Written by marine scientist Amber Carter, University of Edinburgh
Along the turquoise waters of southwest Madagascar live the Vezo, a people whose livelihoods and culture have been intricately connected to the ocean since their arrival in Madagascar some 2,000 years ago.
In villages nestled between the coast and Madagascar’s unique endemic spiny forest, the dry conditions limit the possibilities of agriculture. Meanwhile, isolation and poor road infrastructure hamper opportunities for other types of economic development. Consequently, the Vezo people continue to rely almost completely on the ocean for their food security and income, just as their ancestors have done for millennia.
However, like millions of other small-scale fishers living across the tropics, the livelihoods of Vezo fishers are on a knife edge. Overfishing is driving down fish populations, and climate change and habitat destruction threaten the fragile mangrove, seagrass and coral ecosystems on which they rely.
Over their lifetime, elders in Vezo communities have witnessed an unprecedented transformation of Madagascar's marine environment. They have seen the inception and rapid evolution of industrialised fishing, as well as the consequences of habitat destruction and climate change.
In a region where written records are rare, this transformation has largely gone undocumented. Elders hold invaluable knowledge about historical ecosystem conditions critical for informing locally relevant fisheries management and conservation measures. Yet, as this generation ages, the window to document this knowledge is rapidly closing.
Over the past four years, as a marine scientist working in southwest Madagascar, I have become very aware of this challenge. However, despite any insights my research might uncover regarding the history of ecosystems in the area, I recognise that the most crucial custodians of this information are the Vezo youth. As the next generation of leaders, they are destined to become stewards of their marine ecosystems.
Motivated by this recognition, I founded Voices of the Vezo – a community-led filmmaking initiative with the ambition to engage local youth to create short films that would document the transformations of the marine ecosystem and its profound impact on Vezo lives. Supported by marine conservation organisation Blue Ventures, I teamed up with Symphorien Maniry Soa, a self-taught filmmaker from the Vezo village of Andavadoaka. Symphorien has been using film and music as educational tools on health and environmental issues for several years.
Over the course of two months in 2022, Symphorien and I led filmmaking workshops in four coastal villages – Andavadoaka, Ambatomilo, Tampolove and Ampasilava. With a local team, we travelled up and down the remote coastline often using traditional modes of transport – such as a wooden dug-out canoe and zebu cart – carrying with us two camera set-ups and a pop-up cinema.
In each village, we held a filmmaking workshop teaching camera skills and interview techniques. After this crash course, the Vezo youth took control of the cameras. They became documentarians, capturing insightful interviews and visually compelling footage to tell the story of Vezo life.
Once the filming was complete, the youth groups took on the task of creating the story and editing the films. They used large sheets of paper to create storyboards, mapping out the sequence of interviews and footage. Symphorien and I would then take a day to edit the films, carefully transforming the storyboards into short documentary films. Before we left the village, the youth were able to present the films to their community in our pop-up cinema. After a dearth of community events in recent years, a hangover from the social restrictions of COVID-19, these evenings were very popular, drawing crowds of up to 200 people.
In total we supported the creation of seven films, each serving as a valuable record of Vezo culture and traditions, capturing tales of disappearing traditions and ways of life.
They also paint a vivid picture of how the marine ecosystem has transformed within a single generation. Elders share tales of a time when they feared swimming in the sea because of the high presence of sharks, a stark contrast to the younger generation, many of whom have never encountered a living shark.
One unexpected but exciting outcome occurred in the village of Ambatomilo. For several months, the community in Ambatomilo had struggled to reach a final decision on creating a no-take zone (an area closed to fishing) to help restore fish populations. After community members watched the Voices of the Vezo film and heard the strong endorsements for a no-take zone from community members, a collective recognition emerged. This newfound awareness catalysed decisive action, and the no-take zone has since been successfully implemented.
As a marine scientist, embarking on the Voices of the Vezo initiative marked a formidable learning curve for me as I attempted to blend my background in ecology with art and social sciences for the first time. Witnessing the Vezo youth become champions of their own narratives, with a newfound motivation to document and raise awareness about the challenges confronting their community, was incredibly inspiring.
The magnitude of the ocean emergency presents a vast and intricate challenge, particularly for communities like the Vezo, whose livelihoods hinge on a healthy ocean.
It's evident that conventional conservation science alone won't suffice at the necessary pace to address these pressing issues. To effectively support these communities, we must engage in co-producing knowledge, bolster local leadership, and embrace innovative (and unusual) approaches to research.
Blending disciplines and thinking beyond the boundaries of traditional conservation science is imperative in navigating the complexities of the ocean crisis and fostering a sustainable ocean future.
You can watch all Voices of the Vezo films at voicesofthevezo.org and you can read more about the broader potential of filmmaking in community-based conservation and management in our published scientific article, offering practical guidance for those embarking on their own participatory video projects.
Voices of the Vezo was supported by a NERC E4 Doctoral Training Partnership Studentship at the University of Edinburgh, Blue Ventures and the Scientific Exploration Society Sir Charles Blois Award for Science and Adventure.