Madagascar: More than just lemurs
Dawn. A rooster crows once, twice, and then thrice, cracking the carapace of your sweat soaked slumber. As light seeps in, so do sounds, gentle chatter and engine sputters building up to surround you. Cries of unknown birds, the gentle slopping of water from head-held plastic buckets, the occasional motorbike roar and a cacophony of farm animals wake you. Walking to look outside, depending on where you are, you could see fog-skirted, green-wreathed mountains, or the verdant expanses of rice paddies and palm plantations, a dust road churned by cattle, or the limpid waters and rustling leaves of the coastal rainforests. You may even be awoken by the lapping of the azure ocean onto blinding white beaches, with a backdrop of fisherman returning in battered wooden pirogues from early expeditions. I left Madagascar over a month ago, yet it’s sights and sounds remain imprinted on my consciousness. The fourth largest island in the world, which split from the Indian subcontinent to become marooned on Africa’s east coast 88 million years ago, is far more than just lemurs and an animated film.
Admittedly, although it may be a stereotype, lemurs are emblematic of one of the most fascinating aspects of Madagascar- it’s biodiversity. Due to it’s unique geographical isolation, Madagascar is the unprecedented leader in global biodiversity: 90% of its species are endemic, found nowhere else in the world. Whilst I was there, I volunteered with SEED Madagascar, an NGO who’s projects focus on conserving the environment, community health, and education. I was involved on the conservation side, giving me the amazing opportunity of living in a coastal rainforest fragment for 2 weeks. I am not exaggerating when I say that living in such an area was to be temporarily ensconced in nature’s bubble. The sand or leaf-littered floor revealed scores of bejewelled insects and slithering boas, slide your gaze slightly up and you see geckos and lizards resting in lanes of sunlight, the canopy held 4 (of over 100 nationally) types of lemurs, with the diurnal brown lemur sitting metres from your face, sucking on guava fruit, and in the wide sky fly a panoply of birds of all sizes and colours.
On night walks, the eagle eyed can spot chameleons and the sudden shine of nocturnal lemur eyes, as you hear the squads of fruit bats. It has to be seen to be believed, and is one of the major draws of Madagascar as a destination, yet it is all at serious risk.
This most diverse of environments is also one of the most threatened globally. In the past 60 years, Madagascar has lost over 50% of its forest cover, mostly due to deforestation and slash and burn tactics. It cannot be discounted that some of this comes from the local community, who depend on wood for housing and heating, and who may clear forest for pastures, but (surprise, surprise) big corporations also take a significant share of the blame. The negative side of globalisation rears it’s ugly head, with foreign mining and oil companies taking advantage of the governments fickle regulations on protecting the environment- if a proposal pays, it is likely to stay, regardless of environmental impact. Madagascar has large reserves of ilmenite (a bleaching agent), coal, iron and cobalt. In St Luce, a collection of three hamlets where I volunteered, the main purpose of the programme is to demonstrate, and collect Sadat on, the immense range of species found in the area (as well as educating communities of the benefits of conservation). Several of the forest fragments I was working in are already earmarked for destruction for an ilmenite mine owned by QMM, a company in which the Madagascan government owns a 20% share (the rest belongs to Rio Tinto). When I asked conservation workers if there had been any challenge to the proposed mine, they revealed the sad truth that a partly government owned mine is the best that can be hoped for- if this project fell through it would simply be replaced by a new one. The government, despite its reticence to address environmental degradation, must provide at least half hearted agreements to limit damage to habitats, an obligation to which TNCs are tied much less. Many NGOs are reduced to working with the mining companies, to ensure that the inevitable destruction will be as minimal as possible. Time is running out for Madagascar’s wildlife, and it is crucial that the international community puts pressure on the government to preserve this most unique collection of nature.
However the environment is not the only problem facing Madagascar. St Luce, where I volunteered, is isolated from nearby large towns thanks to the bumpy dirt roads (which become swamps after rain), so I was lucky enough to truly see what life for many in rural Madagascar is like. Sharing the dusty roads with herds of hump-shouldered zebu (cows) being tapped on their flanks by a bored herdboy, high fiving skinny kids who run past yelling “vazaar” (essentially, white person), walking past women weaving mats from mahampy reeds and men carrying fish or more reeds. However, although it may seem picturesque, romanticising life in rural Madagascar would simply be hiding the defining aspect for most of the population, and that is the nation’s extreme poverty. In St Luce the literacy rate was only 20%, with 90% of the population living below the poverty line, and Madagascar as a whole came 161st out of 189 countries in the 2018 Human Development Index. This is exacerbated by the impact of climate change, which is decimating the agricultural economy and increasing the risks for severe weather events. Despite this, Madagascar receives so little development aid that the only “developing” country that receives less is North Korea- not exactly a difficult competitor to beat. There are variety of theories on why this is: as an island it can be easy to ignore, it has little “geostrategic importance” or international conflict risks so the powers that be ignore it, and the mythical wildlife imagery obscures the suffering populace. Whatever the reason, it is unquestionable that this poverty is far reaching and hugely debilitating.
This is all exacerbated by the fragile political situation. I admit that I’m no expert on Malagasy politics, but even for the experts it probably gets confusing. The current president, Andry Rajoelina, was elected in December 2018 in a slightly bizarre election. Rajoelina’s opponent, Marc Ravalomanana, was president in the early 2000s, until he was ousted in a military coup by Rajoelina himself in 2009 (who then ruled until 2013). Somehow both returned to the political arena, despite serious accusations of corruption, and enriching themselves at the expense of the poor. To make it even more confusing, the BBC recently uncovered proof that 6 of the presidential candidates had been offered bribes by Russian strategists. This is only the political history of the last year, already demonstrating that the needs of the people are likely not the major focus. The corruption reaches all the way down to the mandarins of the bureaucracy- the organisation I worked with, unlike some, had a strict no bribe policy, which can certainly cause problems for the expat employees. Several had been waiting for their passports to be returned, following visa checks, for over 6 months- cash is the only thing that smooths the process. Even when there are health crises, it takes a long time for the government healthcare to swing into any sort of action. When I was travelling, huts all over were branded with red posters advertising “vaksiny” for measles- a good initiative, however arriving over 6 months after the measles epidemic was first spotted. Essentially, much reform is needed.
An odd symbol that simultaneously demonstrates poverty and the insincerity of politicians is campaign materials. In isolated villages throughout the country, men, women and children all walk around in bright orange or blue t shirts emblazoned with the names of Malagasy presidential hopefuls. A local explained to me that the t shirts often have no significance to the wearer’s political disposition, as few are in the position to be able to turn done free clothing. Instead of visiting rural areas and explaining policies, apparently politicians send their lackeys with piles of t shirts, hoping that if their policies don’t do it for them, name recognition at least will. Politicians are not only involved in the plundering and destruction of Madagascar’s natural resources and habitats, as previously mentioned but, unsurprisingly, prioritise projects that will bring them larger returns. Most of the tourist facilities currently operating in the country are certainly on the higher end: boutique beach lodges, deluxe hotels and expensive lemur tours. Obviously, this still brings jobs, but the trickle down effect is yet to be seen. Encouraging mid-range tourism could bring significant benefit to the economy, enriching the lives of more people and presenting even more of an incentive for the government to step up environmental protection.
Despite its problems, Madagascar is a varied and fascinating nation to travel in, especially culturally. The traditional “religions” focus on ancestor veneration and a mix of legends and superstitions, and social mores are dictated by what is “fady” (forbidden)- some fady examples include pointing, and over-inquisitive small talk. It is a country to visit, to donate to, and to invest in, for its people and its wildlife.