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SEED Madagascar

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Madagascar is the Earth's fourth largest island, and due to being geographically isolated for 80 million years is now home to an astonishing variety of plant and animal species, the majority of which aren't found anywhere else on Earth. As well as all this biodiversity, it is also one of the world's most humanly impoverished countries. As of 2014, two thirds of the population still live in rural areas, and few have access to improved sanitation, education or secure food sources.

92 percent of the 22 million inhabitants live below the poverty line of $2 per day

World Food Programme

Unique and endangered

A pair of brown lemurs look down from a tree branch

With about 5% of Earth's plant and animal species found within this 0.4% of the planet's land surface, Madagascar is among the world's most significant biodiversity hotspots. The general level of endemism among its flora and fauna is estimated at over 80%, with many species yet to be named or even discovered. So 8 out of every 10 species found in Madagascar are found nowhere else…

An island with stunning natural scenery, its best known occupant is the lemur. There are around 100 species and subspecies of this creature, from the swaggering ringtail to the enigmatic aye-aye, and tiny dwarf and mouse lemurs that can sit in the palm of your hand (or could have sat in the palm of the giant lemurs that once lived on the island, including one as big as a gorilla!). Lemurs today face different degrees of threat through loss of habitat, hunting for bushmeat and capture for the pet trade. Recently discovered lemur species, being typically confined to small regions, are considered threatened, whilst as yet undiscovered species could go extinct before even being identified. Six lemurs are listed among the "Top 25 Most Endangered Primates".

A bright orange furcifer verrucosis chameleon during mating season

Madagascar is also known for its many other unique species, including its biggest natural predator of lemurs – the puma-like fosa (or ‘fossa’, pronounced "foosh"). About two-thirds of the world's chameleon species are here in Madagascar, from the cat-sized Parson's chameleon to the tiny Brookesia. The home of many exotic, endemic and endangered birds, the island once provided a habitat for the world's biggest known – the 10-foot tall, half ton Elephant Bird, Aepyornis maximus.

Of around 12,000 flowering plant species on Madagascar, some 10,000 are thought to be found nowhere else on earth. Six of the planet's nine baobab species are native to the island, a seventh being found both here and in mainland Africa. Madagascar's Rosy Periwinkle was discovered to have cancer-curing properties, and today these are used widely in the Western world in treatments for two of the deadliest forms of cancer: Hodgkin's disease and childhood leukaemia.

All this is threatened.

Madagascar is an unrepeatable experiment; a set of unique animals and plants evolving in isolation for over 60 million years. We are still trying to unravel its mysteries; how tragic it would be if we lost it before we even understood it

David Attenborough

Though today it remains among Earth's top biodiversity hotspots, Madagascar has so far lost an estimated 90% of its original forest vegetation. For the majority of the Malagasy people, the extremely limited livelihoods options mean that what forest remains continues to disappear: tavy, shifting agriculture, or ‘slash-and-burn’ is the traditional means of subsistence, along with fishing.

Adding to the pressures on Madagascar's natural environment are resource extraction operations where foreign interests play a significant and typically dominant hand. Madagascar is rich with minerals, and increasingly busy with mining activities. Explorations and exploitations are afoot with focuses on a wide range of minerals from sapphires to ilmenite, along with oil from the island's tar sands.

Climate change is increasingly evident in Madagascar. Droughts and cyclones have become increasingly frequent and severe, and the cycles of the seasons increasingly subject to erratic change. Madagascar has experienced a 10% rise in temperature and a 10% decrease in rainfall over the last 50 years, and is one of the top three countries considered most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Taken together, the increasing demands for minerals, wood for fuel and timber, and land for agriculture means that the remaining forest is becoming more and more fragmented, and unable to sustain life.

Battling for life

Second to none in their reputation for friendliness and generosity, the people of Madagascar make up an ethnically diverse population of around 21 million, with the number of inhabitants increasing at a rate of about 3% per year. It is one of the world's most impoverished and least developed countries, ranking 155/187 in the 2014 UN Human Development Index. Most Malagasy work in subsistence agriculture, and some 50% of children under three years of age suffer retarded growth due to a chronically inadequate diet. Island-wide, about 1 in every 10 children die before the age of five from easily preventable diseases, typically diarrhoea – rising to as many as 4 in 10 in rural areas. Poor hygiene is linked to typhoid, polio, acute respiratory infections and trachoma – the most common cause of blindness from infection.

An elderly Malagasy lady

The role of women in this heavily male dominated society is one of child bearer and household manager, with girls typically marrying and having children from as young as 12. Women's livelihood options and engagement in civil society are notably restricted by cultural expectations, and knowledge of and access to family planning options is extremely limited. Motherhood carries its own particular risks for women in Madagascar, and levels of maternal mortality are extremely high along with the levels for neonatal and infant mortality. Many deaths among women aged 15-24 are related to pregnancy or childbirth.

Government educational services, extremely limited as they are across the island, rarely reach rural communities. State provided health facilities are seriously under-funded. Among rural populations only 35% of people have improved water sources and just 11% have adequate sanitation facilities – well below the average for sub-Saharan Africa (UNICEF, 2010). Poor health was recognised by the Malagasy government as being one of the key challenges to Madagascar's future development in the Madagascar Action Plan of 2007-2012, a national strategy developed in response to the Millennium Development Goals, but the situation overall became notably worse during this period.

Traditional wooden pirogue boats on Manafiafy beach, Sainte Luce

Political crisis

Already weak from long-term political instability, the island has seen both poverty and environmental damage significantly increase since 2009 as the result of a political coup. During the troubled transitional government years, trade in many of the island's endangered species accelerated sharply, the price of basic food staples like rice doubled, the value of key saleable assets (for example local cattle) halved and more than 228,000 jobs were lost, impacting heavily on people's coping mechanisms and survival strategies.

From 2008–2011, Malagasy government spending on health dropped by 75%

IRIN

Problems of lack of access to vital livelihoods resources were further exacerbated by public services spending being cut by 40%, and government spending on education dropped by 82% (UNICEF). There were also major cuts in international donor support, which had previously formed half of the total national budget (World Bank, 2011).

A new, democratically-elected government came to power in January 2014, and many Malagasy are hopeful of what the future holds.

Local, sustainable solutions

Classroom of children with their hands up

Though the Malagasy people are interested in their environment, and willing to conserve it, it is also clear that conservation policies have been imposed on them from above with little or no community consultation, impacting negatively on people already greatly impoverished. Protected areas, although important for conservation, are negatively impacting local communities by restricting access to vital livelihood resources: fines are imposed for tavy, people walk many kilometres further every day to find wood for fuel and building, and pressure has increased on unprotected forest fragments. Protection alone does not address the root causes of forest degradation: forest dependent communities lacking access to alternative resources.

This is where organisations like SEED Madagascar can help: working alongside local Malagasy communities on their own sustainable solutions to the challenges of health, conservation, education and livelihoods.