On my most recent project visit to the most southerly parts of Madagascar’s forest corridor, and consequently the most marginalised, Ikongo and Tolongoina, I accompanied my four colleagues led by Ny Tanintsika’s Environment and Sustainable Livelihoods Project Officer, Dadah Mahatamama. Here he was to oversee the signing of contracts with new beneficiaries of Project NODE. These contracts due to last for six months, typically extend beyond this, a reflection in part of the local enthusiasim and participation in this project.
We spent three days in Tolongoina and two days in Ikongo town in the Ikongo district of the haute plateaux. These full two days are certainly necessary for the explanation of the terms of the contract. In regions such as Ikongo and Tolongoina – where illiteracy is extremely high it is essential to have this face to face explanation.
What is Project NODE?
Project NODE is a two year contract with our partner, Conservational International. It supports mini projects conserving the forest corridor as well as creating income generating activities in Madagascar’s south – central forest corridor. These projects extend from the northern point of the corridor Ambositra, to Vondronzo in the south.
The role of the beneficiaries
In effect Ny Tanintsika supports the beneficiaries who carry out these income generating activities. We supply them with various agricultural products and equipment and then train and supervise them on the cultivation of these products.
For my recent visit, the agricultural activities of the new beneficiaries involved the cultivation of hens and contrastly, of beans. The beans are transported on the country’s only train journey from Fianarantsoa. And the hen cultivation is supervised by our two technicians in the field.
As in the terms of the contact, the beneficiaries also carry out activities favourable to conservation; not just reforestation, but also the protection of endangered species, and the setting up fire walls (helping to prevent forest fires).
Micro Finance with TIAVO
In addition to providing materials and training beneficiaries on the cultivation of hens and beans, we also ensure that loans are set up for them, by collaborating with the biggest micro finance organisation in Madagascar, TIAVO. These loans ensure they have finances necessary to cover the initial cost of activities. After a period of time, when the activities make a net gain – they can start to pay this back after having made a profit.
By working with the beneficiaries in this way, they are assured responsibilities and independence which will help their abilities when the project comes to an end. They are taught financial responsibilities and how to make repayments using balance books. Although they are given instructions from technicians to grow beans and cultivate hens they must ultimately work independently to do this, which of course they are happy to do, with supervision from technicians only when necessary. The beneficiaries also select a president, treasury and secretary to lead and organise each association.
The problems that face beneficiaries
As the days progressed it became clear that the main problem when working with beneficiaries is their illiteracy. In Ikongo for example, in one particular association the president, treasury and secretary could not read or write, in this case, roles were handed over to other members as this was an impossible situation for continuing contracts.
Certain writing exercises were also a strain. Even to hold a pen was a difficult practice for some members. In particular, Ikongo seemed to face more problems with its illiteracy rates and this is certainly due to poor levels of education found in the region, further south in the corridor and further isolated. Books and pens are almost unseen and school children rarely attend school for a full five days a week. Here Dadah asked for the assistance of other colleagues to help in giving face to face explanation which was repeated throughout the day. Dadah also used various exercises to test the beneficiaries understanding and he asked them to fill in a table drawn on flip chart paper to see if they could calculate finances for themselves.
It was not just illiteracy that was a problem, but other members were clearly not used to having responsibilities. In Tolongoina, the president of one association didn’t show up to the meetings. Obviously without access to electricity or mobile telephone reception in this forgotten region this is a regular hinderence to communication and organising activities.
On my visit, I had a chance to speak to Emile Ranivomalala, president of the association Soafianatra based in Tolongoina. She explained how she felt about the start of the contract: “I’m really happy because it will be necessary to change all the conditions in life from day to day to generate a new source of income.”
By the end of the five days, it seemed the associations were keen and ready to commence with the contract. It was clear to see that when they had understood the activities and signed the contracts – they were content with this chance and responsibility they had been given – which often goes amiss in these isolated regions.