Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, shares similarities of pre-history to Australia. That is, with the break up of the super-continent of Gondwana they both floated about in grand isolation, insulated from other large land masses by vast stretches of water. Consequently the flora and fauna of Madagascar is unique – just as is Australia’s. But instead of kangaroos, koalas and gum trees Madagascar sports lemurs, chameleons and baobab trees. The nature here is truly remarkable, although like so many places we have visited, not doing so well, largely on account of us humans.
|Two signature Madagascan animals, the chameleon and the lemur|
Compared to continental Africa humans came late, the first settlers arriving from Asia about 2,000 years ago. They came in canoes, and:
‘... began clearing forests and burning them for farmland, and turned lakes and wetlands into rice paddies. Cleared land produced crops for only a few years until the thin soil became sterile. Farmers then moved on to other parts of the forest, in this slash-and-burn agriculture. At some point, African herdsmen colonized the island, bringing zebu cattle, which crowded out wildlife...’
Endangered Species Handbook 2005
|Zebu cattle are a vital source of protein, as well as being important for transport.|
The humans thrived, and are currently estimated to number over 22 million. This human avalanche has, according to the most recent estimates, carried away about 90% of the forests, including ALL the richest lowland forests (that feature in the cartoon movie!). The arrival of humans signaled the end of many species, including ‘elephant birds’, two species of pigmy hippos, several large species of lemurs, giant tortoises and many more.
|A market in a small village.|
But while numerically strong, this human population has also had its share of tribulations. Its early history includes epochs of brutal leadership and inter-tribal conflict. The arrival of Europeans hardly improved life, with predation of bodies for slavery and souls for the church, and after an accord with the English fell in a hole, eventual colonization by the French in 1896. Since gaining independence in 1960, things in Madagascar have mostly gone even further downhill. Like so many fledgling nations, poor leadership and official corruption has retarded development and kept most of the population in poverty. No matter which way it is measured, it is one of the world’s poorest countries.
|Typical village house in northern Madagascar – life is not real easy for most Malagassy.|
The vicious grip of poverty leaves limited space for a broader view of the island’s natural capital. Much of the island is steep, with very fragile, infertile soils. Forest clearance, associated reduced rainfall, loss of soil structure and sterility has resulted in major erosion issues. Much of the central highlands has already been reduced to bare earth, pocketed and gouged by deep gullies and cavernous holes.
|Soil erosion on a grand scale. Gradual abuse of these soils has been leading the nation ever closer towards the brink of ecological collapse.|
However by 1985 the world (and many Madagascans) had come to recognize the importance of turning things around, both for humans and for nature:
‘Its fauna and flora represent many extremely unusual and unique examples of evolution .... This island is considered one of the five most biologically important areas in the world; its primates are the world's highest priority for conservation ...’
Endangered Species Handbook 2005
Thus starting around 1985 Madagascar, with considerable overseas assistance, has created a protected area system totaling 47 reserves including two marine reserves. The system seeks to gather the best Malagasy natural sites sheltering representative species of ecosystems and providing habitat for numerous endemics that require specific conservation measures. While not without some major ongoing management problems it is already an impressive accomplishment for so poor a country – and there are apparently still more plans for reservation in the pipeline. Despite these prodigious efforts many, many species remain endangered.
|We visited Ankarana National Park – one of 19 national parks|
However, while nature is looking a bit more secure, the island’s humanity is still not faring much better. Like so many third-world countries, freshly independent Madagascar had an unsuccessful fling with socialism/communism – leading to a massive withdrawal of expatriate French expertise and investment. Reinvigorating a market economy has been difficult, although some recent oil and mineral finds and the write-off of some large loans by the World Bank are considered encouraging, while a fledgling tourism industry is enjoying some success.
However political instability and corruption remain major issues. A democratically elected government was, in 2009, toppled in a military backed coup d'etat and the situation in the capital is still reported as ‘tense’. Despite efforts by the UN and World Bank and other ‘honest brokers’ to map a path back towards democracy, fresh elections have still not been held. The continuing political uncertainty stifles investment and growth – and scares away the tourists.
It would seem that Madagascar’s future still hangs in the balance....
|Madagascar’s famous baobab avenue.|
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