By Carrie Flood
When the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation (ACNC) first floated the idea of conservation staff grants, I was ecstatic. The idea that my employer would help pay for me to work on field projects normally reserved for ambitious college interns and post-doc students was super exciting. I immediately got to work finding a project that was both interesting and willing to take me. Enter Madagascar and a hard-working NGO based out of the UK.
Azafady (now called SEED Madagascar) has a semi-permanent field station in southeastern Madagascar. They work on many projects: sustainable living for local communities, study and protection of a critically endangered forest, environmental education programs for local students, and infrastructure projects like digging wells and building schools. Azafady had several ongoing projects, and I wanted to help build fuel efficient stoves for village families. The stoves use less wood, which reduces the number of trees cut for fuel; a major threat to the remaining forest. The stoves are assembled with bricks built out of a magic mixture of sand, clay and cow dung. (Don’t act like you don’t want to play with cow dung.) I submitted my stove building proposal to the staff grants committee, and several applicants including myself were invited to an interview with the full committee where we could pitch our proposals in person and answer questions. After the interview, I waited nervously while the committee members discussed the options and made their selections. A few weeks later, when I was informed that my proposal was selected, I couldn’t believe it. I was going to Madagascar? Excitement took over quickly – I was going to Madagascar! – and I set about making plans to leave.
I didn’t spend the whole time building stoves; field projects are unpredictable and subject to both weather and staffing changes. The team tracking lemurs couldn’t go out in a rain storm, so they pitched in with stoves on rainy days. There were times when our master stove builder was unavailable, so our team would help on other projects. Being able to “roll with the punches” and maintain a positive attitude are vital skills on field projects when it rains unexpectedly or when you find yourself deciding whether to pick the spider out of your rice or skip dinner. (Pro tip: NEVER skip dinner.)
The best time to survey amphibians like frogs is just after a storm. As it was the rainy season, I ended up spending much of my time knee-deep in a swamp watching frogs I was supposed to catch and identify disappear under the water. We did catch some (there were younger, faster people on the catch team,) and got lots of good data about the species’ range and preferred habitats. We conducted behavioral studies on lemurs and checked in on some rare plants, too. All kinds of data were gathered to document the uniqueness of this kind of forest, which was unfortunately down to just a few hundred hectares.
Almost one full week was dedicated to projects in the little village near the edge of the forest, where we organized co-ops to empower the women and had listening sessions to identify areas where we could best help the community. Getting to know the people in the village and the challenges they face was a highlight for me. We developed and conducted environmental education lesson plans for the students and played animal-themed games with them. Almost all the students were so busy helping out at home or in school that they’d never even been into the forest in their backyards.
We organized a field trip and watched their faces light up when we pointed out animals or cool plants. It was amazing, and I hope they remember it for as long as I will. I hope at least one of them gets to continue their education, and grows up with an appreciation of the forest, maybe even becomes a scientist fighting to protect it. I hope the data we gathered helps guarantee that the forest is there long enough for them to show it to their own kids.
And that’s just one staff grant. ACNC gives out several each year, and they all have these incredible stories of people making the world a little bit better with the support of people like you. So next time you’re here, say hi to one of the keepers, or the educators running programs for the kids. We have stories.
And thanks for helping us make them.
If you or anyone you know is interested in contributing to our staff conservation grants program, please contact Shannon at 602.286.3800 x7424 or our website.