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Miracle Solutions

As volunteers we take pride in having tried almost every “miracle solution†out there for improving the livelihoods of our village members. We claim to try them “so that our village members don’t have to†but it’s mostly the pleasure we take in experimenting with them ourselves. Our yard is filled with drip irrigation systems, a water catchment system, a small demonstration rice paddy, improved cook stoves, a tree nursery, a raised vegetable nursery/garden, multiple compost heaps, chicken tractors, numerous experimental gardening techniques, and so many different kinds of plants that sometimes we come across one and think to ourselves, “Oh yeah, we did plant that.†We try so many of these “miracle solutions†in our yard we have undoubtedly come across as somewhat eccentric (to put it nicely) to our friends and neighbors. This month’s miracle solution to solve all of the world’s problems is: biochar.
After a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer mentioned a recent TIME article about it, Erin did some research and pulled together all the information she could find on biochar. Biochar, as defined by the International Biochar Initiative, is:

“a fine-grained, porous charcoal substance that, when used as a soil amendment in combination with sustainable production of the biomass feedstock, effectively removes net carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the soil, biochar provides a habitat for soil
organisms, but is not itself consumed by them to a great extent, and most of the applied
biochar can remain in the soil for several hundreds to thousands of years.â€

Biochar is said to be a possible solution to:

•Global Warming/Climate Change (through the sequestration of carbon)
•Energy alternative (through the use of the syngas or bio-oil produced during the production of biochar)
•Poverty alleviation (as an inexpensive solution to the improvement of tropical soils and thus improved crop yields from tropical soil)

Of course almost all miracle solutions need some initial investment of time, money, or other resources that, in addition to the initial human hesitancy towards trying new things, prevents many people in the developing world from trying them. Producing biochar is something that most people in our area could be good at. Although it isn’t as efficient, biochar can be made the same way as charcoal is made; in essence by cooking the plant matter, crop residue, etc in a low oxygen, low heat environment.

So, because it is a miracle solution with a lot of hype behind it, we have built a rudimentary bio-char production unit in our yard: a small, covered, hole in the ground (1m x 1m x 50cm) that allows minimal oxygen. Our accumulating heap of slow decomposing plant material (sugar cane leaves, branches, vines, etc) is now being converted into biochar to incorporate into our soil.

We are finding, as with most miracle solutions, that it is easier said than done. We are getting wheel barrows of terrific biochar from our little processing center and incorporating it into our soil but it’s hard to see the people in our village adopting it as an alternative to their traditional slash and burn agriculture. Producing biochar is more time consuming and difficult than simply lighting the pile of plant matter (or field) on fire and it probably involves bringing the material to a central processing area. However, the Pre-Columbian Amazonian Indian tribe that discovered and used the technique (called terra preta by the Europeans), was able to use it without the assistance of modern technology and develop soil that remains extremely productive to this day.

Who knows if this miracle solution will pan out or not but we sure do have the beginnings of some nice black garden beds in our yard. If anyone has any suggestions on how they’ve successfully incorporated bio-char into their community’s lifestyle or built an efficient processing unit/kiln using local resources please drop us an e-mail.

Tsimanampetsotsa National Park

On October 25th, after months of nightly study Erin took the GRE Exam. Following that we spent a week helping out with the Peace Corps Madagascar 15th anniversary celebration activities. After all that we decided to take a short trip out to southwestern Madagascar to see what all the hype was about. We weren’t disappointed.

Our first stop after a 14 hour van ride from Antananarivo was Tulear. This beautiful city stands in contrast to Antananarivo’s overpopulated, traffic-jammed, crammed and dirty city. Tulear’s streets are wide & clean and the city has everything Antananarivo has to offer, plus! We found that food was cheaper (& better) and that a set price for taxis and the availability of posy-posy’s made it easier and less hectic getting around.

From Tulear after an hour boat ride on the Mozambique Channel we passed through Anakao (a popular tourist destination with great beaches) on our way to Tsimanampetsotsa National Park. The park was amazing and for a place that only gets a few inches of rain a year it was full of wildlife and things to see. Lemurs, flamingos, caves with endemic blind fish, caves with bats and mountains of guano, parrots, tortoises, mongooses, geckos, lizards, and tsingy (the interesting rocks that make a metallic sound when you hit them) all vied for our attention. The people of the area also have an animistic religious tradition that kept us captivated (and on our toes not to offend the ancestors) the entire stay.

We spent close to a week in the park (about a perfect amount of time) and since the park gets just over 1000 visitors a year we pretty much had the entire park to ourselves. It was a great experience and our favorite National Park in Madagascar so far (probably because of the non-touristy feel). We recommend anyone in the Tulear area with a little time on their hands and a spirit of adventure to visit this park.

Election Day Photos

A few minutes after the probable results were announce we not only celebrated but the Malagasy people did as well. Getting in to a taxi minutes after the announcement Erin was met by an elated taxi driver who already knew of the results and was glowing with pride and happiness. Throughout the next few days we were constantly approached by Malagasy people elated about the election of President-elect Obama. This truly was a great day for international relations and the American people. Here are a few photos from election day.

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Picures from Honore

Here are a few more pictures from Honore from our trip to his wonderful site.

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Happy Halloween!

Hopefully you all have your costumes prepared for the best holiday of the year (in my opinion). Although Halloween isn't really celebrated in Madagascar (in the American style), November 1st marks "All Saints Day" and in some areas the beginning of a custom called "Turning of the Bones". In most areas of Madagascar the custom takes place in June but, in our village, in the Antonosy region families visit their families tombs throughout the week participating in a very similar custom.

Citizens of Madagascar refer to their nation as the "land of the ancestors". In many ways, theirs is a typical tribal society, and like many such societies they revere their ancestors.

But there is one big difference -- the Malagasy dote on their dead relatives to such a degree, that their remains are actually dug up.

Click Here to view a video about the custom. It varies from region to region and family to family. Students have a week off and many businesses are closed for the celebration. It really is amazing to see how much people honor the dead here. In the Antandroy region of southern Madagascar it isn't uncommon for a man to live his entire life in a one room mud hut with all of his children but when he dies he will have an extremely extravagent grave/tomb full of painted pictures and cattle skulls.

Here's our costumes this year thanks to photoshop. Since Madagascar used to be known as a pirate stronghold I thought we could be pirates this year. (I know, terrible job on the photoshopping - still learning).

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