by Thomas, Blue Ventures Research Assistant, Madagascar
Vezo history – Who are the Vezo?
The indigenous coastal people of western Madagascar are known as the Vezo. The word Vezo originates from the Malagasy verb “to paddle” and is indicative of a type of people who live at the mercy of the sea.
The Vezo people are traditionally nomadic, travelling from place to place along the coastline, setting up small encampments from where they fish – providing the food they need to survive. What they caught they traded with other local inland people for rice or cassava. When resources started to diminish in one place the fishers would pick up their entire lives and move on to the next place.
During the colonial period in Malagasy history, this nomadic behaviour was stopped and people started to settle permanently in a single location. Villages of Vezo fishers were established along the coastline, and in time social boundaries meant that people were now obliged to remain in this location for their entire lives.
What happened to the resources when people settled
Now without people moving onto new places, fish populations previously given respite from fishing when their numbers declined, no longer have time to recover, as they are constantly fished by the local population.
Also without access to family planning, populations are growing rapidly, increased as well by people from inland villages moving to the coast and starting to fish as farming becomes more difficult in the arid lands of the south.
Why is marine conservation important for the Vezo?
In the last few years marine conservation organisations such as Blue Ventures have started working in western Madagascar. The main benefits of conservation for the Vezo people are;
1. It helps us to understand what is happening to the resources
2. When we understand why something is happening we can make better decisions and change our behaviours to prevent the situation getting worse
3. Conservation allows us to protect our food supply for the future
4. But more than that, if there wasn’t any fish in the sea, there wouldn’t be any fishermen, the Vezo people would cease to exist, so conservation protects not only the fish in the sea but also protects the heart and heritage of the Vezo people.
Do the Vezo like conservation?
Understanding and working with people is a difficult job, particularly when their livelihoods are being affected. The problem with fishermen is that they don’t think deeply about the future, but live day to day, believing that the sea will always give them food. Conservation results don’t happen overnight, and so it is important for the Vezo fishermen to see a benefit quickly from their conservation actions.
I grew up in the Malagasy village of Andavadoaka with my three brothers and my very large Vezo family. My brother and I became fishermen in 1999 when problems in my family meant my parents could no longer afford to pay for me to go to school. We fished every day, predominantly for sharks, and lived on the islands close to Andavadoaka. I had some bad luck in 2004 my shark net was stolen by a Humpback whale passing by in the night. Fortunately around that time Blue Ventures Director, Richard Nimmo, was staying on the island where I was camping and we started talking. After we spoke he offered me a small job filling the dive tanks for the volunteers and asked me to teach them how to sail a pirogue. In 2006 the volunteers had started to teach me English and I learnt how to drive the dive boat. This is when I started to understand more about what Blue Ventures wanted to achieve in Andavadoaka and the work that was going on.
I started to learn to dive becoming the second Malagasy Dive Master in Andavadoaka and I started to help the scientists working with Blue Ventures learn more about the sharks and turtles being caught in the region and I continued to learn more about the ecology of the coral and fish that keep the Vezo people alive. When I learn something with Blue Ventures I can help my friends, family and other Vezo fishermen to understand too. Communicating the need for conservation, science and understanding to fishermen, many of which have never been to school, is important for me because if I can help them to understand then we can work together to keep the reefs, the fish and the Vezo traditions alive.
I am really excited about the trip to Maintirano on the Nofy Be botry as it will be the first time I have travelled to these islands. For me this is the end of the line for the Vezo fishermen travelling from the south, running away from resources that have been destroyed by many years of overfishing to new grounds, but from here there is nowhere else to go, what will happen to the Vezo after that? I want to help them understand that if we can work together now, we can keep fishing in the future. As the fishermen run to find more fish, we will be running alongside to teach them.