Responsible tourism in Madagascar

There are many dichotomies in Madagascar. A veritable oligarch in terms of natural riches, it is still one of the poorest countries in the world. It has a culture which is profoundly informed by ‘ancestry’, yet still struggles with an ability to protect resources for the living and indeed, generations to come. It has an impressive system of protected landscapes, yet still does not protect its children from exploitation. Deforestation is stripping the country bare and yet ‘slash and burn’ or ‘tavy’ is central to local culture, as a way of growing rice. And it is with rice, the product of the deforestation, that Malagasy people welcome guests into their homes.

People & culture

Ancestry and taboos

Malagasy culture revolves around ancestry, or razana, as it is called locally – the dead inform the living, and are seen as a kind of life force. Although this sounds vaguely creepy to many of us, it is just the way of life here. Malagasy people are friendly and welcoming, humble and warm. It is a fascinating culture, and worth reading up on before you travel. Local people are uncomfortable about their culture, however, and don’t quite understand why we, as visitors, might be fascinated by it. They have a complex taboo (fady) system, with different taboos in different villages. In one village, it is taboo to wear swimming goggles, for example. Really. Also, Malagasy people do not like confrontation. It is part of their culture of 'fihavanana', meaning ‘conciliation’.

What you can do:
Always ask about taboos when visiting a local village – it’s much better to check than to offend people accidentally. Do what you can to avoid confrontation, however small – fihavanana translates into tourist language as not getting uppity at the check in desk, bumptious about breakfast being a few minutes late, or having tourist tantrums about trivia.

Child sex tourism

Prostitution is everywhere in Madagascar, and can be a shock for many. Even more unthinkable, however, is the growth of child sex tourism here, with children being forced into the industry because of extreme poverty. Policing of child sex tourism has increased in tourist areas over the last few years, and international child protection agencies are aware of the problem, but lack of funding has meant that there is little consistency in policing in many cases. The most prolific international agency trying to put a stop to the exploitation of children for sex tourism purposes is The Code which countries and individual companies sign up to. Unfortunately, to date, Madagascar, has not signed up here, although certain international and domestic companies working there have done.

What you can do:
Always report any suspicious activities with regards to children to local authorities and, in particular, the tourism locations which are allowing it to happen. There is a telephone hotline in Madagascar for this purpose, which is 147. If you feel you are not getting anywhere with regulatory authorities, the Ministry of Tourism will always take these issues seriously, and it is worth contacting them too. Another option is to contact ECPAT (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking), an organisation set up in Thailand in 1990 which has a large international network and works in partnership with The Code. Madagascar is not on their member base to date, but they will be able to guide you if you have nowhere else to turn. Their contact details are info@ecpat.net.

Support reputable charities working for sustainable change in Madagascar. There is a list here. Helping to break the poverty cycle in Madagascar is the first way to create change, whether that is in deforestation, farming or child abuse. And if you are inspired, go back and volunteer with a responsible volunteering company next time. And finally, spread the word. Madagascar is the size of France, but there are only around 300,000 tourists per year. It has a lot of room to grow as long as we help them do so sustainably and safely.

Wildlife & environment

Nurturing nature

The rivers have, notoriously, turned red in Madagascar due to soil erosion caused by deforestation. Despite an impressive amount of protected land, over 90 percent of the country’s forests are gone, half of them since the 1950s, and with over 90 per cent of their endemic species dependent on forest, the future is certainly not rosy. In fact, it is still a very strong shade of red. Even among the famous lemur populations, an estimated 17 species of giant lemur are now extinct. However, before we judge and spurn those who slash and burn, it is important to know that this technique goes back a long way in Malagasy farming practices, and is considered by many local people to be the only way to grow rice.
Over 70 per cent of Madagascar’s population lives under the poverty line of $1.25 per day, so maintaining food supplies is fundamental for them, no matter what the method. By supporting the local economy while you are there, for example using local guides and local activity providers, you are showing people that they can support their families through increased tourism revenues. And that nature can, indeed, nurture.
Before we judge and spurn those who slash and burn, it is important to know that this technique goes back a long way in Malagasy farming practices.
What you can do:
There is little infrastructure in Madagascar, and so it is best to organise your trip through a reputable, responsible tour operator. However, many of these work with standard packages, using the same Westernised hotels again and again. Ask if it is possible to have a package that goes ‘off piste’ a little. Do some research first, and if you find something that appeals, such as a community run hostel or a different guide, then suggest to the tour operator that they adjust your itinerary to include these new aspects into your trip. They might be reluctant at first, but tell them that you are keen to share the money around different communities and they should be able to support you in this. Or support the work of prolific charities like WWF which work with the government to increase the amount of protected landscape, but also with local communities to find suitable alternative farming methods and incomes. Or go out of your way to visit conservation and research centre Centre Valbio, supported by Stony Brook University in New York, located beside Ranomafana National Park.

