The Turtles, The Trees, & The Humans Of Madagascar

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By Nathan Bonnisseau,

Welcome to Madagascar  —  biodiversity paradise, lush, green jungles, and more than 70% of the population living under the national poverty line. The third largest island in the world, lying off the coast of Mozambique in the Indian Ocean, is not short of natural resources though.

The mighty Baobab trees of Madagascar (Credit: Larre)

The grounds of Madagascar contain rare metals, gemstones, gold, and other more common raw materials. The forests themselves provide invaluable riches and potentialities. The ethnic diversity on the island and a variety of traditional skills give Madagascar good cards to play in the international economic game.

But these valuable resources have not been so beneficial to the people of Madagascar so far. Despite a steadily rising GDP, real livelihood has worsened and caused social unrest and ecological destruction. Since its independence in 1960, Madagascar has suffered from a lack of clear steering and periodical political turmoil, which has hampered its ability to emerge as a developing nation.

Work in progress

In 2001, a blitz coup by Antananarivo mayor Marc Ravalomanana to take over power started years of political turmoil, stifling foreign investment and drying out foreign aid. For a country whose budget relied 80% on external help, this was more than a severe blow.

With no money to build roads, develop the limited electrical grid, or simply pay its teachers, the Malagasy government rapidly felt its grip over the island crumble, and particularly its already fragile rule of law.

As we are writing this article, the plague epidemic is a direct consequence of the failure of the governments to maintain its institutions and to provide basic public services to its population.

The World Health Organisation calls the plague a “disease of poverty” caused in part by unsanitary living conditions. In the last 10 years, infectious diseases have intensified, following the inverted curb of antibiotic supplies in the country.

Resorting to nature

It may come as a surprise (or not) that the highest tribute to this crisis was paid by nature. These degraded living conditions pushed numerous Malagasy families to resort to new resilience techniques, more damaging to nature and to long-term welfare. Activities like illegal logging of precious woods, or poaching of rare species, yield much higher returns than the subsistence farming 75% of the population depend on for survival.

An average Malagasy family spends about €70/month. Of these €70, more than half is spent on food and another 15% on energy, the second largest cost item.

There are less than 700 ploughshare tortoises in the wild today (Credit: Hans Hillewaert)

To provide some perspective, one ploughshare tortoise (an endangered species about 20 centimetres long) will go for as much as $40,000 on the Asian black market. As Jim Juvik, scientist for the Turtle Conservancy says, reintroducing these species in their natural milieu “is like throwing gold bricks on the ground.”

But it’s deforestation that bears the brunt of the dramatic drop in biomass on the “Eighth Continent.” The use of forest wood for heating, cooking and construction, for lack of a more sustainable material, has already put a strain on the 10% of dry and rainforests left on the territory.

In total, 83% of energy consumption is biomass fuels (mainly wood and charcoal). This has been a contributing factor in the dramatic deforestation in Madagascar. But the very low consumption levels of Malagasy do not explain the extent of deforestation there.

Illegal logging, a worldwide favorite of eco-mafias (organizations which make money from unprotected and often unvalued natural resources), has exploded. The exploitation of luxury timbers like rosewood or ebony is often controlled by foreign interests, with the complicity of local authorities. Again, the emergence of the huge Asian market is in part responsible for the surge in demand for these materials.

Keystone species and domino effects

Malagasy rivers look like veins that are bleeding into the ocean (Credit: NASA)

The methodical and illegal destruction of the Malagasy rainforests, notably the Eastern corridor, triggered a domino effect of environmental consequences visible from space.

Lower tree density causes the soil to erode very rapidly. The rivers have turned a mud red, resembling strange veins bleeding out the island. The soil, which traps carbon and provides the nutrients for crop culture, pours from the highlands to the Indian ocean.

Trees did not just protect the ground they had grown in. One of the vastest collection of fauna, flora, and fungi in the world is in deadly danger if nothing is done to preserve their habitat.

There are 105 different species of lemurs, each different in size, attitude, colour, and life rhythm. And we keep on discovering cuter and cuter ones. They are also a key element of the life cycle of their ecosystem. Lemurs disseminate a vast array of seeds (yes, through poop) at the four corners of the jungle. This allows numerous plants to perpetuate their lines, sometimes dozens of miles from their original roots.

A collection of seeds defecated by lemurs in Madagascar (Credit: Lydia Greene/Duke Lemur Center)

But with less and less trees to hide in, and more and more poachers to sell them as pets or delicacy, the smallest of monkeys are also paying at a high price the arrival of humans on the island.

The rich, yet fragile balance of biodiversity achieved on the island was shattered in a matter of decades by human activity. Yet the country is not overpopulated or overstepping its local boundaries. It is by necessity and gain that locals and foreign supply chains destroy the biomes of the island.

Picking the correct strategy from the correct playbook

Dramatic impoverishment directly issued from poor governance and instability at the top pushed more and more people towards illegal and destructive practices for their very survival.

However, Madagascar’s nature is an invaluable asset to its future. Ecotourism is already a growing source of revenue and heralded as one of the major poverty alleviation tools by the new government.

Sustainable management of ecological resources does not just provide attractions for rich Westerners. The trees maintain the fertile grounds in place, the biodiversity is a genetic bank for both the agronomy and pharmaceutical industries that has barely been tapped, and the Highlands provide refuge in case of natural disaster.

Just last year, in 2016, about one million Malagasy went hungry due to three consecutive dry years. This contributed to preparing the grounds for the aforementioned plague and fed the vicious socio-ecological circle the island nation is trapped in.

Madagascar is the salient example of how all developmental and ecological themes are inseparable from one another. There can be no health care without an elaborate taxing scheme, which can only be enforced with well fed civil servants, and so forth.

Conservation can only work if local population does not need to resort to the same resources to feed their families. The sustainable transition is the delicate coordinated movement of an entire society towards a new relationship with nature. A relationship that gives a fair place to our ecosystems and a secure future for people today and tomorrow.

We need to all give this sustainable transition a think (Credit: Eric Kilby)

In Latin, lemur means “spirit” and many of the Malagasy people believe lemurs are similar to ghosts, passing the messages of the dead through their ghostly stare. We have to implement the necessary model to protect those messengers before they actually become spirits themselves.

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