In­spi­ra­tion, ac­tiv­i­ties and in­for­ma­tion for the ur­ban ad­ven­turer

Adventure - - #209 - Writ­ten by So­phie Stevens and Pete Oswald Im­ages by Pete Oswald

May 2017 - An­tana­narivo Air­port Mada­gas­car

The hot air hit us like a hair dryer as we stepped through the cabin door on to the air­port tar­mac in An­tana­narivo, Mada­gas­car. We had been do­nat­ing money for tree plant­ing in Mada­gas­car for over a year prior and fi­nally got an op­por­tu­nity to go there and see it for our­selves.

My name is So­phie Stevens and I am the Co-Founder and Sole Artist of Lit­tle Dif­fer­ence, an in­ter­na­tional Art Busi­ness that has planted over 50,000 trees to­wards des­per­ately needed re­for­esta­tion in Mada­gas­car.

Novem­ber 2014 - Inns­bruck Aus­tria

My fi­ancé Pete Oswald and I were in Inns­bruck Aus­tria do­ing a ski sea­son. Pete is a pro­fes­sional skier, which at that time paid very lit­tle, and I was in­ter­mit­tently teach­ing ski­ing, which paid less. With Christ­mas com­ing up and time on our hands Pete and I de­cided to try and sell Christ­mas Cards with my art de­signs on them. I whipped up some Christ­mas look­ing de­signs with a slightly Aus­trian flavour and had them printed at the lo­cal print shop while strug­gling with our ter­ri­ble Ger­man as we learnt the method of turn­ing hand drawn art into a dig­i­tal im­age to re­pro­duce on to cards. We man­aged to sell nearly 1000 cards be­fore Christ­mas, which paid for our rent, ski passes and food for the next cou­ple of months! The con­cept was born. Christ­mas in Inns­bruck proved that we had a prod­uct that could work and more im­por­tantly it seemed peo­ple, at least the Aus­tri­ans, liked my Art! But af­ter the Christ­mas sales the cards went idle as we were dis­tracted by ski­ing, pow­der days, ad­ven­tures, par­ty­ing and just be­ing in Aus­tria.

May 2017 - An­tana­narivo City, Mada­gas­car

Like most peo­ple, all Pete and I new of Mada­gas­car be­fore start­ing to do­nate there was what we had seen on the An­i­mated movie. Our first night was spent in the cen­tre of the Cap­i­tal, An­tana­narivo, a city of over 1.5 mil­lion that sits in the mid­dle of the coun­try on a plateau at 1200m above sea level with not a piece of veg­e­ta­tion or an­i­mal in sight apart from pieces of fly rid­den flesh for sale on road side stalls spoil­ing in the bak­ing heat of the day. At night-fall we were warned not to go out side of our cheap ac­com­mo­da­tion for risk of vi­o­lence and “dis­ap­pear­ing”.

May 2015 - Tag­ha­zout, Morocco

Af­ter that sea­son in Inns­bruck where we first sold cards Pete and I took a short trip to Morocco where we surfed badly then trav­elled in­land to climb North Africa’s high­est peak Toubkal 4167m. A heat wave hit. We were on an over crowded bus, 2 peo­ple per sin­gle seat with the isle packed with peo­ple stand­ing. We quickly re­alised there were no open­ing win­dows and no air con­di­tion­ing, then we passed a dig­i­tal sign say­ing the tem­per­a­ture in the shade was 53°C. We could do noth­ing but try to stay still and not speak due to dan­ger of our bod­ies over heat­ing. We ar­rived in Mar­rakesh and im­me­di­ately charted a taxi to get into the moun­tains and above the heat as soon as pos­si­ble.

It was while we were climb­ing the 4167m peak of Toubkal that we had the idea of plant­ing one tree for ev­ery card sold. Through our trav­els we had seen so much harm from prod­ucts made by ir­re­spon­si­ble busi­ness prac­tice that we thought if we are go­ing to profit from our busi­ness then it can­not be at the ex­pense of any­one or any­thing else. We wanted to be able to feel good about the ef­fects our prod­ucts had on the world and if it was suc­cess­ful we wanted it to be with­out any neg­a­tive re­sults so that we could feel purely proud of that suc­cess.

Maybe it was be­cause we were a lit­tle eu­phoric af­ter dream­ing up this out­landish idea of plant­ing 1 tree for ev­ery card (for which had no prac­ti­cal plan of im­pli­ca­tion to in­di­cate it was even pos­si­ble) that we found climb­ing Toubkal sur­pris­ing easy… un­til I got de­layed al­ti­tude sick­ness and was bedrid­den in the tiny moun­tain town of Imlil for two days. Once I re­cov­ered we hitch hiked back to the coast with 7 peo­ple in a 5 seater car and learnt about the phe­nom­e­non of “wind heat ef­fect”, the op­po­site of wind chill. When the air tem­per­a­ture is higher than your body tem­per­a­ture (37.5° C) the wind ac­tu­ally works to heat your body not cool it. So there we were again in an over crowded ve­hi­cle in about 45°C with the win­dows up!

