Conservation news

As education grows so does the awareness of conserving biodiversity

  • Madagascar is home to more than 250,000 species, yet despite its wealth in natural resources, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world.
  • Poverty levels in Madagascar prevent many families from completing their education, a problem that is contributing to the country’s diminishing biodiversity.
  • Madaworks, a new non-profit, is focused on providing education scholarships for girls from rural Malagasy families and creating environmentally sustainable opportunities for them to make a living.

Located off the southeast coast of Africa is the fourth largest island in the world – Madagascar, a country known for its unique wildlife. Comparable in size to the state of Texas, the island is home to more than 250,000 species, 70% of which cannot be found anywhere else on the globe. But despite its wealth in natural resources, Madagascar remains one of the poorest countries in the world – a key factor behind its diminishing biodiversity.

Increasing financial demands and geographical challenges that are common among rural communities make it nearly impossible for families to support their children in furthering their education past the primary or secondary level. After witnessing these compounding challenges first-hand, Diane Powers was determined to make a difference. Her mission resulted in the inception of Madaworks, a non-profit organization focused on providing scholarships for girls’ high school education.

Through she grew up in the suburbs of New York, an environment that is vastly different from that of the people she is working to help in Madagascar, she couldn’t help but notice their shared goals – to learn, grow, become educated and thrive. But the trouble with Madagascar, she says, is that it lacks the same access to opportunity. However she believes this is something that can be changed.

Diane Powers, founder of Madaworks.

It is Powers’ hope that through her non-profit she can contribute to a better future for these communities and create ways to earn a living other than destructive slash and burn agriculture. By supplying educational scholarships, Madaworks can create opportunities to help rural Malagasy families overcome their obstacles that stem from poverty, and in turn raise awareness of the importance of conserving biodiversity through education.


Mongabay: In November 2015, you launched a non-profit organization called Madaworks, what is the focus of your organization?

Diane Powers: The main focus of Madaworks is providing scholarships for girl’s high school education. The poorest families suffer due to the increased financial demands on them in the absence of state subsidies for education including school kits, school grants and community teachers’ salaries. These financial obstacles will continue to negatively impact enrollment and retention, in particular in low-income areas. This is particularly important for young girls in the Ranomafana area, since high schools are often not located in their home village. Thus, rural families that are primarily subsistence farmers often find it impossible to support their children to attend further education past the primary or secondary level. By supplying scholarships for these rural populations, we will create an opportunity to help them overcome such obstacles.

Since our inception a month ago, we have raised enough money so that we can now send 5 more girls to school and hopefully with grant funding we can expand our program. Eventually I would like to be able to fund college or technical school as well.

Secondarily, we support the sustainable women’s weaving collectives (scarves and baskets) who are in the same region where we are working at present (Ranomafana). Providing women with the stability of economic growth enhances not only their family’s outcome but also that of the communities where they live. We want to help encourage continued production using sustainable sources so that it becomes second nature to cultivate sustainable raw materials rather than take the limited resources of the forests. Eventually I would like to be able to offer an ‘online shop’ as an outlet to help create expanded economic opportunities for the cooperatives.

A view of Ranomafana, photo by Diane Powers

Mongabay: What inspired you to create Madaworks?

Diane Powers: Visiting there! While I knew about Madagascar and it’s incredible wildlife, I was stunned by the statistics of its decimation. Only 10% remains intact and I started to think about how to solve the problem of it’s ongoing destruction. It’s a magical place and the country and the people amazed me. I was amazed at how little they had and how they dealt with it. I was amazed by the smiles of the children and the laughter of adolescents. I came home determined to make a difference and do what I could to contribute to a better future for them and create ways to earn a living other than destructive slash and burn agriculture. And to do it transparently so that donors would know that every dollar they gave went straight to helping Madagascar. Ninety percent of every donation to Madaworks goes back into the country.

It is approachable as a county and I was struck by how easy it was to navigate culturally. The Malagasy captivated me. The ability to speak French certainly helped. As an island nation with many facets it is united by a single language (Malagasy- with French as a second language) and a single government. It seemed to me to have issues that were solvable because of it being an island entity. In contrast, a place like Africa is such a vast challenge with so many complexities, porous borders and different nations and governments.

I had never before seen the level of poverty that exists in Madagascar. And yet, through the hardships the Malagasy are some of the most wonderful people I have ever encountered. They are smart, charming, industrious, kind, funny, welcoming and very gracious. They have been dealt a bad hand as far as public policy and governance goes. Their infrastructure is not the best and it needs help. There is corruption, there is illegal trade, there are many threats to the biodiversity, there are many problems but I really think things can change. Most people only earn about $1.25 (US) a day. The government does not fund high school and the schools are far away for most rural people. This makes it an impossible dream for most to go onto high school.

Baskets from the Maeva cooperative, Santatra Razanakolona. Photo courtesy of Centre ValBio.

