Kate Macauley helps curb effect of deforestation

A six-month break between two promising jobs gave 24-year old Kate Macauley the chance to volunteer with an environmental organization in a developing nation, something she had been inspired to do since her years studying at Yale.

Through the World Wildlife Fund, she found a program focused on curbing the practice of slash-and-burn farming in Madagascar to partake in this summer.

Ms. Macauley gave a presentation about her experience on Monday, Aug. 26, at the Wilton Library.

From late April, to late July of this year, she called the tiny African nation home, only interacting with “two, or three Westerners” outside of her program during the entire trip.

“I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time,” she told The Bulletin, “and I wanted to find an opportunity related to the environment, to get a personal growth experience, and to practice my French. The specific program I chose accomplished those goals.”

While in-country, Ms. Macauley worked with a team of international volunteers from a variety of cultures and backgrounds.

“We had quite a diverse group, from all different countries,” she said. “One of the WWF goals is to get a diverse set of volunteers. Some were from Canada, two were from France, one was from Rwanda, and one from Gabon.”

Nevertheless, the Wilton volunteer never felt the group struggled with connecting on a basic, team-oriented level.

“We came from totally different cultural backgrounds,” and education backgrounds, she said. “But, that didn’t affect us as a group. We didn’t feel like we needed to overcome too many cultural barriers. I was expecting that to be difficult, but that didn’t end up being the case.”

The volunteer’s mission, Ms. Macauley said, was focused on deforestation in Madagascar. Since the 1960s, she said, the jungles in the island-nation have decreased in size by about 50%. Rural communities near the jungle utilize slash and burn agricultural techniques, which has begun to deplete the country’s environment of needed resources.

“We were working with communities near the forest to generate revenue sources that don’t involve destroying the forest,” she said. “We were there to help them become more independent of forest destruction.”

Before leaving Connecticut, Ms. Macauley expected that forging meaningful relationships with those villagers who spoke little or no English would be a difficult process. What she found, she said, disagreed with her initial assumption.

“We had two translators” who could translate the native tongue into French, she said. “Other than that we tried to learn parts of the local language. A lot of it was body language and working together with other people. A lot of the time we were working in the fields with them. Anytime you’re doing something physically together, that gives you something to relate to.”

Those rural Malagasy people Ms. Macauley was working with on a daily basis, she said, were welcoming by nature — even if they were a bit intrigued by the way she looked.

“It’s an incredibly hospitable culture,” she said. “Everyone was warm and welcoming to us. There were certainly some interesting times. In a lot of the places they hadn’t seen a foreigner in — at least — many years. It took a little time because they weren’t used to seeing someone not from their area. Anything you were doing they found interesting because they didn’t look similar to you.”

Most parents of children in Madagascar, she said, have only one goal in mind: funding their child’s secondary education.

“I think that most people in those areas will go to the school up to about the age of 10. Some people go to high school, but not everyone,” she said. “That’s what most parents were concerned about, paying school fees. Many kids would walk an hour to get to school in another village.

“One day that stands out in particular was a celebration for Earth Day,” she said. “On that day, we joined them in a traditional dance that we had practiced for weeks. They taught us the dance and tried to teach us the words, and made us outfits for it so we all matched. It was a way to come together through music and dance.”

Through sports, she recognized a strong connection between Madagascar and her Wilton up-bringing. When asked what part of Malagasy culture she most connected to her hometown, her answer was short.

“Definitely soccer,” she said. “I grew up playing soccer, and I feel really lucky that’s the sport I played most because that’s the biggest sport there. That was one of the best ways I found to connect to people. As soon as a ball came out, that broke down cultural barriers right away. It’s a very accessible sport to these people.”