Once back on the coast we rented a stand up pad­dle board, just one be­tween the two of us be­cause we were too cheap to pay for a board each. Pete and I were way out to sea stand­ing up get­ting the nack dou­ble bal­anc­ing on one board when we were try­ing to think up a names for our naive new busi­ness idea when it came to me – “Lit­tle Dif­fer­ence”.

May 2017 - Bet­si­boka, Mada­gas­car

Af­ter our first night in Mada­gas­car we

were frus­trated to learn we were not able to rent a car for our­selves and we had to have a driver. As al­ways we were on a su­per tight bud­get and had to make this trip to Mada­gas­car vi­able for the busi­ness and not put us in debt. As soon as we got driv­ing we learnt why we needed a driver. Due to po­lit­i­cal un­rest in Mada­gas­car no roads had been main­tained since 1999, there were pot­holes the size of ele­phants, washouts on cliff edges, tem­po­rary wooden wheel width planks across rivers and all with no road signs or mark­ings. To get any­where in Mada­gas­car you need to know when you can drive fast and more im­por­tantly when you can’t. If not, you’ll de­stroy your 4X4 in a mat­ter of me­tres. You also need to know who to pay where to gain ac­cess and to avoid po­ten­tial kid­nap­ping. In some small vil­lages where the only build­ings are a few mud huts with grass roofs the road is main­tained by lo­cal chil­dren who con­stantly fill the mas­sive pot­holes with dirt. The kids then ask for tips through the ve­hi­cle win­dow in re­turn mak­ing the jour­ney faster. Roads have no names, most maps there are wrong and need­less to say Google Maps is use­less there. We have spent month cy­cling around Sri Lanka fundrais­ing for a school and Mada­gas­car makes Sri Lanka look like Lon­don.

June 2015 - Isle of Wight, UK

Back from Morocco we set about pro­duc­ing our cards again but this time in the UK un­der the brand name Lit­tle Dif­fer­ence. We started with a small printer on the Isle of Wight and sold into a range of shops across the small Isle. The tree plant­ing was still a pipe dream but we were de­ter­mined to make this hap­pen.

May 2017 - Ma­ha­janga, Mada­gas­car

We ar­rived in Ma­ha­janga af­ter a 14 hr drive that, had we driven, would have taken us sev­eral days. Ma­ha­janga is where a lot of the tree plant­ing hap­pens and is fa­cil­i­tated by an Amer­i­can based re­for­esta­tion char­ity called Eden Re­for­esta­tion Projects.

While there, we stayed with an Amer­i­can fam­ily liv­ing in Mada­gas­car for 1 year vol­un­teer­ing for the char­ity. The Di­rec­tors of the Eden Projects Mada­gas­car spent a week show­ing us ex­actly how things worked there. Jamie Shat­ten­burg, an Amer­i­can by birth, grew up in Mada­gas­car and was schooled with the Mala­gasy. He knows the coun­try, the lan­guages, the cul­ture and the peo­ple. He is Eden Projects In­ter­na­tional Di­rec­tor for Mada­gas­car and the cru­cial link be­tween Mala­gasy peo­ple and peo­ple like us who want to help.

What Jamie showed us in Ma­ha­janga could never have been ex­plained to us over a video call and I’ll never do it jus­tice in this text. The trees we have helped plant are a drop in the ocean of the grand prob­lem but lo­cally in Ma­ha­janga it is trans­form­ing the dam­aged en­vi­ron­ment back to a func­tional ecosys­tem, creat­ing life and liveli­hood, pulling peo­ple out of poverty and lit­er­ally sav­ing lives of the lo­cal peo­ple.

The av­er­age wage in Mada­gas­car is $2 USD a day; many peo­ple in­clud­ing chil­dren live on a hand­ful of rice a day. These peo­ple do what they can to sur­vive and feed their chil­dren, which of­ten in­cludes chop­ping down trees to sell as char­coal for cook­ing at the mar­ket – the root cause of de­for­esta­tion in Mada­gas­car is 2000 years of hu­mans ba­si­cally try­ing to sur­vive. Eden Projects em­ploys these very same peo­ple as tree planters or seed col­lec­tors, and pays them a good liv­ing wage. Sud­denly the very peo­ple who used to cut down the trees are the ones pro­tect­ing them for a seed source to main­tain their new dig­ni­fied life re­for­est­ing the land and away from hard­ship. The trees grow, rain­fall in­creases, de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion ceases, wildlife re­turns to the for­est, sed­i­ment dis­perses from the coast and sea life re­turns. They learn the cy­cle of the ecosys­tem to main­tain a food source and their chil­dren can go to school. The word has spread, Mala­gasy peo­ple come from vil­lages far and wide want­ing a bet­ter life pro­tect­ing and grow­ing the for­est. The cy­cle of poverty and en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion is bro­ken.

