On the Record

Saving the rainforest

On the Record with Mitch Irwin and Karen Samonds

Mitch Irwin and Karen Samonds
Mitch Irwin and Karen Samonds

SYCAMORE – “Save the Rainforest” is more than a bumper sticker tagline for Mitch Irwin and Karen Samonds of Sycamore.

Husband and wife Northern Illinois University professors, Irwin (anthropology) and Samonds, (biological sciences) helped found the Malagasy nongovernmental organization Sadabe in 2009.

They formed Sadabe after recognizing a need for conservation efforts in and around the Tsinjoarivo forest, home to many spectacular varieties of lemurs, a primate found only in Madagascar. Sadabe promotes research, education, conservation and the healthy co-existence of people and wildlife.

Last year, the Rainforest Trust awarded more than $1 million in funding to Sadabe and another Malagasy NGO, Madagasikara Voakajy, to establish a permanent Tsinjoarivo Protected Area. Irwin and Samonds are spearheading the creation of the 65,506-acre, high-altitude rainforest preserve.

Species in the Tsinjoarivo area include critically endangered primates such as the Sibree’s Dwarf lemur and Diademed Sifaka and two critically endangered orchids known solely from Tsinjoarivo.

Irwin and Samonds met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss their work in Madagascar and why they have made saving the rainforest their mission – and possibly their legacy – in life.

Milton: When did you first travel to Madagascar?

Irwin: Karen first went in 1998, I went in 1999, each doing research in our particular fields. She studied anatomical sciences, which has a strong program in Madagascar with paleontology and fossils. I studied anthropology with an emphasis on living animals and ecology. Now we teach a field school in Madagascar through NIU and take our own grad students. It’s come a bit full-circle.

Samonds: It’s actually a total coincidence that we both work in Madagascar. We were just students at the same university and met in graduate school.

Milton: Why Madagascar? What makes Madagascar different from other places?

Irwin: Madagascar is a huge island, it’s isolated and has been isolated for a long time. It has more than half of the world’s species of chameleons. In Madagascar, there are a lot of endemic animals, meaning animals that are found in one place and nowhere else. Madagascar has one of the highest levels of endemism anywhere in the world. More than 90 percent of the animals there are endemic.

Samonds: That’s pretty amazing. But when those animals are gone, you won’t be able to find them anywhere else. That’s what makes conservation so important. As the animals go extinct and the environment is degraded, the quality of people’s lives and health also declines.

Irwin: I’ve never seen a country be so rich and so poor at the same time. It is in the bottom five of the poorest countries in the world, but it is among the most culturally and biologically rich. Population is high, but health care and education are low. The number of people, quantity, is growing, but not the quality of life.

Milton: Do you work closely with the local people?

Samonds: Our work is deeply integrated with the local people, and we have formed close relationships with the people in our region. We’ve been going to Madagascar for more than 20 years now, and bring our kids every year. Everyone there has families, so it’s one way that we connect with them through that shared experience. The people there are our friends, our guides, even our babysitters. They all speak one common language, Malagasy, but there are different dialects. We are both fluent in Malagasy and our daughters know some of the language, too.

Milton: What is Madagascar like?

Samonds: Madagascar has a large capital city, Antananarivo. There are a couple of million people that live there, and also lots of poverty. We spend most of our time in the rural regions.

Irwin: When we go to Madagascar in the summer months, it is winter in the southern hemisphere. Even though it will still be quite hot, it can occasionally get down to freezing temperatures at high altitude. In the rural areas, there is no running water and no electricity except some solar panels. We usually eat the food we bring and a lot of beans and rice.

Samonds: I think the students really miss the food from home when we’re there. It’s been so long for us, we’re used to it – it doesn’t really faze me anymore.

Milton: Why are we losing the rainforest?

Samonds: The people there practice slash and burn techniques to clear areas for agriculture. It used to be sustainable, when populations were small and moved from area to area, giving the forest time to regenerate and grow. But now there are thousands of people, and they need more and more land.

Irwin: That’s why we try to help them find more sustainable food solutions. Before, they would need to clear a large area just to grow a few sweet potatoes. By helping with their need for food and giving them a source of revenue, the hope is that this will take the pressure off the forest.

Milton: What is needed to help the local people from cutting down the rainforest?

Samonds: To help save the rainforests from deforestation, there’s not a lot of financial investment that’s needed. The people there can easily keep up with a project, they just lack the start-up cost. We’re trying to increase the benefits of the already-cleared regions. They can use those areas for bees, rabbit breeding or fish ponds. Sometimes the community has ideas or suggestions, like wanting to make baskets.

Milton: Why do you think the people of Madagascar turn to deforestation?

Irwin: It’s because they need food and money, but they have increasing population and low agricultural yields. We hope to share with the people there that the rainforest is a special place. There, lemurs are thought of like we think of squirrels in our backyard. To them, they’re everywhere and common. They don’t realize that the lemurs are located only there, that they’re endangered.

Milton: Tell me about your latest project.

Irwin: Last summer, we received a grant from the Rainforest Trust to create protected areas in places in Madagascar that need protection. There is a very expensive legal process needed to change the government’s zoning of the area, with many rounds of consultations. Even if the government recognized the importance of protecting the rainforest, they didn’t have the funds to support the rezoning or helping the local communities.

Samonds: We will be protecting almost 30,000 hectares, about 65,000 acres, of rainforest. Our group, Sadabe, will be the contract manager of the area.

Milton: That’s a huge area of land. Don’t you think it’s amazing for NIU professors to be helping lead such an important project?

Irwin: Every professor on campus is doing something, whether it’s inventing something new, helping people, or writing textbooks. We’re all doing something in our own areas and topics. I just think that it’s important to do something, to help. It’s not about boundaries, politics or groups. We want to help serve the world. I think that this project will be one of our biggest legacies, and that’s something to be proud of.

Samonds: When I see that beautiful rainforest every year, it gives me a huge sense of pride and joy. If our legacy is preserving this special natural place, I will feel very proud of that, and feel that it is worth fighting for.

Milton: What are your plans for your upcoming trip to Madagascar?

Irwin: I will be in Madagascar from early May to early August and Karen will be there from late May to early August. We will be doing four things this summer: taking three master’s students with us, participating in a workshop for assessing lemur species for endangerment status, doing paleontology fieldwork and meeting villagers around Tsinjorivo to talk with them about the Tsinjoarivo Forest Preservation Project.

Milton: What is something that you learned from your time in Madagascar?

Samonds: I have learned that even in the most remote places, people are the same. We are all trying to do the best we can with what we have. Our challenge is to improve the lives of the people in Tsinjoarivo while still preserving this beautiful unique rainforest.

Irwin: I think my time in Madagascar has taught me that the world is smaller than you think. I have come to appreciate the way people around the world live. People in DeKalb County may never see the rainforests of Madagascar, not only travel-wise, but because it may no longer be there in the future. By protecting natural habitats, we’re helping species from disappearing forever.

To learn more about Sadabe, visit www.sadabe.org.

To donate to the Rainforest Trust’s Tsinjoarivo Preservation Project, visit www.rainforesttrust.org/project/communities-working-protect-montane-rainforest-madagascar.

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