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Look for the Trees



Scott Brown, MS/HS Math and Science Teacher, Ambatovy International School, Madagascar


When trying to find a site that is rich in minerals, what do you look for? The answer is simple, according to Mathias Vandelle, Superintendent of the Ambatovy Mine Site in Moramanga: “Look for the trees.”

On a multi-day learning experience for the Ambatovy International School (AIS) in Madagascar, Middle and High School students left their classrooms to discover the rich biodiversity of their country. They explored the Andasibe National Reserve (the primary growth forest in Alaotra-Mangoro Region in eastern Madagascar), and a nickel laterite mining operation by Ambatovy in Moramanga. Students also experienced firsthand the interaction between the mining industry and the local Malagasy population, indigenous species, and the environment. Mathias Vandelle guided students around a 50–100 meter deep mine as part of their learning expedition. He explained that vegetation types are some of the first indicators of the substrata mineral content that lies beneath. Ambatovy students on the field trip were filled with questions: “When do you use explosives?” “What happens if there is a fire? What safety measures do you have in case of a fire? “How many species of plants and animals are there in this area?” “What is the process of estimating and building plans to recover the environment?” “How many hours does it take to pipe the nickel slurry from Moramanga to Tamatave?” They were obviously excited and interested in learning more!

At the mine site and surrounding areas, students learned how the natural environment of Madagascar is impacted by the nickel laterite mining process. In addition to speaking about the operation and process of laterite mining and ore transfer, the tour's leader Martin Knauth (Mine Site Director) addressed important aspects of administration, safety, conservation, and reforestation. The day brought out significant discussion regarding the economic benefit and the environmental costs of administering a mining operation in one of Earth’s hotspots of biodiversity.

AIS2-(1).jpgMuch recognition was given to Ambatovy's efforts of minimizing negative environmental or social impact, with the goal of eventually regenerating the land to its original structure. Students learned about the reparation, education, social and cultural support offered as compensation for local communities displaced from their lands. Ambatovy, Madagascar's leading employer of Malagasy nationals and officially known as Dynatec Madagascar Sociéte Anonyme, is a multinational company comprised of primary investors from Canada, South Korea, and Japan. AIS provides preK– Gr12 educational environment for the children of Ambatovy employees.

A visit to the Ambatovy "nursery" showed efforts to preserve existing tracts of land, while also harvesting indigenous flora, fauna, and topsoil to rehabilitate areas where the mineral content has been exhausted. The nursery collects and curates seeds, then germinates and grows them. Workers from the nursery replant seedlings and young/adolescent plants in order to mimic the natural environment of a forest. Lemur, frogs, toads, and chameleons are then reintroduced to the area.

AIS3.jpgBoth environmentalists and the mining professionals go to great lengths to respect the natural habits and habitats of indigenous creatures. Local streams containing unique species of fish are protected; lemur “overpasses” are constructed to support the natural movement of tree dwelling lemurs. Madagascar is the sole natural habitat of lemurs, so those indigenous mammals receive careful attraction. For example: the timing of tree harvesting is based on the non-dormant cycle of the Fat Tailed Dwarf Lemur. This lemur, the world's only hibernating primate, burrows underground and hibernates up to six months. No trees are removed during this resting cycle. Even NASA is paying attention to these newly discovered lemurs, studying them with the hope of solving problems related to humans in longterm space travel!

Following visits to the mine and nursery, our focus shifted to interacting with fauna in the area. Andasibe is a protected national reserve, home to a rich mosaic of species, including 100 bird, 50 reptile, 80 amphibian, hundreds of insect, and 70 mammal species (of which 14 are lemur!). In order to observe a fuller range of these species, we took nature excursions led by licensed guides during both the day and the night. Near Andasibe, students also visited two private nature reserves (lemur and crocodile) where free ranging, yet “captive” animals were part of the wildlife tour.

These experiences, far from the walls of our school, provided enjoyable and real-world applications of our learning and critical analysis skills. After the field trip, AIS students conducted their own independent research. Utilizing a project-basedlearning approach, individuals and groups created presentations on relevant activities in Madagascar, exploring the short and long-term impact on the Malagasy biodiversity, economy, and society.

AIS1.jpgConsidering their exposure to indigenous Madagascar wildlife in both captive and wild settings, students prepared and organized a debate to discuss the merits and ethics of zoos. After learning about the geology of the Moramanga region, students went further; they delved into the origin of laterites in tropical climates, and explored the capillary process by which ions are leached from the bedrock in the alternating wet and dry season of Madagascar. Using inquiry-based math skills, students determined the cost and benefits to extracting laterites that contain only 1% Nickel compared to 2% Nickel. Finally, we engaged some entrepreneurial spirit! Our new knowledge helped us develop an economics rubric which analyzed the criterion of running a profitable enterprise.

Expeditionary learning experiences (aka. field trips) bring real-life connection to real-world issues. We are fortunate to live in such a wonderfully diverse and interesting location, where we are can visit and learn from such otherwise inaccessible locations.


Published in ISS NewsLinks: Volume XXXII Number 1

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