to other parts of the country, and it became very difficult to drive vehicles or find busses or trains running. Air travel was limited, and then stopped. Our student group eventually left Madagascar on a cruise ship and made it to mainland Africa, where they found airline transportation home. This emergency itinerary took weeks to plan and implement, and required the help of the U.S. embassy. The students arrived home safely, but it took an extra four weeks to get them there! Meanwhile, I did finish my fieldwork, and my husband and I were able to fly out of Madagascar in March on one of the last planes to leave the country.
My doctoral research looks at the effects of cultural evolution on the use of medicinal plants in Madagascar. Iím interested in the effects of natural resource conservation on the use of medicinal plants. Iíve used ethnobotanical research techniques in my workótalking to people to see if knowledge is being passed down from generation to generation. My preliminary results suggest that some inter-generational passing of knowledge is occurring, but itís happening between the elders and younger people who are in their 20s. I did not find this knowledge base in older adults, and this makes me think that perhaps a resurgence in interest in this knowledge is occurring now, and that adults a generation ago (those that are now in their 40s and 50s) were not interested in acquiring the knowledge of medicinal plants. If this resurgence of interest is happening, I would like to find out if conservation of the habitats of these medicinal plants is also of new found interest.
Therefore, another part of my study was a survey of habitats to find where these plants are located. Researchers in other tropical forest locales in Africa and South America have found that some medicinal plants used by local people are located right off the main trails in a given watershed. This might be because these plants inhabit disturbed areas, or it might mean that these particular medicinal plants are just easy to harvest, being so close to the trails. In my study in Madagascar, I am interested in determining which of these explanations is true, and so I sampled forest close to trails and also sampled forest far from trails.
When I talked to some of the healers and elders, most told me that they had never encountered problems with scarcity of medicinal plants. They also told me that they have many different plant species to use for one illness. So, if one plant disappears, they may have nine others to choose from. This diversity, unfortunately, is not promising for conservation. Also, if I find that the people believe that itís best to use western medicine and forget about using the plants in the forest, then conserving that forest habitat to continue to provide medicinal plants wonít be a priority.
I believe that the people in the rural area of Madagascar where I worked will come to a point where they do find that reduced forest habitat is impacting their needs for many things, including medicinal plants. They rely on slash and burn agriculture, which profoundly impacts the forest. They also take some trees and pole saplings for their own use, but that is regulated because the area is a national forest. There is no commercial harvest of trees for timber. In 1995, the villagers agreed to limitations on where they would place their crop fields in a plan that was facilitated by the national forest service, but today, a mere six years later, those limitations are no longer being honored. This is simply because these people need to plant crops to feed themselves. The land that they used five years ago is degraded, and they must move on into the forest. They are aware of the impact that their use is having on their limited forest lands, but they have no choice.
With my Masterís research in the area around the same village, I looked at some agroforestry solutions to the dilemma of degrading habitat with slash and burn agriculture. Unfortunately, such solutions may not be viable simply because the people are so determined to keep on doing what they have always doneóand in this respect, the people of Madagascar are not so very different from anybody on the planet, I think. Change is not welcomed, because the outcome of a new method is not proven; itís not known. Experimenting with new methods is a gamble, and the farmers and their families are the ones who are going to go hungry if it doesnít work.
With my doctoral research, my focus in my first field season early in 2001 was on three things; interviews with people using medicinal plants, botanical surveys in different habitats, and market surveys. I followed up in my second field season by focusing on a few specific plant species. I searched for them in the forest and sampled habitat quadrants to see where they were located and what the population density was like. I talked to traditional healers about the uses of these plants, and where this traditional knowledge came from originally. I am very curious about the transfer of this knowledge between generations and between healers. Iíd like to know what effect cultural knowledge and cultural taboos have had on the use of these medicinal plants, or whether use is simply impacted by the pharmacological effect of the plant on illness. I have really enjoyed this research. Itís been like solving a big puzzle, one piece at a time.
I feel lucky that Iíve been able to pursue this research, even without substantial institutional support. I have had a Teaching Assistantship at Washington State University that helped provide support, but some of the fieldwork has been paid for out of my own pocket. The teaching assignment with Hartwick College helped tremendously with finishing the research, as a large cost for this work has been just getting over to Madagascar. Airfare is expensive to that part of the world. I have applied for grant support, but itís highly competitive because there are so many people working in ethnobotany. The field is interdisciplinary, and so grant seekers compete with others in botany, anthropology, natural resources, and other fields.
I am now writing my dissertation, and hope to finish the
degree program within the year. I am interested in finding a post-doctoral program somewhere, because I love research, and because my long-term professional goal is to find a position at a university. I love to teach, too. To be competitive for professorial positions these days, I think itís best to have a post-doc on your resumé.
I think I found my professional focus during my first stay in Madagascar. I worked with several School for International Training students who spent a semester in the country. They would come find us Peace Corps volunteers and ask us, ďDo you have any projects that we can do?Ē because they needed to complete an independent project for their program. I had so much fun mentoring these students and helping them with their projects, and thatís what really got me interested in teaching. I look forward to finding a position that will allow me to teach and to continue to solve those puzzlesóone piece at a time.