Welcome to Madagascar, 2009. Forget the kids' movie with the lush forests and singing, dancing lemurs. Forests are dying. Lemurs are critically endangered. Children are dying.
The word "deforestation" is both obvious in its meaning -- to remove a forest -- and bureaucratic. These days, it's popular among climate negotiators who speak of REDD (reducing emissions through deforestation and degradation) along with RES (renewable energy standard) and SFM (Sustainable Forest Management). Well meaning entities, including Dell Computers, have tried to pay Madagascar not to cut down its forests. However, Madagascar now resembles a starving person consuming itself in a desperate search for short term nutrients.
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, slightly larger than France. Having split from the African mainland approximately 160 million years ago, Madagascar exemplifies biodiversity. 5% of the world's plant and animal species, including all of the 99 different species of lemurs (photo credit: LA Times), are unique to the island. Cooks treasure Madagascar vanilla. There should be two seasons: a hot, rainy season from November to April, and a cooler, dry season from May to October. In 2005, with the release of the animated movie and planned ecotourism, the country's future looked bright. Instead, well meaning efforts to reduce carbon emissions by preventing deforestation are failing in the face of political turmoil.
In 2007, the World Bank announced its Country Assistance Strategy to remove constraints to investment and growth in rural and urban areas and to improve the scope and quality of service delivery. Madagascar depends on aid for about 40% of its budget and 70% of investment spending.
In 2008, Dell used Madagascar's forests to trumpet its becoming carbon-neutral, in partnership with Conservation International; "the "avoided deforestation" funds (REDD) will be used to promote sustainable income-generating activities for poor rural communities who might otherwise clear forests for subsistence agriculture and cattle grazing." However, a recent Nature article, How To Save A Forest (pdf) highlights difficulties of starting up the REDD program: "In the future, the WCS (World Conservation Society) intends to pay the affected communities directly using the carbon money from Makira, but currently there is no distribution mechanism in place.... It could be years before carbon payouts come through a UN-regulated REDD system." (My emphasis.)
Madagascar has lost 90% of its forests, reports the World Wildlife Fund. Most of the trees, including prized ebony and rosewood, have been cut down for firewood, cattle grazing, charcoal production, and construction materials. The LA Times interviews a villager who founded a village in 1971 with the sacrifice of a sheep: "'I sacrificed a big fat sheep. I hoped we'd flourish and grow.' The second thing, after the sacrifice, was to slash and burn every bit of greenery. It took only a day. And the wood made good houses."
Sometimes well-meaning foreigners tell villagers that cutting down trees means less rain, but the villagers don't listen. Madagascar's rainfall has decreased 10% in the last 50 years, and its temperature has risen 10%. Three of the last five years have seen crop failures because of drought. And after slash-and-burn deforestation comes erosion, which adversely affects soil quality. (Photo credit: Wild Madagascar)
Early this year, a coup toppled the government. The African Union has refused to recognize the new government, and the United States, the European Union, and the World Bank responded to the coup by imposing sanctions, including suspension of USAID's environmental programs. USAID, the U.S. State Department's development agency, had been supporting the Ministry of the Environment, Water, Forests and Tourism, helping the country protect its forests and fauna. The natural corollary of the loss of aid: people rush in to illegally chop down trees, including rare ebony and rosewood. The LA Times reports that starving people are now eating lemurs despite taboos. Since the coup, armed bands are decimating rainforest reserves in northeastern Madagascar, killing lemurs and intimidating conservation workers, reports Wild Madagascar. The timber barons also threaten villagers with beheading and have broken the feet of one park ranger as a threat to others.
Ongoing illegal felling of trees leads to extra carbon emissions, and political instability causes international donors to cut funding for REDD programs.
Eventually, Madagascar might survive its political coup, and the world's efforts might reduce deforestation, but right now the country's ability to survive both looks bleak. People don't have enough water. 8,600 children have been treated for malnutrition in southern Madagascar in the last six months because of drought and crop failure, more than double the number expected. 81,500 children younger than 5 die annually. 53% of children that age are chronically malnourished.
There's no justice on this island, only a slow starvation of its people.