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It was just after dawn in Andasibe National Park, and we all hiked slowly behind our guide, eager to spot wildlife in the dense, misty forest. We didn’t have to wait long or search too far. Suddenly, a loud, melodic siren rang out through the trees. It was answered by a chorus of songs—sustained notes that all overlapped, wavering up and down. This was the call of the Indri, the largest lemur in Madagascar. They live in family groups, and sing out in order to make contact with each other. We followed their calls and spotted their sleek black and white fur high up in the trees, where they sat munching on leaves. Indri are beautiful and fascinating, but the fact that they are critically endangered makes seeing them even more special, if not a bit heartbreaking.

It’s difficult to not feel discouraged when environmental issues seem so entangled with issues of poverty, food security, population growth and climate change.

I recalled the long drive to Andasibe. Looking out the window, I had seen mile after mile of rice paddies, or of empty, degraded land where the soil could no longer support rice nor forest. The degraded land was streaked with lavakas, or landslide areas where the topsoil and any ground plants have eroded away, leaving barren dirt. Andasibe lies in the middle of a region that still practices tavy, a form of slash and burn agriculture, that Malagasy people have used for generations. Forest is burned to clear room for rice fields, and once the nutrients in these fields are depleted, farmers move on and repeat the process. I already knew about tavy before coming to Madagascar, but seeing the extensive deforestation right before my eyes filled me with a sense of tragic awe.

I felt privileged to be able to speak directly with Malagasy people about their rice farming. There are efforts being made to promote more sustainable rice farming methods, but it’s very difficult to convince people to abandon a method that has worked for generations. One of our guides spoke of Cyclone Enawo, which devastated parts of Madagascar earlier this year. Because of the cyclone, rice yields were poor this year, and now people are even less likely to experiment with new farming methods. And due to climate change, unpredictable weather will become more common. Pierrot, our supervisor, brought up another issue. He said it is tradition for men to divide their rice fields among their sons. Families usually have many children, so as time passes and the population grows, the family rice plots get smaller and smaller, and people have to turn to the forest for more space.  Many obstacles lie in the way of sustainable farming that allows forest to remain intact.

Watching the fascinating Indri filled me with the urgent desire to protect them so that they could continue to fill the forest with their beautiful song for many years to come. Yet it’s difficult to not feel discouraged when environmental issues seem so entangled with issues of poverty, food security, population growth and climate change. Travelling to Madagascar opened my eyes to the complexities of conservation, but I can only remain optimistic that through determination, open-mindedness, and hard work, progress will be made.