Madagascar: Sainte Luce, a Coastal Village

a sifaka in Madagascar. photo by Malee Ott.
Madagascar:forest-shotThe littoral forest almost meets the ocean in the Sainte Luce Reserve
A Rainy Day in Sainte Luce

By Mallee Baker Ott
The rain has not stopped for over twenty-four hours, falling in swollen, disruptive drops. Even the ducks are taking shelter under thatch roofs sagging with saturation. The village of Ambandrikais a ghost town today, inhabitants darting purposefully from shelter to shelter.
I am sitting in the village’s general store, interviewing the proprietor who also happens to be chief de Quartier of the hamlet of Sainte Luce, a collection of the villages of Ambandrika, Ampanastromboky, and Manafiafy. Barely 50 kilometers from southeastern Madagascar’s shipping hub Fort Dauphin, the community of Sainte Luce can feel light-years away, made inaccessible by weather as any traces of road disappear under water.
There is a steady stream of visitors to the general store requesting essentials from the rows of neatly lined goods—rice, pasta, beans, brown glass bottles of Three Horse Beer, plastic baskets of foiled wrapped medications, andsoft packs ofGood Look cigarettes. But the most sought item on a day like this is homemade rum stored in recycled plastic bottles called taoka gasy, with all the potency of moonshine. I am battling a sinus infection, and the medicinal properties of the rum are tempting, but instead I stick to my coffee, rich and perfectly flavored with sweet and condensed milk.
We stop the interview briefly to accommodate a patron, an older woman. She unwinds the rain soaked cloth covering her shoulders and requests a tiny shot of the toaka. She swallows the rum and says something quietly in Malagasy before leaving. Everyone erupts in laughter. I look at Elise, my boss and translator, “She said not to tell her kids.
Fishing Community
Fishing is the main source of protein in Sainte Luce, Madagascar.Fishing is the main source of protein in Sainte Luce, Madagascar.This is a fishing community. The sandy soil around Sainte Luce supports the most species rich and undisturbed fragments of littoral forest remaining in southeastern Madagascar, but not much else. It is a struggle even to grow cassava, pineapple, bananas, and taro root; the few crops able to tolerate the sandy, salty, and acidic soil. The charred remains of tavy, the Malagasy term for slash and burn agriculture, are evident in the patchwork of fields fringing Sainte Luce. Cultivation creeps ever toward the fertile forest soil. Days like today, without fishing, bring knotted stomachs and eyes fixed on the sky.
Chief Foara has a number of vivid concerns for Sainte Luce—livelihood, access to healthcare, food security, and managing the coastal forest surrounding the community. A shaved head, chiseled face, he wears a heavy silver bracelet on his wrist and is insightful and well-spoken. He has almost as many questions for me; what I think of Madagascar, and about my life in the United States. The last thing he asks is if I take the time to stop and chat with people I encounter in the course of my day to day life at home. He wonders about the pace of my life in America. ‘No’, I tell him, ‘Almost never.’
Leaving the chief, Elise and I dart through the rain, across the pot holed pocked road bisecting Ambandrika, back to the Tatiana’s, the woman who’s home we have set our tent up next to, and who has been hired to cook for us while we are in the village for a series community interviews. Tatianais a culinary force, creating eclectic meals over a tiny wood fire, pasta with finely diced vegetables, delicate skewers of shrimp perfectly charred, fresh ginger, shaved into lavish slices, and a ubiquitous supply of smoky, salty rice tea, the preferred local digestif made from boiling water in a pot with the remaining residue after rice has been cooked.

I am in the village after spending two weeks across the shallow river as part of a vegetation study in the Sainte Luce Reserve, a protected area of forest known as S-17. My task in the reserve is to document the species diversity and health of the forest with a local botanist named Jack. Jack has an astounding eye for the miniscule; he does not speak any English, but instead identifies each species by local name, sometimes tenderly unwinding several species of liana to point out each individual. He shouts out names—Tandrokosy, Falinandro, Amboralady, Tagnatagnala—almost faster than I can write without tearing the damp pages of my notebook.