Diving responsibly

Madagascar is not a country for people new to diving, although with very few tourists and Toliara coral reef off the southwest coast being the third largest coral reef system in the world, this is diving to die for. Not literally, however. You need to be an experienced diver here as infrastructure is thin on the ground - as in no coastguard, no chamber and pretty much zero emergency services. Equipment can be out of date and unreliable. In fact, it is still considered relatively pioneering to dive here.
What you can do:
You need to know what questions to ask before you come and recognise faulty equipment when you see it. Be sure to check how new the equipment is, when it was last renewed, if they can supply oxygen and what are their evacuation plans.
Typically, dive operators are conscientious about protecting the marine environment, but always ensure to use a diving company that has a good track record in environmental awareness.

Responsible tourism tips

Poverty is the biggest issue in Madagascar. Without tackling this, nothing will change. So make sure you get out and experience the real Madagascar and share your spending money with real people. Shop at the markets, use local guides and buy local food. It does make a difference. Support the national parks systems and don’t resent the park entry fee. As long as local people, from government to grass roots, can see that conservation equates with burgeoning coffers, they will have a reason to protect the land and the species that live there. Malagasy people are keen to be involved in conservation and tourism projects, meaning that organisations which truly engage with local communities have been welcomed with open arms. Seek out tourism organisations which are not only working with local people, but teaching and supporting them to create their own sustainable ways of living. If you want to volunteer in Madagascar, do your research properly. All of the trips promoted by Responsible Travel have been screened to ensure they provide genuine benefits; many of the organisations we work with have been working in Madagascar for many years. As a basic starting point for your research here are our 10 questions that you should ask when looking to volunteer. If you are one of the many bird watchers flocking (sorry) to Madagascar, become a member of the African Bird Club, which funds conservation projects and works very much hand in hand with local communities. It helps to speak French to order a beer, but there is still a difficult ex-colonial relationship between the Malagasy and the French, so better to learn at least a few words in Malagasy. The people are so friendly here, that just being able to say Manahoana (hello) will open up many doors. When shopping locally beware of anything made of illegal hardwoods such as rosewood, and also anything made from shells (including tortoise), coral, fossils or snakeskin. To get your message across to the vendor tell them it is fady (taboo) for you to own these items. Sapphire mining has gone crazy in Madagascar since 1998 when a seam of high-quality sapphires was found in the Ilakaka river valley. If you are tempted into buying some locally, you should be aware that children are used to source sapphires, as they are often sent into deep, narrow tunnels.
Mark Jacobs, from our supplier Azafady:
"People get obsessed about Madagascar once they visit. The first question they ask us is: how can we help? It is very hard to get information on reputable charities because it isn’t a commonwealth country and it is often seen as France’s problem, so it falls into a funding gap. The usual charities don’t work here."
Richard Nimmo, from our supplier Blue Ventures:
"If diving, always think about where you are spending your money. If you just want to go out and snorkel or fish, ask a local fisherman if he will take you for a reasonable fee. Yes, you are going at your own risk, but just check they aren’t going out too far. If you are experienced swimmers and want to relate to local people, you will have much more fun this way and local people will benefit hugely from your fee. Madagascar isn’t about having a smooth, high quality packaged vacation - that’s why it’s so wonderful."

Next: 2 min summary

We think that every country is unique - but we can't deny that Madagascar is more unique than most. Its flora and fauna are unlike anywhere else in the world, and the Malagasy culture is a rich fusion of Bornean, Polynesian and African people who landed on this lush island centuries ago. Our Madagascar travel guide goes beyond the lemurs and baobabs to piece together a perfect Madagascar vacation.
This guide was written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: BMR & MAM] [Slash and burn: Frank Vassen] [Marine life: Andrew Hamilton, Frontierofficial] [Traveler with children: NH53] [Fisherman: Les Robb]
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