The Unspoken Story of a Hero of Local Conservation in Madagascar

by Dannick Randriamamantena (ELP 2018) | Landscape Manager, WWF Country Office, Madagascar

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

I'm going to ask you a quick question: what is a hero or a superhero? Most of you will probably answer me by names of renowned Marvel or DC characters such as Hulk, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, or big names from historical myths like Achilles and Hercules. There is nothing wrong with your answer because we have always been told the story of these characters in the books we read, in the movies and cartoons we watch, and in the many commercials we watch at times inadvertently, despite our wishes. Certainly, some of you will tell me that there are also the heroes in the history of humanity who have contributed to the change and progress of today's world, and I quote some great names that I have in mind without thinking too much; there is Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so on. Again, I fully agree with you; they are heroes and I respect them very much for what they have brought to humanity. To be a hero, in my own perspective, is to have a mission that everyone has considered impossible and to have the courage to change things so that a majority of beneficiaries lives or will live in a better world. The accomplishment of a heroic act has no limit both on the nature of the act itself and on its geographical extent. For me, a hero can be a young man who saved a child drowning on the beach of his village, a teacher who overcame the problem of insufficient means but tried to give an acceptable education to schoolchildren in a very remote rural village, or a mayor of a municipality who fought against corruption for the good of the local people. There is in this world a lot of heroic acts that a person or a group of people have realized in order to change the lives of their own community or their entourage, and when these acts are told and publicized, they are always inspiring. For instance, very recently at the beginning of this summer 2018, there was Mamoudou Gassama, the young undocumented Malian who became famous by saving the life of a child in Paris. Unfortunately, there are many of these stories that are not told.

I will take advantage of the opportunity that the Beahrs Environmental Leadership program offers me to write something that will be shared by a recognized institution such as the University of California, Berkeley. I share with you the story of a wonderful person I met during my ten years in conservation in Madagascar. This person has contributed to the accomplishment of change without realizing it, and above all without wanting to boast about his achievements. He is a modest and humble person and he has only one will, which is to act for the good of others.

This is the story of Judicael "Judi" Rakotondrazafy. Judi is one of my colleagues at WWF Madagascar; since early 2017, he has been appointed as a Technical Responsible in charge of the coordination of conservation projects that we implement in the Menabe Region (West of Madagascar). Prior to his current position, he held various responsibilities after joining WWF as a trainee in 2007 and then hired as a field workers. He was rising through the ranks and he has always had the opportunity to be close to local communities during his professional careers. He has fully contributed to the conservation and restoration efforts of mangroves in the west coast of Madagascar.

Before I go back to Judi's story, let me tell you about the restoration of mangroves. This is one of the key conservation actions led by WWF in the Manambolo Tsiribihina landscape since 2007. Starting in 2011, annual planting campaigns were conducted with local communities and young people. And the numbers speak for themselves. More than 2 million mangroves have been planted since 2007 on an area of more than 1500 hectares that has become a forest again. A striking succe—and a visible one as well: while in 2004, the Google Earth satellite images showed an arid and bare landscape. In 2017, they showed a region fully reforested and covered with mangroves! And thanks to ten years of regular and sustainable reforestation, the forest is returning to life, again providing a valuable habitat for waterfowl, crabs, and shrimps. This evolution has a positive influence on fishing yields, one of the main sectors of activity in the region. These newly-restored mangroves are now managed by local communities in a very sustainable manner.

Behind all these conservation results and their impacts on nature and the local population, there was above all patience, willingness, commitment, leadership, technicality, collaboration, faith, objectivity, and so many other values that can only be linked to humanity and the efforts of a group of people. I recognize all these values in my colleague and friend Judi. From time to time, I ask myself, why this guy is always helpful and listening to others, and always have been since I’ve known him? Where does he want to go and what is he trying to prove? The answer to this question is "nothing"; in fact he does not want to prove anything. He is just there by patience and directed by a desire to change things so that his entourage has a better future, so that local communities have a lot of fishing products, so that the villages are protected during the hurricane season, so that beekeepers have a profitable honey production, and so that the communication team of WWF Madagascar has a good story to tell.

I come back to my point about the heroic act: whoever arrives to lead a group of people to transform a desert area into a mangrove forest, and thus restore all the services of this ecosystem to me this person is a hero. I dedicate these stories to thank Judi and all the heroes of conversation who represent different institutions and who commit their bodies and souls to sustainable development in Madagascar. I am proud of these people who are committed to working in these unsafe and hard-to-reach areas.