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Turmoil fuels plunder of African 'Garden of Eden'
Posted: Monday, June 24, 2002

By John Kamau,

Anthropologist Jacque Dimarosimana watched as women cradling bundles of firewood emerged from southern Madagascar’s Toliara forest.

Some few yards down the once-paved road, a large section of the forest had been cleared by charcoal dealers who were now packing the content into gunny sacks, ready for the 450-kilometre journey north-east to Antananarivo, the capital of this Indian Ocean island nation.

Charcoal made of hardwood from Madagascar’s famed forests has become the only source of energy for millions of people in a nation whose only oil refinery remains closed and where fuel paraffin has run dry — driving the fuel business underground.

To make matters worse, a power struggle between newly elected President Marc Ravalomanana and former president Didier Ratsiraka has engulfed the island in a political crisis since January. The rivalry has split the nation.

"If this crisis continues," Dimarosimana warns, "the spiny forests (of south Madagascar) will be lost for good."

Attempts to unite the political rivals and form a government of national unity have yet to bear fruit, although Ravalomanana made a gesture of reconciliation by dissolving the government on 16 June, with talk of being more inclusive with the opposition.

Ratsiraka, meanwhile, fled to France in early June as sporadic fighting flared across the island’s northern peninsula.

With fear of political violence running high in Antananarivo, those who can are packing their bags. Jean Habrokurouhou left his job as a clerical officer at the defence ministry and travelled south to his home village of Andranamaitso, some 12 km east of Toliara town.

"I have to be near my family," he said.

Every morning, the father of four boys enters Toliara forest to check his kilns, where hardwood from Madagascan forests is burned until it becomes charcoal.

The wood is arranged in these kilns and covered with leaves and soil. A fire is lit through a tiny opening at the bottom. Smoke escapes from another opening on top.

These openings allow the right amount of airflow — if there’s a leak, the wood could burn too fast or unevenly.

These charcoal kilns have now become a source of livelihood for Habrokurouhou’s family — one gunny sack fetches US$3 in his village, or as much as US$12 in the capital.

When asked about the long-term implications of forest destruction, he replies: "We have to eat; the next generation will take care of itself."

With every gunny sack that is filled, south Madagascar’s forests are slowly giving in to wanton destruction by both charcoal dealers and farmers who practice the traditional slash-and-burn farming methods.

"Madagascar will slowly bleed to its death," warns Racas Funtalorinana, a 25-year-old activist with a local environmental group.

Southern Madagascar is famous for impenetrable thickets of weirdly adapted succulents, cactus plants and bloated giant baobabs.

Its rich collection of plants and animals is one of the many tourist attractions on this island.

Far from netting profits from tourism, it is the poverty that sticks amid the surrounding beauty — like the hundreds of tombs that dot Madagascar’s hilltops.

Although Madagascar has one of the most unique ecosystems in the world, poverty and political uncertainty remain the new threats as thousands of villagers invade the forests in search of ever more fuel wood and agricultural land.

"Politicians are pushing this country into an abyss," Dimarosimana says.

With as many as 90 per cent of the people on the island subsisting directly on income from the land, and a per capita annual income of US$300, environmentalists here say that the country’s rulers will find it increasingly difficult in coming years to maintain such unsustainable livelihoods.

"The fate of the people and the forest are inextricably linked but the people do not know this," says Racas Funtalorinana of the Madagascar Environment Trust.

"The people want to be able to support themselves and better their lives. But at the moment there is growing temptation to cut down the forests in this lawlessness."

Scientists estimate that in the southern Madagascar province of Fianarantosoa alone there are 200 000 plus species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else on earth.

"Madagascar is an ecological Garden of Eden," says Adan Erow, a Canadian researcher.

"But all these cannot last a lifetime with all the poverty in this nation and if the current crisis continues."

Erow has been studying the adaptation of the white Sifaka lemur, a primate found only in Madagascar — in one of the poorest and most environmentally challenged parts of the country.

If the crisis gets out of hand, he says, Madagascar could go the Congo way — where too environmental poachers targetted forests and other natural resources.

He thumbs through a local Catholic newspaper La Kroan’i Madagasikara. The editorial was catchy. It said: "Time to be pessimistic."

Everybody in Madagascar is these days.

Madagascar may be a geological and ecological wonderland (it snapped from mainland Africa some 180 million years ago), but as the crisis continues there is only one option before its 16 million people. As one villager said, "It is survival." — Gemini News.

JOHN KAMAU is the editor of Nairobi-based Rights Features Service.

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