Wednesday 31st October 2012, 5:00PM GMT.
The ‘bushmeat’ trade is flourishing and slash-and-burn farming is widespread. Four years after a coup that ousted Madagascar’s democratically elected president, Tim Earl finds the island nation teetering on the brink of environmental disaster…
MADAGASCAR is burning.
Great columns of smoke can be seen rising from the land all over the vast island as villagers burn dead grass to provide easier feeding for cattle when the rains come.
It is illegal and was strictly banned in previous years but the president is said to fear an insurgency from the countryside and has instructed local officials to turn a blind eye.
Swept into power by a coup on 21 March 2009, Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, was immediately condemned by the international community.
Many Malagasy saw the influence of France in the coup, blaming their former colonial master for providing ‘trainers’ for the military and inspiring the takeover that resulted in democratically elected president Marc Ravalomanana transferring his power to a military council and fleeing to South Africa.
It is said that the French objected to President Ravalomanana’s friendships with the US and Germany. French businesses certainly control the economy (what little there is).
As in many coups, the new president promised elections but so far these have not happened.
He has spent money on uniforms for the police and military but little else. There are frequent roadblocks, mostly staffed by police but occasionally military officers are in charge. (It is interesting that the only overweight Malagasy one sees are policemen.)
The roads are breaking up due to lack of maintenance, with huge potholes appearing even in newly surfaced highways such as the main Tulier to Antananarivo road. Although only two lanes wide (one in each direction) the road’s resurfacing, completed in 2008, was a major improvement, but now the holes are starting to appear, some stretching right across its width.
Factories are empty and the state-owned airline is a shambles, with schedules changing daily. I was told that any government minister can demand that the internal flight times be changed to suit their requirements.
The other source of smoke in Madagascar is from the production of charcoal. Pits are dug in the sand and wood piled in, set alight and the whole lot is covered in sand.
When the smoke stops the pit is broken open, the charcoal inside removed, bagged and sold on the roadsides. Truck drivers come down from the major towns and cities to buy the bags that are then broken up into small portions and sold on for home cooking.
The vast majority of domestic cooking is done on charcoal stoves and Madagascar’s forests are being whittled away to fuel them.
It is not all bad news, however. In the midst of desperate conditions there are occasional flickers of light.
One such is Musa Parc at Ifaty, a nature reserve set up by a larger-than-life character known simply as Musa.
Musa had wild Afro-hair in dreadlocks when I first met him but these had gone when we met outside Tulier last month. He was off to get another wife following the death of one of his several ‘other-halfs’ in Ifaty.
Musa practices polygamy – with great success. He has a huge extended family, most of whom work as wildlife guides in the nature reserve he has set up.
It is a section of spiny forest, part of a huge area of Madagascar’s most famous habitat. The vegetation is a mixture of cactus-like spiny trees and baobabs, of which there are several species. (Mainland Africa has only two kinds of baobab, Madagascar has 15.)
Musa realised the area’s potential 12 years ago and started catering for wildlife tours visiting the spiny forest.
Paths were marked out with white stones and led people to the most impressive baobabs.
But the demand was to see rare species of birds, particularly the long-tailed ground-roller and desert mesite (both families unique to Madagascar).
He and his brothers learned their habits and made a name for themselves leading visiting birders through the forest showing them the localised jewels.
My first encounter with these two species was in the Musa Parc but we were shown a great deal more besides: sickle-billed and blue vangas, running couas (another two endemic families of birds), greater hedgehog-tenrec (a shrew that looks like a hedgehog – Madagascar is a weird place).
Hissing cockroaches the size of my palm roost in hollow trees and iguanas, a New World family of lizards whose presence in Madagascar is still unexplained, are also found in the reserve.
Setting up nature reserves is not an easy pastime but in Madagascar, where there is no support from government or local authorities, it is an astounding feat.
That the huge Musa family make a good living from it is a happy and essential element of its success.
During the coup in 2009, tourists did not go to Madagascar and all the island’s reserves suffered from illegal hunting and the expansion of slash-and-burn ranching.
My visit in 2010 was sad at times as people stood on the sides of roads offering ‘bushmeat’ – dead lemurs caught in the dwindling forests.
Musa has been unable to bring charcoal burning and the expansion of grazing completely to a halt and a visit these days involves a long hike through deep sand. The reserve has shrunk markedly since my first visit in 2004, as Musa’s neighbours have demanded timber for charcoal-making.
I get around this barrier to our access by chartering a couple of zebu carts and taking my clients in by ‘Ifaty taxi’!
I cannot see Madagascar’s wildlife surviving for much longer. The pressures of a burgeoning population and an uninterested dictatorship will lead to an environmental disaster on an unprecedented scale unless something remarkable happens soon.
Even the Musa Parc and its dependant community could be swept away.