New Internationalist

The Madagascar Show

Issue 288

The Madagascar show
Illustration by Edith Looker.

Brett Massoud 's love for Madagascar turns to anger at its despoilers

Biodiversity Threat:
Some of the world’s most vulnerable people, located in a string of desperately poor tropical mega-diversity countries - Zaire, Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea - are now charged with preserving our most endangered species.

The cast includes a race of people with an Indo-Polynesian background, scores of lemurs, a few hundred thousand species of other plants and animals, some European and US naturalists, a multinational mining company, about 50,000 tourists, one female musician, a disappearing future and a cloudy, soon-to-be-forgotten past. The scene is a left-foot-shaped tropical island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique. Welcome to the Madagascar show.

'In Madagascar, you don't have choice,' the narrator says. 'You do what you are told and if you want to do something different you do it yourself, without any help from anybody or anything. No help is available, no hope is worth dreaming about. To make life easier you just give up, follow the pace of mora-mora, go with the flow. In Madagascar you are born a victim ­ a victim of poverty, a victim of the corrupt government system and a victim of a very, very confused community who think of nothing but survival.'

The narrator is Hanitra, a singer of Malagasy folk songs, now married to a Briton and living in London. She was thinking back on her life as a child in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital. Not a lot has changed.

When, about 180 million years ago, Gondwanaland was breaking up to resemble today's atlas, Madagascar was abruptly snapped off the coast of Africa and placed on its own in the Indian Ocean. Along with this earth-ark went more than 1,000 species of orchids, 60 of aloes and 120 of palms. Faunal passengers included 40 different lemurs ­ some as big as gorillas ­ Pigmy Hippos, Planet Earth's largest bird and an array of insects, reptiles and amphibians found nowhere else.

Strangely, one species missed the boat: humankind. Without this large and destructive predator, Madagascar and its plants and animals evolved without hindrance. Around the time of Christ, Persians from the north, Africans from the west and Malaysians fromthe east started to arrive and settle this wonderland. The day that first human set foot on Madagascar, the island held perhaps 300,000 species in all ­ over five per cent of the earth's total number (Madagascar covers about 0.4 per cent of the planet's land mass).

These animals lived in an equally diverse array of climates, forest types and geographical architecture. The spine of mountains running down the centre of Madagascar closest to the east coast separates rainforest from desert, palms and succulents from spiny aloes and acacias, water-storing plants and animals from water-shedding ones.

Madagascar is one of the most diverse places on earth but somehow things have started to go horribly wrong. Cattle need grass and a simple way to get it is to remove the forest cover, burn what is left and wait for the grass to grow. It doesn't take long and the resultant juicy-green bite is perfect for a hungry zebu, the favoured beef of Madagascar. The need for firewood has seen the Malagasy chop and burn their way through 93 per cent of the forest cover of their island home. First to go in the race toward extinction were Aepyornis ­ Planet Earth's largest bird ­ the Pigmy Hippo and at least 15 species of lemur; 100,000 species in all may now have been lost since people arrived.

When I first visited Madagascar in 1987 it was said that the entire environment budget for that year was $1,000. But, after years of corrupt dictatorship, a democratic government and a team of World Wildlife Fund park wardens has not been able to stop illegal tree-cutting, illegal harvesting of seeds and forest products, the smuggling and wholesale export of a list of endangered plants and wildlife. Still, today, the peace of the village scene is broken only by the persistent chop, chop, chop of the axe, as more and more forest disappears into fireplaces.

I cannot describe the poverty that exists in Madagascar. To do so in any sort of flippant way would be a great act of disrespect to these very proud people. Typical is Hovatraha village in south-east Madagascar, home to around 2,000 people from the Antanosy tribe. They eat manioc, maize, rice and whatever animals, vegetables and fruit they can grow. Water is scooped from a dirty hole in the ground, pigs wander the village, polluting the environment with parasites but providing the occasional celebratory meal. Dysentery is endemic, the infant death-rate is ten times higher than in the US, families have as many as ten children, there is no healthcare, no refuse disposal, no human-waste disposal. If you get sick you die.

These people are the keepers of the very last of Madagascar?s littoral forest, the forest that runs from the beach to the hills and once covered the entire eastern seaboard of Madagascar. Today there is not much more than 4,000 hectares of this particular type of littoral forest left on earth and it is all in south-east Madagascar, surrounded by the villages of the Antanosy.

Dream your own private dream of a rainforest and I wager that you will paint a picture with the darkest green and spun gold, broad-leafed plants dribbling with dew, a little waterfall playing down fern-plugged rocks into a pond surrounded by moss-covered stone, perhaps an exotic insect casually consuming a leaf, a few orchids in flower and a colourful bird dancing to his mate.

