When I boarded a plane bound for Madagascar in the spring of 2017, I carried an overstuffed backpack and limited knowledge about my destination. Returning four months later, I had traded the latter for a broader perspective about conservation and privilege in one of the world’s bastions of biodiversity.
Before I came to Madagascar, my understanding of conservation was mostly confined to awareness of big, public, global organizations like the World Wildlife Fund. In Madagascar, round-eyed, ring-tailed lemurs—along with their fellow curios, like chameleons, palms, and baobab trees—are a symbol of the nation’s one-of-a-kind biodiversity. Over 80% of species that inhabit Madagascar are found nowhere else in the world. Of all the species that call this island home, I failed to consider one of the most vulnerable: Homo sapiens. Glossy photos of Madagascar’s lush rainforests and stark geologic features rarely include the Malagasy people, the humans who live among these landforms.
My study abroad program brought me in close contact with the Malagasy, living with a host family and learning from the larger community in and around Fort Dauphin. I learned about how conservation organizations from other countries can prioritize the animals and plants in a place like Madagascar without as much regard for the well-being of its people. This perspective was eye-opening, and it challenged my preconceived notions of global conservation and how it should work.
In the month-long independent study project that ended my study abroad experience, I was on my own in a nature reserve in Madagascar and had to confront my privilege head-on. As a white, educated American, I was treated differently and the plans for my research project taken more seriously than I might have been as a Malagasy student. While I planned and organized my data collection excursions, I relied heavily on my Malagasy guides for their extensive knowledge of the forests we traversed and the plants that populated them. I realized that although my name was on the write-up for the project, they should be fully recognized for their contributions, as well.
If you are a current or future Gilman scholar, I hope you keep your mind open to perspectives that challenge your own. Living in the United States comes with its own set of cultural norms, even though they may feel like the “default,” and the opinions and life experiences of people who live elsewhere in the world are bound to differ. Question your assumptions, examine your role as an American visitor and be open to new perspectives to get the most out of your study abroad journey.