We saw this first hand, we col­lected seeds with the Mala­gasy peo­ple, planted trees with them, went to their schools, vis­ited their homes, met their fam­i­lies, we ate meals with them and they told us their sto­ries of ex­treme hard­ship and their jour­ney to a bet­ter life re­plant­ing the forests. It was the most pow­er­ful thing Pete and I had ever ex­pe­ri­enced.

Oc­to­ber 2015 - New Zealand

Af­ter search­ing ex­ten­sively we found there are a few or­gan­i­sa­tions that do tree plant­ing with do­na­tion money. Be­cause we had a set cri­te­ria we wanted to sat­isfy like only plant­ing in­dige­nous species, only for re­for­esta­tion not plan­ta­tions for in­dus­trial use and only in coun­tries that it is des­per­ately needed en­vi­ron­men­tally we soon had the or­gan­i­sa­tions nar­rowed down to just a few. We had a cer­tain level of scep­ti­cism, as we knew it would be quite a long time be­fore we ever had the money to be able to go see this tree plant­ing with our own eyes. So video calls were set up. Af­ter sev­eral long video calls with the CEO and other di­rec­tors we signed a Mem­o­ran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing with Eden Re­for­esta­tion Projects. On the 16th of De­cem­ber 2015 Lit­tle Dif­fer­ence was of­fi­cially a re­for­esta­tion part­ner.

May 2017 - Nosy Be, Mada­gas­car

Af­ter see­ing what we had seen in Ma­janga with Eden Projects we made a trip fur­ther north to see some of the very few and tiny re­main­ing pri­mary forests left in Mada­gas­car to see with our own eyes what Mada­gas­car was like and what it could be re­stored too. To get to one of them we had to pad­dle an out­rig­ger canoe a cou­ple of hours as there are no roads to this for­est. We were so lucky to see this beau­ti­ful world. Le­murs swung from trees, tur­tles swam by the shore, tiny chameleons the size of your fin­ger nail roamed the for­est floor, huge boa con­stric­tor snakes slept in hol­low logs, dis­guised lizards hide in plain sight, birds swooped and gi­ant trees dom­i­nated. It was both im­pres­sive and sad to think that all of Mada­gas­car was once cov­ered in this glory.

From Antsir­anana in the far north we took an in­ter­nal flight right down the mid­dle of Mada­gas­car back to An­tana­narivo from where we flew out of Mada­gas­car a few days later. From our jet at 25,000 feet all I could see from each side of the plane for over an hour of fly­ing was baron de­for­ested land turn­ing to desert which once used to be flour­ish­ing for­est. The rivers run red with the erod­ing soil­ing wash­ing to the ocean. 90% of Mada­gas­car has been de­for­ested and with it most of the wildlife. It all hit home, I cried. The enor­mity of the prob­lem, the de­struc­tion, the beauty that was lost, the ex­tinct species gone for­ever, but also the glim­mer of hope we had wit­nessed, the lit­tle dif­fer­ence we had helped make, the forests re­planted, the lives saved. If it can hap­pen in Ma­ha­janga then it can hap­pen all over Mada­gas­car. It can hap­pen all over the world.

Jan­uary 1st 2016

Af­ter many months of work on our hair brain idea, our far flung dream was made a re­al­ity - Lit­tle Dif­fer­ence be­gan plant­ing one tree for ev­ery prod­uct sold.

July 2018

As of writ­ing, our cus­tomers have now en­abled us to plant over 50,000 trees and cre­ate 500 days of well paid mean­ing­ful em­ploy­ment for pre­vi­ously im­pov­er­ished women and men. The peo­ple now have the knowl­edge, tools, in­spi­ra­tion and mo­ti­va­tion to plant more trees and pro­tect the ones they have. Their chil­dren now eat bal­anced meals, they can now go to school to be­come an ed­u­cated gen­er­a­tion and break the de­struc­tive cy­cle of poverty and en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion.

The tools are in place, we just need to do more.

So­phie Stevens and Pete Oswald, Monte Cinto, Cor­sica - Im­age by Pete Oswald

McKen­zie Coun­try NZ

Sail­ing across the English Chan­nel, UK

So­phie plant­ing Man­groves in Ma­ha­janga, Mada­gas­car

An artist in ac­tion, Pu­rakanui, NZ

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