This picture is true of Madagascar's remaining rainforest. But close at hand, just beyond your view, another threat is looming. Enter the villain, Rio Tinto Zinc.

It has been known for some time that beneath the dunes which support the littoral forests of south-east Madagascar lie enormous deposits of ilmenite, the mineral sand used to make titanium dioxide, a commercial whitener used by all of us every day in the face-cream and toothpaste on the shelves of our bathrooms and the white paint with which we decorate our homes.

Remember those last, precious 4,000 hectares. The plan is to preserve a few small isolated areas as parks, little biological Disneylands for tourists to visit and for scientists to sweat in. The rest is to be systematically removed in a process akin to liposuction ­ the old-fashioned type of liposuction, like before they invented those cute little suction tubes that they use today. The entire forest is removed, first by bulldozing the trees. Very kindly, the miners will allow the scraps and timber to be used by the locals. Then the treeless topsoil is stockpiled in heaps to be replaced later. Heaps create heat. Even micro-organisms die. Think compost.

The next step is the dredging. A lake is built and on that lake floats a great big dredge that has three parts: one shoots pressurized water onto the edge of the lake to cut the sand, another sucks up the resultant slurry and still another squirts the mixture into the separator. Once the much-sought-after and desperately needed toothpaste-colouring is extracted the left-overs are pumped back behind the constantly moving dredge. Now dead topsoil is replaced and new trees are planted. Apparently these giants of industry think they can artificially replace 250 million years of evolution.

Of course a lot of the area will not be replanted as 'natural' forest. The Government of Madagascar will take advantage of this little 'clean up' to plant tidy rows of timber trees. Mmmm. Nice. The mining company will offer 300 labouring jobs to local people. Thanks a lot. I haven't even begun to talk about the social implications of the project, or about the river mouths being moved, the salinity of the lakes being changed, the hydrology of a whole coastline altered, but space and temperament will not allow me to write more than these few words. Oh heck, maybe three more? No way, José!

I know that these people are starving, because I have been there. I know that women have to walk up to 30 kilometres to see a doctor, because I have seen it. I know that if something is not done immediately, in 30 years these forests will be of little value.

I do not think, however, that Armageddon is the answer. I do think the answer is education and an end to international financial blackmail against countries like Madagascar. If we want to have a biologically diverse planet we need to pay for it. We, I say ­ not the inhabitants of south-east Madagascar, or even their government that has inherited a desperation for foreign exchange.

I am not the first to love Madagascar, for all of its faults. Nor will I be the last. Writers, photographers and lovers have been waxing lyrical about it for ever, it seems. Phillipe de Commerson said in the sixteenth century: 'May I announce to you that Madagascar is the naturalist's promised land? Nature seems to have retreated there to a sanctuary where she can work on models different to any she has used elsewhere. There you meet bizarre and marvellous forms at every step?' In contrast, in 1994 the conservationist and author Gerald Durrell said: 'It is essential that the world realizes the biological importance of the island and the plight of its people and hurries to the rescue of this extraordinary corner of the globe.'

Rescue indeed it needs. It is my belief that although Madagascar desperately needs the money generated by industry, mining is not the right industry. Tourism may be. Growth in visitors has already begun and tourists from Britain, South Africa, France and the rest of Europe are making their way to this most precious place. At the moment it is a bit like a zoo ­ tourists clamouring to see the last Dodo. But this need not be the case in the future. Work is underway educating village inhabitants about the importance of their natural environment, aid agencies have begun to dig wells for clean water and bring healthcare into the villages. Empowerment of the people is becoming a reality, and even in the most degraded of forests biodiversity is still so high that species new to science are found monthly.

This drama closes, in my mind, with a tranquil scene. The stage is set with village inhabitants working to achieve clean water, healthcare and sufficient nutritious food. Traditional forest uses are tempered with some training in sustainable-management techniques. Tourists wander the clean white beaches, wonder at the brown-collared lemur and leave nothing but their footprints and money. Their local guide brings a salary home to his village each week and buys shoes for his children's feet. The scientists from the North are outnumbered by properly trained Malagasy who through their own research find the cure to greed in their forests and sell the potion to bring riches to their government.

A rusty sign that reads 'Keep Out! Madagascar Minerals Property!' flaps in the breeze as the only reminder of what might have been. We all clean our teeth with burnt sticks. Curtain.

Brett Massoud first went to Madagascar to study palm species and then helped establish the London-based agency Azafady that works on the eco-development of the island.

[image, unknown]
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