Feedback Madagascar

Location: Madagascar

Subject: Conservation & Education

Dates: 1997 – 2005

Related ACE Cultural Tours:


Advancing education and providing assistance in the relief of poverty whilst conserving the environment. Projects are driven by the views, or feedback, of the local people.

Project History

Feedback Madagascar was founded in 1991 by Jamie Spencer, an anthropologist who first visited the country aged 22 to write his university dissertation. He was so moved by the poverty yet generosity of the Tanala people, and their kindness when he was taken ill, that he was determined to repay the debt by returning to help the Malagasy. Madagascar is one of the poorest nations on earth, but amongst the richest for endemic wildlife. The majority of people are subsistence farmers and the country has a rapidly growing population. Under current systems of agriculture the land is struggling to support them, resulting in further deforestation and erosion. Integrated development and land management are therefore important priorities. The first major project was to build irrigation dams for the village of Sandrakely and then to rebuild a local school destroyed by a cyclone.

Project & ACE

ACE was approached by Feedback Madagascar’s director, William Self, in 1997, with a proposal to fund a secondary school forest reserve. Already a primary school reserve had been created, attracting the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature and Madagascar’s Ministry of Education. Impressed by this first step, the village elders in Tsaratanana donated land for the school forest reserve, situated on the eastern border of the Ranomafana National Park, whilst ACE agreed to fund the training of teachers and staff and the provision of educational courses in the environment, sanitation and agriculture. Pupils and their parents were to learn how to manage the reserve and to utilise a variety of forest products, creating a financially self-sustaining project, and exchange visits were arranged with both UK students and a number of other Malagasy tribes. An important element was the creation of a locally staffed and run partnering organisation known as CCD Namana. Unfortunately all this was against the backdrop of a financial crisis in the country which resulted in 4,000 rural primary schools being closed and 12,000 teachers being laid off. Coupled with the Ministry of Education no longer being able to provide support, it sadly became apparent that the scheme could not proceed and that an alternative direction would need to be found.

Feedback Madagascar returned with a proposal to help support an Agricultural Training Centre in Ambalavao, Fianarantsoa province, a project that had previously been visited by an ACE group during a study tour to the country. The centre played a key role in re-establishing the traditional, home silk industry, as well as instruction in improved agricultural methods for other crops, whilst its tree nursery provided 65,000 saplings in 1998. Young women from female-only households particularly benefited from this scheme. Previously, many had been reduced to begging or forced into prostitution at the weekly cattle market and, without access to healthcare, sexually transmitted diseases had become a silent epidemic. Their children were undernourished and did not have access to education, reducing the chance of breaking the cycle of destitution.

The silk industry in Madagascar is founded on two species of sericious insects. Firstly, Bombyx Mori or mulberry silk worm, introduced to the island by Europeans in the 19th century and which became the basis of widespread household production, particularly on the high plateau region. Secondly, Borocera Madagascariensis, an endemic species whose cocoons are harvested directly from the forest (wild silk). By the late 20th century the tradition had almost died out, undermined by mass production of cheaper fibres and poor marketing. However, Feedback Madagascar reasoned that there would be a demand for individual products made from natural fibres and produced in an ethical manner.

In Ambalavao, the first stage in the re-introduction of the silk-making tradition was the establishment of a mulberry plantation within a 25-hectare site and the training of an initial group of 15 women in all stages of silk production, from mulberry propagation to weaving of cloth on small locally made looms. In September 1999 an ACE party was privileged to visit the new centre and contribute directly to the project by purchasing some of the beautiful silk scarves. ACE provided further support in 2005 to Feedback Madagascar’s work in reviving the silk industry. The focus on this occasion was the central high plateau region of Amoron’Mania, with the emphasis on providing the skills necessary for increased production and for selling.

Whilst the revitalised silk industry played a useful part in raising local incomes, Feedback Madagascar was keen to do more to improve local healthcare, and in 2001 requested ACE’s support for the Traditional Birth Attendant project, a programme of training and exchange between illiterate traditional birth attendants and doctors and midwives. The provision of modern healthcare is extremely limited in the area, with high rates of infant and maternal mortality. One of the few resources available to expectant mothers are the traditional birth attendants who, whilst respected and trusted by local communities, have very little medical knowledge. The training provided over 120 traditional birth attendants with information about such matters as vaccination, breast-feeding, diet and family planning, and experience of at least two births in a hospital environment. With this knowledge the traditional birth attendants have become a vital conduit between the medical profession and the villagers.