Appalachian's Sustainable Development Program take students to Madagascar

  • View larger image

    Appalachian students studied agroforestry and conservation issues in Madagascar through a summer program led by Dr. Christof den Biggelaar, pictured far left. Photo provided by Dr. Roshna Wunderlich.

Seven Appalachian State University students worked in collaboration with students from James Madison University (JMU) and the University of Toamasina to study the agroforestry, forest ecology and conservation issues in tropical rainforest zones of Eastern Madagascar.

Why Madagascar?

The four-week summer program offered through Appalachian's Sustainable Development Program was an idea started by Dr. Christof den Biggelaar, a sustainable development professor. Since 2005, den Biggelaar has personally been visiting Madagascar, but created the first faculty-led trip for students in 2011. Den Biggelaar partnered with Dr. Roshna Wunderlich, biology professor at JMU, to join the seven Appalachian students, five JMU biology students and three students from the University of Toamasina's Natural Resource Environmental Management Program to study Madagascar from a fauna perspective by observing lemurs, sustainable agriculture and tropical rainforest ecology.

"The trip really focused on sustainability, but traveling internationally also gives students a different perspective on issues of poverty, development and the lives of other people. It's important to be aware of cultural issues. It gives students a better appreciation of other cultures," den Biggelaar said.

Sustaining Madagascar

During the trip, students visited various national parks and forests, sustainable agriculture projects and worked with nonprofit organizations that focus on conservation and social development. Students received academic credit for courses that examined the local pressures on Madagascar's natural resources and approaches for managing and conserving the flora and fauna.

The program started in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, where students spent time at the University of Antananarivo for a tour of the university's facilities. Professors there also taught the biology and ecology of Madagascar, as well as the challenges to conservation efforts before students traveled to the Ivoloina Conservation Training Center (ICTC) at Parc Ivoloina. Parc Ivoloina is a zoo conservation site managed by the summer program's local host, Madagascar Fauna Group (MFG), an international collaboration of zoos, universities and related institutions that focus on conserving Madagascar's lemurs and other wildlife.

Also on the trip, students:

  • Toured the Savonnerie Tropicale Organic Oil Palm Plantation to learn about sustainable practices and eco-tourism in Madagascar. In addition to oil palm, the plantation grows crops such as lemon grass, pineapple, starfruit, vanilla, coffee and cocoa.
  • Carried out forest inventories in 10-meter plots of land to better understand species diversity and forest structure in five different national parks, forests and reserves—Parc Ivoloina, Anala'ambo, Anlalava, Tampolo and Mantadia.
  • Learned about the Malagasy (people of Madagascar) practice of slash and burn, which involves the cutting and burning of forests to grow crops. Students learned about sustainable alternatives to this practice, such as agroforestry, composting and organic farming methods.
  • Visited the ceramic factory of the nonprofit organization Saint Gabriel, that provide water pumps and ceramic water filters made from local materials to local villages.
  • Participated in World Environment Day at Parc Ivoloina with the local community by immersing themselves in the culture of Madagascar through dance, games and zoo tours.

Jonathon Hurst, a recent sustainable development graduate, said, "My favorite part of the trip was the real interactions we experienced with the local people. To experience a connection with someone who has an entirely different way of life and who lives in a completely different part of the world is truly an indescribable feeling, because underneath our petty differences we all had the same dream—to live in a way that allows future generations to experience the same bounties and beauties that the world has to offer."

Community Involvement

Students also worked with HELP Madagascar, a Christian nonprofit organization based in Toamasina, Madagascar, which works with social and development issues through health, education and life-skills projects. The students worked with Colin and Kimberly Radford, the organization's founders, who opened the two-room primary school house where kids from nearby agricultural communities could continue their education. The organization also run several community clinics in the city of Toamasina and provides assistance to orphans.

As a service-learning activity, students devoted one day to work on various community service projects such as:

  • Working with HELP Madagascar through various projects such as sorting donated clothing and planting Moringa trees that are highly nutritional at a local village to promote sustainability practices and educating the local people about how to properly maintain the trees while practicing proper sanitation.
  • Volunteering at Parc Ivoloina Zoo by cleaning cages, feeding animals or working in the agricultural station by planting crops, building compost piles, making and placing sticky insect traps or cleaning trails.

Logan Creech, a senior sustainable development major from Charleston, S.C., said, "If I can draw one main thing from this trip it would be that the people make up the city, not the environment or the buildings themselves. It was important to me to see how people directly affect the city and it's development. You can't teach that from a textbook.

"It makes a huge difference when you travel internationally or have any opportunity to apply what you are learning. It allows for self-discovery to use what you learn and apply it to your life and situations. On this trip, I did more in a month than I could have possibly planned for myself in a year."