Study Abroad: Madagascar’s Cultural and Biological Diversity

It had always been my professional dream to take students on a study abroad program that would be meaningful and impact their outlook on their role in the world. For me, study abroad shaped my own professional trajectory, having participating in several trips to various parts of the world as an undergraduate and graduate student. While I led a similar trip to Madagascar as a doctoral student, I felt that I could make it my own by framing it around how to study landscapes in order to understand the environmental history of a place. For my department, this was the first history-specific study abroad program. On a personal level, this met my own professional goal of engaging students with global awareness. I want my students to see themselves as part of a larger world, as they become decision makers, consumers, and global citizens. But in three weeks, what could I possibly teach my students about the environmental history of Madagascar?

After nearly a year of planning, I took a group of undergraduate students from a New York public liberal arts university to Madagascar in January 2020. The aim of the class was to introduce students from across the disciplines to the field of environmental history and for this to take place in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. What better place to have this experiential learning opportunity than in a place that few Americans ever travel. The outcome was a powerful experience for the students, which I daresay, will stay with them for a lifetime.

Rice harvest near Betafo, Madagascar
Rice harvest near Betafo, Madagascar. Photo by Olivia Murray.
[Image description: Four Malagasy individuals carrying bundles of rice stalks in the street. Two-story white houses behind them]

My students’ experience with international travel was mixed. Some had traveled to developing countries in the past, but others had never left the United States. For some students, the trip required some adjusting, particularly to the degree of poverty they encountered on a daily basis. This factored into our instruction, as we considered the historical legacies of issues like deforestation and hunting of endangered wildlife for bushmeat.

Ring-tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve
Ring-tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve. Photo by Olivia Murray.
[Image description: Close-up portrait of a ring-tailed lemur. Red eyes are prominent]

The agenda gave the students a whirlwind tour of the southern part of the country, beginning in Antananarivo, the capital, and ending on the Mozambique Channel on the west coast. This brought students out of a traditional classroom and made every encounter or turn of the road a potential learning opportunity. As soon as students deplaned in Tana, they experienced the hot rainy season of January just below the equator. The humidity met with our fatigue since the Air France flight lands at nearly midnight. They did not get to see the landscape until the next morning. For students, one of the first things they noticed was the smell, which in urban areas is often a mixture of diesel exhaust, cooking fire smoke, and rotting food. It is loud early in the morning. Men and women are already set up on the streets to sell their products before the sun has risen. You can buy just about anything you need along the street as you sit in traffic.

Our first destination was Andasibe, a community west of the capital in the eastern rainforest band. In just a few hours we went from Madagascar’s busiest city to a small village in the rainforest. It was our first opportunity to take a night hike to see what comes out after dark. In the morning, students were woken by the indri lemur, a primate that has a fascinating folk tale and an eerie call in the forest. In Andasibe, students learned about the ways in which a government-run national park and a community-based park coexist side by side.

Indri indri in Andasibe National Park
Indri indri in Andasibe National Park. Photo by author.
[Image description: Two black and white Indri lemurs grasping tree trunk in rainforest]

One of the challenges in teaching environmental history in Madagascar is one of the things that makes it an excellent field site. Some issues are well-known, such as deforestation and the resulting loss of habitat for lemurs. Lesser known problems include the impact of mining on the environment and local communities. Choosing locations to take students involve questioning how best to illustrate and discuss these problems without contributing to them in some way. Since the trip was quite mobile, students were able to see the degrees of deforestation as well as the causes. One of the most illustrative examples was our trip to Ranomafana National Park. The drive to Ranomafana takes you through what was once primary rainforest. I explained that in the four years since I had last been to the region, the landscape was so very different than before. Trees were burning right alongside the road; much of this deforestation was driven by charcoal production. Local communities face extreme poverty, and a “quick” way to make money is to sell charcoal, which is the primary means of cooking fuel in the country. Because students were able to see the landscape and discuss the relationship between local communities, we discussed the legacy of colonialism in deforestation and community responses. We also examined the questions regarding the “true” level of forest cover in Madagascar prior to human habitation 2000 years ago.