Navigating the Forest Floor
Jack moves purposefully, navigating the eccentricities of the forest floor. He wears knee length board shorts and a long burgundy coat to protect from the damp morning chill trapped in the forest understory. We move without trails, negotiating tangles of vegetation as rich forest soil crumbles underfoot. We rope off study transects with twine, gingerly wrapping the slender trunks of saplings, threading the string through limbs. I am constantly plucking thorns, leaves, and spider webs from my sweat dampened skin.
ringtailed lemurIt is easy anthropomorphize the pensive sifaka at Reserve NahampoanaJack stops sporadically to point out movement in the canopy, a pair green pigeons, a crested ibis, and a small group of brown lemurs. When we stop for lunch, heaping servings of beans and rice are passed with universal gestures, points and smiles. I spice my rice with a handmade paste of green chili,eyes watering as the heat seeps through the coarse grain in my mouth. After lunch, Jack spends our digestive hour rolling cigarettes with tiny strips of newspaper and napping on a tightly woven straw mat while I thumb through heavily dog eared guides to local flora and fauna.
In Ambandrika, Elise and I are sitting on a notebook full of questions for a community survey assessing local opinions about forest use.At Tatiana’s table, I listen as raindrops continue to fall on the roof with the consistency of a metronome. Sainte Luce’s fishing economy is the basis of a day to day existence for many, and as the hours tick by with pirogues still ashore, talking is the last thing most people want to do. Rolling my pen across the top of my notebook, I have an unexpected impulse, Elise and I pull on barely dry parkas, roll up our pant legs, and head back out into the storm to find Jack.
Access to the forests around Sainte Luce has changed drastically in the last half century. Despite evolving land use policies, local reliance on the remaining sections of littoral forest remains high. Forest timber is used for every imaginable form of construction, from shelter to traps for fishing. The diversity of flora also still provides a number of medicinal species regularly used locally.
Forests are also a source of protein. Fish is far and away the primary protein segment in the local diet, but hunting birds and lemurs is not unheard of. The objective of our community interviews is to assess the potential for bringing tourists to the S-17 reserve. The hope is environmentally friendly tourism can provide a sustainable source of income for the local community and reduce the strain on forest resources.

The forests around Sainte Luce also harbor a high quality supply of ilmenite, a minersainte-luce-reserveThe view at lunch in the protected Sainte Luce Reserveal which forms the base for paints. The ilmenite in southeastern Madagascar is richer in titanium dioxide than many of the other deposits found on earth, and has drawn mining operations to the largest remaining segment of littoral forest in Sainte Luce.
Community forest use has been limited to an area termed Ala Filana, where extraction is allowed with permission of COBA, the local forest management association.

Jack is no place to be found, instead we continue to the home of a community forester. Four fishermen visiting from Manafiafy sit listening to the interview, watching the rain steadily fall against the packed earth outside. I start to leave as one the fisherman says something, pointing at the sky. I turn to Elise, “He says he doesn’t know what to do when the weather is bad.” I open my notebook and pull the cap off my pen with my teeth.

Shortage of FishsnakeA Madagascar tree boa in the protected S-17 forest
The men are part of the local Fisherman’s Association, worried about the shortage of fish around Sainte Luce. They are opposed to the use of nets, and tell me nets have caused fish to disappear from the nearby village of Itapera.
Fishing is hard, a day of fishing yields a day’s worth of food, nothing more. It all begins again when the sun rises. Sainte Luce’s isolation from regional trading centers is not a case of distance, but access, and local fisherman are subject to prices set by outside buyers for Mahatalaky and Fort Dauphin.
Fishing is hardly lucrative; rates are set by middlemen visiting Sainte Luce are 1,200 Ariary ($0.50) for a kilogram of fish and AR 8,000 ($3.64) for lobster. Buyers from Fort Dauphin also come asking for shark fins, offering AR 40,000 ($17.85) a fin, but the men think this is an unfair price, they know the fins are sold for exponentially more money.

We find Jack on our way back to Tatiana’s, standing under the fringed fingers of his thatched roof, just out of reach of the bloated raindrops. He agrees to be interviewed and follows us back to Tatiana’s. My mind is flooding with questions that bottleneck at my mouth. Jack sits across from me patiently. I shake two Good Look cigarettes out of a soft pack and hand him one.
Jack tells me he is a fisherman by trade, in his early fifties, he had four children, one of which he lost. He shares a fishing boat with his children. I am astounded. I want to know why he knows so much about the forest. He explains it is because he is also a carpenter, and he learned from his grandfather as a young teenager. His mind-boggling knowledge of the local flora seems to be an unquestioned family tradition. He has taught his kids too, it is useful for them to know about the forest, he tells me.

Fishing is harder for Jack now too. He tells me fish aren’t necessarily smaller, but there are less of them. The weather is different these days too, it storms out of season. And now, he has to go fishing at night. I ask him if he would rather have a job working in the forest at the reserve, if the tourists come. He smiles and gestures emphatically with raised hands, glowing cigarette between his fingers.Elise laughs. I stop my scribbling, waiting for her translation. ‘He would love a job working with tourists. He wouldn’t have to row a boat anymore.’
Malee Baker Ott

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