My specific interests are in advancing the opportunities for women and girls in Madagascar and endemic poverty reduction. My love of animals and saving what is left of the forests was also a large component driving me to a solution. Educating girls is the logical first step to take. It is well documented that when girls are provided with the opportunity to pursue their education that society and the environment benefit as a whole.

For $600 a year, a girl can go to school. I knew that was an achievable goal. I knew I could approach funding this initiative and raising awareness about Madagascar by harnessing the power and reach of the Internet and social media. Anybody anywhere in the world can help. Madagascar is one of the poorest nations on the planet- yet they live with this rapidly disappearing incredible biodiversity. As we live in an increasingly digital age, I can see how important it is to reach younger audiences in the medium they are comfortable with (I have a 16 year old!). The Internet makes that possible. In one month since our launch, we have already gained over 1000 likes on Facebook- many of which are Malagasy. As my son, who works for the Social Science Research Council, pointed out this is important because you are reaching the people you hope to help. Alison Houlihan, one of our founding board members, has done an amazing job of managing the social media.

I also feel it is everyone’s responsibility to try and make a difference. I am very fortunate that I live and grew up in the suburbs of New York. Madagascar is so vastly different yet we have the same goal; to learn, grow, become educated and thrive. Trouble is with Madagascar there is not the same access to opportunity. I wanted to help change that. The Sustainable Development Goals were in the back of my mind as I was formulating how I could help. What is the alternative? There isn’t one – we all have to help or nothing will change.

A comet moth at Centre ValBio. Photo by Diane Powers.

There are many people I admire who have made it possible to know that the power of one individual can make a difference in the landscape of thinking. Jane Goodall, Michele Obama (Let Girls Learn initiative), Rhett Butler (Mongabay), Sean Willmore (Thin Green Line Foundation), Darren Walker (Ford Foundation), David Attenborough, Doris Duke, Andy Warhol, Martha Stewart, David Byrne, Chris Martin (Coldplay), Nick Kristof, Oprah Winfrey, and others too numerous to mention or too unknown to recognize. Larry Page’s profile on Google + is a picture of a lemur- he must love them too! While I am not the Gates Foundation, I do believe that collectively small steps can make a big difference. Change begins with one idea and I am hopeful that a foundation (Hey Larry!) will agree with me and help fund us.

Finally, the biggest inspiration is Dr. Pat Wright. I have loved lemurs for nearly 20 years after seeing them featured on a “Nature” (or maybe BBC?) show and always hoped one day to go to Madagascar to see them. Pat is a renowned primatologist who has been working with lemurs for decades. Among other things she is the director of Centre ValBio (CVB), a research facility she had built in Ranomafana. She also established Ranomafana National Park to help preserve the little remaining rainforest that still stands. I met Pat at a function honoring her achievements and was so impressed by not only the conservation work she was doing in Madagascar with the lemurs, but also by the help she was giving to the community in terms of purchasing the goods of the women’s collectives and financing some of the community children’s education. After the event, I introduced myself and told her I wanted to help her. She replied, “Come to Madagascar!” I started volunteering for her the following week and after a year of working with her stateside, I decided I needed to see it for myself to really understand how I could help. Using the foundation of Pat and CVB’s work with the communities surrounding Ranomafana National Park, we have created a program to expand on what they started. Now that I have been there I see how it can work.

Effective conservation has to start with the people who live there and that is what she has been doing for years. If you don’t help the community you will not be able to help save the biodiversity. Along the way I learned about the critical state of peril that the biodiversity of Madagascar faces today. I think that many people are not aware of how dire it is and so I was inspired to also bring this to the attention of my audience. In fact, many people really don’t even know where Madagascar is and I wanted to change that. It is not only a Disney movie.

I must also give credit to Kristin Rasmussen, a marine biologist I met in Madagascar who stayed at CVB after attending a Humpback Whale conference in the north of Madagascar. She encouraged me to take the leap to start my own NGO. She has her own NGO and is one of our founding members, along with Pat and Alison.

A loom from the Famiova Cooperative. Photo by Jan Gogarten.

Mongabay: What is the story behind the name of your organization?

Diane Powers: Originally I called it “Madagascar Masterworks” because we are working on helping Madagascar (to include it in the title for SEO optimization) and I was amazed at the beautifully artistic weaving creations (Masterworks) made by the women’s collectives. As we were developing the website, I realized it was too long for the URL and I came up with ‘Madaworks’ to represent both “working in Madagascar” and to reflect the industrious nature of the Malagasy people. The board loved the name and so it stuck. Another interpretation of the name could be that we are helping to make Madagascar work again as a functioning nation – they have been beset by numerous setbacks related to poor governance over the last few decades, particularly after the 2009 coup. “Despite a 2010 decree that prohibited the logging, transport, trading, and export of precious woods, the illegal trade continues.” This is part of the reason the biodiversity is so threatened there. The other major threat is slash and burn agriculture. There is much to do, but we are starting with one girl at a time. I believe everyone can make a difference.

