Madagascar: Political Instability Speeds Destruction of a Unique Environment

By Glenn Ashton · 24 Sep 2009

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Picture: Jialiang Gao -
Picture: Jialiang Gao -

Political instability in Madagascar is having a serious effect on the already fragile and highly endangered ecology of this island nation. This is of profound concern as Madagascar contains many unique species that are already severely threatened.

Since the start of the year there has been an upsurge of illegal activity, evidently led by alliances between Chinese nationals, allegedly linked to triad gangs and the new government of President Andry Rajoelena, who toppled the incumbent President Marc Ravalomanana in a coup in March this year.

Madagascar is, considering its astounding biodiversity, insufficiently protected from ecological exploitation. Slightly more than 3% of the country is officially protected through the national parks and other protected national reserves, yet even this is now under threat.

Ousted President Ravalomanana had pledged to increase the protection of Madagascar's natural resources by upping this protection to 10% of total land area, which is the international best practice target for conservation. However he was forced into exile before completing this task.

Ravalomanana was also directly involved in protecting the forests. He personally stored confiscated timber, particularly Rosewood, under his own presidential protection. At the time of his departure, an estimated 1000 cubic meters of Rosewood were stored. 

Since his ouster, illegal logging of Rosewood, forest Ebony and other precious hardwoods has risen precipitously. According to local information an estimated 20 000 cubic meters of this rare wood has been exported through the unholy alliance between the timber mafia and Rajoelena over the last six months. Given that Rosewood is worth over US$5000 per cubic meter and ebony three times the amount,  one sees how lucrative this plunder is.

The scale of this destruction is best understood from a local level. One national park, Marojejy National Park, was closed in March as the situation had deteriorated beyond where park rangers could protect park visitors. At nearby Masolala Park invasions by upwards of 3000 people precipitated virtual environmental anarchy, as rosewood trees were sought out and removed.

The problems have spread from Masolala to Maroantsetra and Mananara Parks, where the bolobolo (illegal loggers) have threatened and intimidated local populations and parks rangers, breaking the feet of one.

The effect of this removal impacts the entire forest ecosystem and puts lemurs such as the highly endangered Silky Sifaka at yet greater risk. Rangers and conservation workers have been forced to leave after threats to their lives. Given widespread poverty coupled to a young, unemployed population, opportunists abound to exploit this vacuum. Workforces have been recruited through radio advertisements to partake in this uncontrolled plunder.

What is more worrying as far as the lemurs are concerned is a sinister new threat to their very existence. This is the emergence of a bush meat trade that for the first time has targeted lemurs for the restaurant trade. Lemurs have had official protection for half a century yet where there are limited taboos, local communities have continued to sporadically hunt them for food. 

But according to James Mackinnon, senior technical director of Conservation International in Madagascar, this is the first time that lemurs have been targeted for commercial buyers, signalling a dire new threat to the viability of this flagship species, unique to the island. An isolated group of crowned Sifaka lemurs has dropped from 20 individuals to 6, in just a year. Endangered ecosystems have encountered an unprecedented threat, directly precipitated by the political interregnum.

Because of the political illegitimacy of the Rajoelena government, international funding of conservation programmes run through state organs has come to a halt. Both USAid and the World Bank, who have strongly supported environmental conservation efforts on the island, have suspended their environmental programmes until at least October 2010. This may further exacerbate the problem. 

There is an ugly irony that the Ravalomanana government was both supportive of conservation efforts while simultaneously pursuing neo-liberal economic policies that were instrumental in his ouster. His government’s agreement in principle to lease around 1.3 million hectares of farmland in a 99 year lease to the South Korean multinational corporation Daewoo proved to be a touchstone. 

This is estimated as nearly half of the arable land of Madagascar, which remains unable to grow sufficient rice for its own requirements. The pressure on land is a major reason for the continued 'tavy' or slash and burn agriculture that has historically eroded forest remnants. Tavy has now shifted to within national park boundaries. 

Ravalomanana's approach to the Daewoo matter was seized upon by Rajoelena and used as leverage to oust him by arousing populist discontent around the lack of transparency with this deal. 

Rajoelena purportedly withdrew the contract but Daewoo insisted it was only examining the project's viability. Other reports question this; apparently the transnational has already laid claim to over 200, 000 hectares. Whatever conspires from here on in, the Madagascar example shows clearly how the new neo-colonial land grab is capable of creating conditions of instability in poorly mandated states. The long term losers are the people and the environment.

The continued political instability continues. Wood extraction and disregard for national park boundaries for tavy continues. Wild animals, reptiles and amphibians are being collected and traded for the international pet trade. It is notable that a large proportion of the wood and rare animals are sourced for sale to North American and European markets, through criminal intermediaries.

There is some light to diffuse this generally gloomy situation. Despite funding being withdrawn for state distribution, government agencies like USAid and conservation groups like Conservation International continue to work with civil society in order to stem the threats. Ndranto Razakamanarina, deputy team leader for environment and rural development at USAid said that they will continue to work on food security programmes and will support civil society organisations in order to not allow the political and administrative vacuum to destroy what has taken years to build. They have specific programmes assisting communities to tavy farming through sustainable practices, that will continue.

In early September a new cabinet was unilaterally announced by Rajoelena's prime minister. While the government has no legitimacy, it may help restore some order. The new minister of Environment comes from a military background and is at present an unknown quantity. Given the allegations of Rajoelena benefiting from the ongoing exploitation of illegally harvested timber it is questionable whether there will be the will to curb the problem. On the other hand a military man may be what is needed to bring the anarchic environmental exploitation to a halt.

The assault on the fragile remnants of Madagascar's biodiversity is at a crucial phase. Either the illegitimate government will begin to control the problem, possibly with the assistance of the military junta, or they will continue to reap their rich rewards. Short term profit could undermine the long term ecological viability of the systems. This in turn threatens the tourism trade and the associated benefits it has delivered to the national economy, potentially for ever.

Whatever the case, pressure must be maintained upon the present leadership of Madagascar to call a halt to the damage it has permitted and ostensibly participated in. The long term costs of inaction are too high to ignore, not only for the people of Madagascar but for the entire region and the world, who have yet to fully understand this delicate and unique environmental heritage.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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