Andasibe, Madagascar
Andasibe National Park has reversed some of the deforestation of previous decades, although it continues to be a problem in Andasibe and across the country. Photograper unknown.
[Image description: Black and white photo of Malagasy workers digging at construction site on the edge of the rainforest. Soil erosions is visible]

There are other important environmental issues, but because of ethical concerns, I do not make them a part of the agenda. Mining is an important part of Madagascar’s present efforts to improve the economy of the country. I could not feasibly plan a trip to a mine, of course, as mines are dangerous places in the most regulated circumstances. So we settled for a drive through a town that has experienced a boom on sapphires on our way to the Mozambique coast. Mining is basic as miners dig straight into the earth without any sort of safety measures. Towns look like old mining towns in California during the Gold Rush, with dealers and buyers lining the road through town. The promise of wealth was hard to avoid, but it made for good discussion starters with the students, wondering what will happen when the boom dies if global demand declines or health consequences exacerbates. We also discussed the harvesting of highly endangered rosewood, a product you can often find in curio shops that sell wood carvings. I urged my students to avoid buying it.

Students walking through rice field near Betafo, Madagascar
Students walking through rice field near Betafo, Madagascar. Photo by Olivia Murray.
[Image description: Students walking along ridge of rice paddies with storm clouds looming in background. Photo taken of students from behind]

Some days were such fun and it was exciting for me, as their instructor who has perhaps become somewhat jaded when it came to noticing the novel things about traveling. Bringing students, particularly the ones who had never traveled abroad, to a place where almost everything was new—from the food to how to use the toilet—reminded me of the joys of travel and study abroad as an undergraduate. 

Teaching in this sort of format also requires the instructor to let go of any formal instruction methods. This is really teaching at its most basic, with every opportunity a chance to teach something new. Dinner each night could be an experience in understanding the transformation of Malagasy cuisine, it being a fascinating mixture of local and global foods. French culinary influence came, of course, with colonialism, but the inclusion of Chinese dishes has a lesser known history. Chinese laborers started coming in the nineteenth century, and generations later, this immigrant community has become Malagasy in their own right.

Food is not the only way that teaching can be woven in to the ordinary moments. We often had long drives between one site and the next, sometimes as long as six or eight hours. This is where the landscape itself offers opportunities for learning. We traveled through diverse environments, ranging from dense rainforests to arid deserts. This meant there were innumerable opportunities for discussions about Malagasy livelihoods, conservation, education, or history. One of the most visible cultural practices was funerary rites. A historical practice and belief of many Malagasy was that when you build structures, you make homes for the living out of living things (trees), but you make homes for the ancestors out of things that are not alive (stone). So it was easy for us to spot burial tombs along the road, where people entomb their deceased family members in family vaults. Some ethnic groups have a “turning of the bones” at certain periods, bringing their ancestor’s remains out of the tomb, making sacrifices, and rewrapping them in new material before returning them.

The best teachers were the Malagasy themselves. We had a wonderful Malagasy guide, Ralison Dani Andriamparany, who I worked with on several occasion prior to this trip. He was a wealth of information on any topic from history to ecology. Most importantly, he made the trip smooth through his careful planning. When we took hikes through the rainforest or countryside, local guides led us and explained what we were observing and helped us find different lemur species and other wildlife in the forest.

Malagasy man in blue shirt standing in the rainforest
Our local guide Patrice could find any animal in the forest, including small snakes. Photo by Camille Montalbano.
[Image description: Malagasy man in blue shirt standing in the rainforest. He is pulling a small brown stake from a tree trunk]

In the end, I think students left with a meaningful experience. From a point of view of creating effective pedagogy in environmental history, taking students to the places where they can experience and observe makes something that could potentially be abstract much more real. In Madagascar, the urgency of understanding the impact of human-induced change

*Cover image credit: Anja Community Reserve, Ambalavao, Madagascar. Photo by author.

[Cover image description: Terraced rice fields in valley below granite mountains]