National Geographic Young Explorer Alizé Carrère is researching an innovative method of agricultural adaptation in the Malagasy highlands that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as “lavaka”, literally meaning “hole”, they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic benefits, turning a deforested landscape into one of opportunity, not hardship.
It’s a funny thing, field research. It often leads one to enter a foreign environment with the singular purpose of contributing to a greater academic pursuit, and yet once there, you watch (sometimes helplessly) how quickly it can spiral into a secondary, perhaps even tertiary, priority. Or if you are able to keep it at the forefront of your journey the entire time, the way you actually got your data probably doesn’t look anything at all like what your original plan called for. No one tells you that all of those itineraries, maps, and high-tech field equipment you bought will be far less important than a good moral compass, an even better intuition, and your best smile. No one tells you that if you pass on an offering of roasted field crickets, you’ll have to eat spoiled beef that will leave you sick for days and make you wish you just ate the damn field crickets. No one tells you that while you might get a notebook full of data, you might also get a new perspective on this curious thing called life.
Such has been the case as my time as a National Geographic Young Explorer in Madagascar, and it is also the reason why I find fieldwork to be one of the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding experiences I have ever known. It helps that Madagascar is a country unlike any other, brimming with some of the world’s most peculiar and spectacular creatures and habitats, but my love for this type of work comes more from the rush of getting to explore the world and its complexities in some of the most authentic ways left. I often tell my parents, both of whom were adventurers in their own rights, that my generation has been left a world that lacks a certain element of mystery when it comes to the realm of exploration. So for me, doing fieldwork offers the near fantasy-like experience of discovering the world à la Indiana Jones, the feeling that you just might be the first outsider to ever sit down and share a meal with those villagers (sometimes you are!)
As my research on the lavaka of Madagascar comes to a close, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on these various adventures and what new perspectives I have gained along the way. In addition to spending the last three and a half months documenting a unique form of adaptation to environmental change, a case that I believe has an important place in the future of conversation concerning solutions to pressing environmental challenges, I walk away with a deeper appreciation for what it means to live so closely, and depend so entirely, on the surrounding environment. For the last few months I felt as though I often lived in a reality where sayings I grew up hearing such as, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, or “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”, and “Necessity is the mother of invention”, aren’t simply proverbs but rather the real and understood laws of the land.
I have often been asked a question: when you work and spend time living in such impoverished areas, don’t you feel guilty, or get depressed, at how abundant your life is and all the good fortune you have that those around you never will?
I’ve finally found my answer to that question in Madagascar, and it is no. While it will always be distressing to see children with swollen bellies and torn clothing, I rest with the knowledge that I always contribute to my greatest extent in the environment I work, and that those contributions are sincerely and deeply felt where applied. For all that is then beyond my capacity to help, share, or care for in a physical or material sense (for we all have a limit to which we can realistically be of service to the world’s sufferings), I let it feed my gratitude for the immense luck I have of being born into a world of abundance – physically, emotionally, mentally. And what better way is there to live life than to live it with the fortune of having access to much of the planet’s staggering bounty and beauty, and yet to be so aware of that fortune that every little thing, whether it be a new pair of socks or a vacation to the seaside, makes your heart swell with appreciation?
Thank you to all my readers for sharing this journey and for the many incredible responses of support and encouragement along the way. My deepest thank you to the National Geographic Society for making this once-in-a-lifetime journey possible – and for those of so many others who work towards the greater purpose of helping people care about our planet and its people.
Most of all, however, I thank the incredible number of Malagasy people who welcomed me into their country, into their homes, into their hearts, and gave me the opportunity of experiencing their extraordinary world in a way that few outsiders get to truly come to know.
Misaotra betsaka, Madagasikara!