Indian Ocean: The real Madagascar and how we can save it
By Charlie Gardner, WWF Madagascar and Western Indian Ocean
Madagascar has been in the public eye a lot in recent years. Not just because of the computer-animated films of the same name, but also last year’s wonderful BBC documentary series. Both paint a picture of a tropical idyll, swarming with weird and wonderful creatures found nowhere else on earth, and seemingly surviving in peaceful tranquillity. The reality, unfortunately, is rather different.
Madagascar is in the grip of an environmental crisis. Forests have been disappearing at alarming rates, fish and other marine resources are dwindling, and a lot of species - from lemurs to tortoises, fish eagles to chameleons and plants too numerous to count - are moving ever closer to extinction.
This would be terrible enough on its own, but the effect of these losses on the people of Madagascar is even more tragic.
Madagascar’s population is mostly rural and extremely poor. Many families depend heavily on the forests and the seas for food, fuel, medicine and income. Having a biodiverse and productive ecosystem is a safety net for rural people - and the impacts of its destruction are all too clear to see.
That’s why I was so glad when Simon Reeve and his film crew for the BBC’s ‘Indian Ocean’ series visited south-western Madagascar to uncover the other side of the story, and explore some of the impacts of environmental change on Malagasy people.
The team visited the coast first, and witnessed some of the challenges faced by the Vezo fisher people in the face of overharvested fish stocks, climate change and sedimentation of once-productive coral reefs.
Wanting to investigate the sedimentation phenomenon a little further, Simon asked me to show them where the problem originates. It’s actually caused by deforestation.
So I took them inland from the murky waters of the Onilahy river mouth to areas where the last scraps of forest are being chopped down. Migrants have come to the area to exploit the forests to supply the rampant energy needs of Toliara, southern Madagascar’s major city.
Most households in Toliara use charcoal for cooking, but with no plantations in the region, the demand for the wood to make charcoal is met from the rapidly dwindling natural forests.
And with drought blighting the south and no forests left across much of the region, cutting trees to produce charcoal is one of the few livelihood options left for many people.
Forests act as sponges, absorbing water when it rains and releasing it slowly over time. When forests are removed, rain runs off the hillsides in sheets, taking with it the fertile topsoil that Simon had seen clogging the coral reefs off the coast, and often causing catastrophic flooding on land too.
This is the sad story we witnessed back in the Onilahy valley. The rains had been good that season, too good almost, and the flooding had devastated the fertile fields along the river valley.
We met farmers whose entire crop, their only source of food for the year ahead, had been washed away, and others forced to abandon their villages entirely and search for higher ground.
Watching men wade chest-deep across the floodwaters, carrying all their possessions on their head, brought home the urgency of our fight against environmental destruction.
It’s my passion for nature, and particularly birds, which keeps me fighting for Madagascar’s forests. But it’s Madagascar’s people who are suffering most from our rampant destruction of the planet.
But all is not lost. Even though the fight to save Madagascar’s biodiversity will be a long and difficult one, there are increasingly signs that it’s one we can win.
Since 2003, Madagascar’s government and its partners have been in the process of tripling the size of the protected area network, with a view not only to conserving biodiversity, but also to using natural resources more sustainably, for poverty alleviation and development.
WWF is heavily involved in this process, working with local communities to establish nine new protected areas throughout the spiny forests of the south.
By empowering local communities to manage their own forests, helping them increase their agricultural productivity and develop alternative livelihoods, and planting alternative sources of wood fuel, we believe we can help Madagascar’s rural poor to escape the poverty trap and conserve their forests for future generations.
It’s an enormous challenge, but it’s a fight we must win at all costs. And it’s now or never.