Mongabay: You said that your organization helps to provide economic growth for these women and their community by supporting women’s sustainable artisan weaving, how exactly are you supporting this tradition and what makes it a sustainable practice?

Scarves from the Famiova Weaving Cooperative. Photo by Diane Powers.

Diane Powers: Madaworks purchases handmade artisan goods throughout the year providing support for the established sustainable women’s weaving collectives in the Ranomafana region. By providing sustained opportunities, we create inclusive economic growth by not only expanding the local economy but also by ensuring that we reach the most vulnerable people of society, namely women and girls. We give these items as gifts to our donors. By embracing traditional weaving craftsmanship we support the continuation of this fine art and the endemic traditions of weaving. The Famiova and Maeva cooperatives that we support, both employ sustainably grown raw materials. They have become proficient in producing goods without exploiting the forests. By experiencing a profitable livelihood using sustainably harvested raw materials, it reinforces the idea that success can be achieved and conservation of resources can be maintained.

Mongabay: You have said that positive change will follow as educational opportunity for women flourishes, one these changes being sustained biodiversity. Could you explain how your work is positively affecting biodiversity in Madagascar?

Diane Powers: It is our hope that with a more educated population of young women positive changes will ensue. Education is the key to awareness about the importance of biodiversity and with education the awareness of conserving biodiversity grows. Today, the communities surrounding Ranomafana National Park are more aware of its importance for biodiversity habitat than they were two decades ago. Change is happening and we hope to continue that trend.

Girls who go onto secondary education are more likely to have increased earning potential, put off early motherhood and live a more productive life. The outreach projects that Pat and CVB have created over the years have helped to educate the community as to the value of the biodiversity. Already there is evidence that the communities around Ranomafana are less exploitative of the surrounding land since the inception of the national park. New silk and vanilla farming initiatives have integrated into the forest rather than destroying it.

A vanilla farm, Ranomafana. Photo by Diane Powers.

Educated women are empowered to take a greater economic role in their families and communities and they tend to reinvest a lot of what they earn into their families and community. Madagascar is a place where there already exists a platform for women to have a voice in government ministries. “Malagasy women hold significantly more government and managerial positions than women in many continental African countries. The number of women in parliament increased from 18 to 23 in 2014.” Furthermore, I have been told by Pascal Rabeson, the National Director of CVB that “this (Madaworks) really helps conservation of biodiversity since it would help birth control indirectly at the same time once these girls are well educated they are aware of the importance of biodiversity conservation….”

Mongabay: What accomplishments have you achieved since the inception of Madaworks?

Diane Powers: When we started in November, we were able to fund one student to complete high school. Part of the funding was raised by a crowdfunding led by a student at Stony Brook. Since our launch in December, we have raised enough funds to provide 5 more scholarships. These scholarships will be awarded in June after an application process that will take place in April-June.

It’s a small start, but with over 1000 Facebook likes, hopefully we will grow and gain more support for our initiative.

A young weaver with the Famiova Weaving Cooperative. Photo by Jan Gogarten.

Mongabay: Do you have plans to expand your organization beyond Madagascar in the future?

Diane Powers: Our plan is to succeed first in the Ranomafana region and subsequently to extend to other regions of Madagascar. As I previously mentioned I could see this developing into a college/technical school funding opportunity as well. This is a tall order. Things move slowly in Madagascar but progress is being made. While I do not have plans at the moment to bring this program to other countries, it could very well grow into that provided we have enough funding.

Mongabay: How does your work impact other parts of the world?

Diane Powers: By providing a successful model, the results of our work will be available online and be accessible to people of any nation. Perhaps we can inspire others to take the first small steps towards educating girls and preserving cultural and artistic traditions while at the same time helping biodiversity by providing alternative sources of stable income and sustainable economic growth. I will be attending the global conference, Women Deliver in Copenhagen May 2016, in the hope that I will be able to reach an even larger global audience and potential funders.

A group of weavers from the Famiova Weaving Cooperative in Ranomafana village. Photo courtesy of Santatra Razanakolona.

Mongabay: What are some of the challenges your organization is facing?

Diane Powers: FUNDING! First and foremost funding is a challenge. I am in the process of writing grants with Eileen Larney, another one of our wonderful board members. We are planning to do a crowdfunding campaign as well to raise funds this spring.

Flights to Madagascar from NY are expensive and I need to be able to travel there with some regularity to check in with our program coordinator (TBD) and to purchase more artisanal goods. As we raise more funds, more girls will have the opportunity to continue in high school.

Mongabay: How can we support your organization or get involved with the work you’re doing?

Diane Powers: Publicity! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram! (Please) It will help broaden our reach and hopefully get the attention of major funders.

Eastern lesser bamboo lemur (Hapalemur griseus). Photo by Rhett Butler.