Magazine article New Internationalist

The Madagascar Show

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Madagascar Show

Article excerpt

The Madagascar show

Brett Massoud's love for Madagascar turns to anger at its despoilers.

THE cast includes a race of people with an Indo - Polynesian background, scores of lemurs, a few hundred thousand species of other plants and animals, some European and US naturalists, a multinational mining company, about 50,000 tourists, one female musician, a disappearing future and a cloudy, soon - to - be - forgotten past. The scene is a left - foot - shaped tropical island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique. Welcome to the Madagascar show.

In Madagascar, you don't have choice,' the narrator says. 'You do what you are told and if you want to do something different you do it yourself, without any help from anybody or anything. No help is available, no hope is worth dreaming about. To make life easier you just give up, follow the pace of mora - mora, go with the flow. In Madagascar you are born a victim - a victim of poverty, a victim of the corrupt government system and a victim of a very, very confused community who think of nothing but survival.'

The narrator is Hanitra, a singer of Malagasy folk songs, now married to a Briton and living in London. She was thinking back on her life as a child in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital. Not a lot has changed.

When, about 180 million years ago, Gondwanaland was breaking up to resemble today's atlas, Madagascar was abruptly snapped off the coast of Africa and placed on its own in the Indian Ocean. Along with this earth - ark went more than 1,000 species of orchids, 60 of aloes and 120 of palms. Faunal passengers included 40 different lemurs - some as big as gorillas - Pigmy Hippos, Planet Earth's largest bird and an array of insects, reptiles and amphibians found nowhere else.

Strangely, one species missed the boat: humankind. Without this large and destructive predator, Madagascar and its plants and animals evolved without hindrance. Around the time of Christ, Persians from the north, Africans from the west and Malaysians from the east started to arrive and settle this wonderland. The day that first human set foot on Madagascar, the island held perhaps 300,000 species in all - over five per cent of the earth's total number (Madagascar covers about 0.4 per cent of the planet's land mass).

These animals lived in an equally diverse array of climates, forest types and geographical architecture. The spine of mountains running down the centre of Madagascar closest to the eastcoast separates rainforest from desert, palms and succulents from spiny aloes and acacias, water - storing plants and animals from water - shedding ones.

Madagascar is one of the most diverse places on earth but somehow things have started to go horribly wrong. Cattle need grass and a simple way to get it is to remove the forest cover, burn what is left and wait for the grass to grow. It doesn't take long and the resultant juicy - green bite is perfect for a hungry zebu, the favoured beef of Madagascar. The need for firewood has seen the Malagasy chop and burn their way through 93 per cent of the forest cover of their island home. First to go in the race toward extinction were Aepyornis - Planet Earth's largest bird - the Pigmy Hippo and at least 15 species of lemur; 100,000 species in all may now have been lost since people arrived.

When I first visited Madagascar in 1987 it was said that the entire environment budget for that year was $1,000. But, after years of corrupt dictatorship, a democratic government and a team of World Wildlife Fund park wardens has not been able to stop illegal tree - cutting, illegal harvesting of seeds and forest products, the smuggling and wholesale export of a list of endangered plants and wildlife. Still, today, the peace of the village scene is broken only by the persistent chop, chop, chop of the axe, as more and more forest disappears into fireplaces.

I cannot describe the poverty that exists in Madagascar. …

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