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Madagascar Production Journal

BLOG POST • May 17, 2016

Journal / Words & Photos by Matt Checkowski

We get to spend time with some amazing people on one side of the camera or the other, and oftentimes have the privilege to go to some amazing places and see some amazing things. Top of the list is currently our trip to Madagascar where we went to capture the story of scientists and student researchers working on a variety of issues that the country is uniquely positioned to support (for better or worse.)

This work was done in relation to a massive university re-branding project that we were launching. Fundamental to the brand strategy was storytelling that exuded their values and showcased their work on the grand challenges facing our world. The content we produced became a video series, tv spots, New York Times ads, a campus takeover, a magazine relaunch, and tons of collateral.

All photography ©2016 Matt Checkowski – All Rights Reserved

One of our clients built the premiere research institute in Madagascar, Centre ValBio, located in the southeast of the country, surrounded by the rain forests of the Ranomafana National Park. It serves as a launching pad for scientists and students from all over the world and it was our home base for a week. The trip yielded more stories than we could ever produce, so I wanted to share a few that landed on the editing room floor (or magazine editor floor, or social media manager floor, etc.)
 

Background

Madagascar is currently the tenth poorest country in the world and as Dr. Peter Small, previously of the Gates Foundation, put it to us, “It’s really the intersection of poverty, ecological devastation and disease.” It’s also one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world and about as far away from Los Angeles as you can go (but if Anthony Bourdain and Darren Aronofsky can handle it, so can The D4D.)

Economy and Environment

One of the biggest attacks on the future of Madagascar is the self-inflicted destruction of its environment. In an effort to survive by any means possible, people are burning and chopping down rainforests at an alarming rate. It’s profoundly complicated, but the economic situation is driving a lot of short-term decision making and the lack of education, primarily around the environment, sets them up to be horrible choices for the long term.
 
Some of the researchers are on a mission to change that trajectory. They’re developing a wide range of ideas and taking them out into the villages and rainforests to see if they have traction. One of the projects attacked at the value proposition of the destruction: were there ways to make it more economically advantageous in the short term to NOT burn down the rainforest? She was out in the jungle, measuring the landscape, calculating the money the villages could make if they sold the acres as a carbon offset. A critical part of it: she was Malagasy and was using her understanding of the culture to develop and pitch the idea with the villages.

Medicinal Plants

One of the student researchers was looking at the plants that both lemurs and humans use for medicinal purposes. She was meeting with village elders and medicine men to document the stories (and urban legends) that are a part of their culture, identifying the most promising ones for a deeper-dive and scouring the areas between villages and the jungle where a lot of those plants grow.
 

 
The science was still in the early stages, but some of the more interesting human-lemur combos were: aloe as a topical lotion, caffeine and fertility plants, also the legendary, organic Viagra. Being used by humans AND lemurs. (I’ll leave it at that.) The team was finding, collecting and illustrating the plants as a guide for more in-depth research and follow-ups.

Education and Health

Another big part of the work that comes out of ValBio are the outreach programs that send scientists and doctors into the remote villages. That’s a three hour hike into the rainforest, with all our gear, over hills and rivers, to a village without electricity.

 

Image: Crossing the river in a dug-out canoe with all our camera gear.

 

We spent several days with the teams that are engaged in a wide range of activities: from research projects, to educational programs, medical and dental check-ups, to delivering food and supplies.
 

One of the more interesting programs works with a village school to develop a science based curriculum for kids as young as the third grade. The idea is to teach the next generation about the natural sciences, grow their appreciation for their environment and prepare them for the conservation and sustainability challenges that are, and will be, facing Madagascar.

 

Image: Third graders in their science class.

 

Education is just one of the huge issues over there, but it’s the key to shifting the mindset of a people who often have to choose between burning-down the rainforest for farmland or “conserving” it for lemur habitat. (Not much of a choice when you’re starving.) The research teams are taking the long view, attacking the problem from many angles and starting with early education.

In Person

So many of the heart breaking, difficult, complicated issues that Madagascar is facing are the result of how humans collide with their natural environment. It’s absolutely shocking to see the cycle in person: poverty leads to health issues and malnutrition, hunger drives the need for more farm land, farm land is made by burning down the rain forest, destroying the rainforest eliminates habitat for wildlife and torches the topsoil, which shortens the crop yield on that land, and on and on until there’s nothing left. Yet, all of that is why there is so much interest in the country: it’s a place of unmatched beauty that’s deeply in need of intervention across the entire spectrum of human ability.

I’ve many takeaways from the Madagascar experience —truly one of a lifetime— but there are two that rise above the rest.
 
First: I’m so proud of the opportunity and ability to actually go there and see it, feel it, smell it, hear it (eat it, un-eat it) all first hand. It’s a magical place that connects with your soul in a very profound way.
 
Second: I have a greater respect for the role of our job as storytellers in the future of a place like Madagascar. Starting with the impact of our stories coming in —the farmers market, makeshift, kung-fu movie theater with a line out the door— to us bringing their stories out for all the ways it matters (practically, every way.) Culture helping science helping culture.

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