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Radical Listening in the Rainforests of Madagascar: A Letter From Our Founder

Dear Friends of Health In Harmony,

I’ve just returned from an incredible trip to Madagascar, where we are launching our next site. This is a huge step for Health In Harmony – expanding to another continent – but we really want to show that our model works in different cultural and ecological contexts. There just aren’t enough solutions on the planet that simultaneously protect rainforests and improve people’s lives. If we have something that will work everywhere, then we need to scale it as fast as possible because the Earth has little time – and the rainforests of Madagascar are disappearing at an alarming rate. 

Kinari Webb with children at an environmental health project in Madagascar.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world and about 80% of the population lives in extreme poverty, making less than $1.90 a day. It is also incredibly beautiful and the forest is simply amazing. Our group got to see four species of lemurs and many surprising creatures (including a bio-luminescent chameleon!). Madagascar is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots because 90% of the creatures that live there, live only in Madagascar. Yet those magical forests are being lost. 

After arriving we drove for 21 hours from the capital of Antananarivo (Madagascar stretches from NYC down to the tip of Florida in length!), to the region around the Manombo Special Reserve, where we plan to work.

I met the two Malagasy men we identified to lead our program there – Victorien, our program coordinator, and Dr. Mamy, our health program lead and care provider.

I also held four radical listening meetings so that I could teach Dr. Mamy and Viktorien the technique. It’s relatively simple: gather about 50 people in a circle – including village leaders and at least 50% women – and then listen to what people think the solutions are for protecting their rainforest and bettering their lives!

The radical part is that we will actually do what they say. 

Amazingly, in all the places we have used this technique (Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brazil) all of the communities in a given region came to the same conclusions after about an hour and a half talk. People were so delighted to be asked what the solutions were and to be trusted as the experts they are. At the end of the meetings, they were effusive that we had listened and said they would count the days until we could begin working together. 

In Madagascar, villages decided that two problems were equally important: lack of health care and hunger. When I asked them to rank the problems, one woman said it was impossible to do so:

“Without food you can’t be healthy, if you have food but have no health care, you will still die.”

Hunger drives people into the forest, burning charcoal to sell and digging up the roots of the few forest plants that are semi-edible (they apparently cause itching, but they keep people alive).

Their solution for hunger was support growing rice. All of the villages asked for rice varieties that could be planted every three months, as well as “modern” agricultural methods (this includes proper spacing and organic fertilizing techniques). Some villages also asked for help with their irrigation systems. In one case, they needed to build a small dam, and in two others they needed help with canals. However, they said that they would need to be paid in food to do the work because they didn’t have the energy to it on their own – they weren’t growing enough rice to have the energy.

Their solution for health care was either mobile clinic visits or some form of transportation. Poverty forces people to walk – often without shoes – for as long as four hours to get to the nearest village. They told us horror stories of trying to carry others who were too sick to walk. 

The last request was support rebuilding schools. At some point in the distant past, schools were built by the government. Today, nearly all are falling down and they leak horribly in the rain. Thankfully, they have teachers who are paid regularly by the government. But the structures are in desperate need of repair.

A school house in Madagascar.

Communities were also very excited about receiving a “thank you” from the world for protecting the amazing forests that they very much don’t want to lose. One man said:

“Our ancestors told us there would be forests until hens have teeth, but now we know that isn’t true. It will soon all be gone.”

The Manombo Special Reserve is home to nine species of lemur, most of which are severely endangered and one that lives only in that forest. 

Are you be willing to say thank you to these communities and help them save these amazing creatures by improving their own lives? 

We’ve raised enough for six months of work in Madagascar and are starting with the hope that all of you will help us extend that runway. Please help us do this important work and send your thank you today!

With gratitude,

Kinari

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