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Madagascar Sets Aside More Land for Conservation

Effort to save Madagascar rainforest paying off
By John Donnelly, Globe Staff
November 7, 2004
Boston Globe

ANDRINGITRA NATIONAL PARK, Madagascar -- Martin Randriantsoa, a nature guide, stopped at a sacred waterfall and stuck his hand into a cold, clear pool. Underneath a rock, he fished out a Malagasy crayfish, plentiful in these streams, but a species found only on this island nation. He watched the crayfish walk across his palm before releasing it.
Furcifer campani chameleon in Andringitra National Park, Madagascar
Furcifer campani is a chameleon found in Andringitra National Park, Madagascar. This individual is eating a grasshopper.

"Look at her," Randriantsoa said as the Astacoides granulimans crayfish scooted underneath another rock. "She's very happy. She's protected."

In a park that has mountains resembling the Grand Tetons, a rainforest supporting 14 species of lemurs, and a high plateau where wild orchids grow like weeds, the most critical factor in the survival of hundreds of endangered species has been the behavior of humans.

Led by its president, the Indian Ocean nation of Madagascar is racing to save an environment as precious and fragile as any on earth. At stake are the ecosystems in the island's fast-disappearing forests. Environmentalists say the decisive factor is whether a grand bargain can be struck with communities such as those around Andringitra: The residents will help protect natural areas if they can benefit from it, largely through ecotourism.

The outcome of this negotiation will determine the survival of some of the island's 13,000 native flowering plants, 316 native reptiles, and 109 native birds. It will also decide whether scientists still have the opportunity to discover new species -- and whether millions of poor people can earn a living from Madagascar's vast ecological wealth.

"We are in a hurry. There is a time clock that is real because we have already lost so much of the forest," said Jean-Paul Paddack, regional representative of WWF, the international conservation organization. "To me, the most significant part of this will be the education of local people and getting the communities involved."

Last year, President Marc Ravalomanana pledged at the 5th World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, to triple the size of Madagascar's nature reserves by 2008, expanding the protected land from 4.2 million acres to 14.8 million acres. "We can no longer afford to sit back and watch our forests go up in flames," he told thousands of delegates. "This is not just Madagascar's biodiversity, it is the world's biodiversity."

In the year after the speech, though, the president's initiative went nowhere. His executive powers did not allow the protection of land; he needed approval from other branches of the government. There was infighting between two government ministries-- Mining and Energy vs. Environment and National Forestry Commission. Both wanted the same land, one to exploit it for timber and mining, including gold exploration, and the other to preserve it.

But recently, the two sides quietly reached a compromise. In the next two years, about 17 million acres will be set aside and not developed as environmentalists and industrialists work out which parcels to save and which to develop. That park land would be roughly 10 percent of the world's fourth-largest island, located off the southeast coast of Africa.

"The breakthrough happened on the fourth attempt, and we were just honest with each other," said Martin Nicoll, a senior conservation adviser at WWF who attended the negotiations. "You can't just block off huge areas when the country is dirt poor. And mining people were beginning to appreciate that this is not just connected to protecting a bunch of lemurs, but also linked to saving water sources and people's health."

Nearly 80 percent of Malagasy work in agriculture, and the pay is dismal; annual per capita income is about $250, among the lowest in the world. But many outsiders believe that the policies of President Ravalomanana, a dairy tycoon, will gradually improve the country's economy. The aftermath of the 2001 elections won by Ravalomanana, but disputed violently for months, greatly crippled the island's economy. Some economists say the country is just now showing signs of recovering from the crisis. One short-term boost for job creation is millions of dollars spent on improving roads.

Ahead, though, may lie the greatest challenge for Madagascar -- how to rapidly scale up the protection of land.

Lisa Gaylord, head of environment and rural development programs for the US government's Agency for International Development in Madagascar, said the next four or five years will be critical. Over the last 20 years, Madagascar's forests have shrunk from 50 million to 22 million acres as more people slash and burn forestland to plant crops such as rice.

"We got to get it right," said Gaylord, an American who has worked on environmental issues here for 15 years. "And donors and the government can't do it alone. We need people in rural areas to get behind this. Unless we get that, we are going to continually see the destruction of forests."

Madagascar is blessed with a uniquely isolated ecology. More than 100 million years ago, before the evolution of mammals and birds, Madagascar separated from Africa. Those years apart led to the distinctive development of plants and wildlife. When humans first settled here about 2,000 years ago, nearly the entire island was covered with forests, a giant green canopy the size of Texas under which thrived tens of thousands of species found nowhere else.

Today, forests cover just 15 percent of the country, and yet the land is still so rich with diversity that scientists continually discover new species. In the 1990s, experts identified an amazing 102 new amphibian and reptile species. Just this year, scientists found three new species of lemurs.

The Andringitra National Park, which has been managed the last several years by WWF, is at the center of the country's longest unbroken forest, which stretches for 112 miles and varies between 5 and 40 miles wide. Scott Grenfell has helped plan and build the park for the last four years, and he and WWF will turn over control to Madagascar's national park service at the end of the year.

When Grenfell arrived, the park was a park in name only. Grenfell, 56, a Michigan native who has worked for three decades in parks from Arkansas to Malawi, set out with two main goals: build infrastructure for visitors and educate villagers about how they could benefit from the park while still protecting it. Since then, local crews have constructed 69 miles of hiking trails built with granite, much of them at high elevation, as well as five camping sites, a visitor's center and a guesthouse. He has helped train 26 nature guides and 350 porters.

In addition, he encouraged residents to bury their dead in the park. Ancestors are revered, consulted, and prayed to in Madagascar, and their place of burial becomes sacred land.

The tourists are beginning to come. In 1998, Andringitra registered 84 tourists; this year, they expect 3,000 -- still a tiny amount, an average of eight a day, but enough to begin to show local residents the benefits of ecotourism.

"The key to the tie-in with the local people is to show the economic advantages of having a park," Grenfell said, driving a 4-by-4 Toyota Land Cruiser into the village of Antanafotsy, which is adjacent to the park. Since the arrangement with WWF, the villagers have worked to protect the forests. Grenfell said the creation of jobs "gives them an incentive not to destroy it."

He found Randriantsoa, one of his crackerjack local guides, who led a visitor on a hike.

Every few steps, he stopped to identify native plants, of which many are to be found only in Madagascar. Many of the plants, he explained, had medicinal or other practical uses. He pointed out one that helped with headaches, another with asthma, a third in stopping the flow of blood from cuts. In trees and bushes, he pointed out a cuckoo roller, its wings colored bright green and red. He spotted a dozen bush larks and two male Madagascar paradise flycatchers that chased each in the undergrowth.

"My life has changed so much since I became a guide," Randriantsoa said. "I used to plant just rice, but now I hire someone to do that for me. I earn more money, and that means I can keep my children in school longer."

The hike ended in Ambalamandry, a collection of about 75 thatched-roof mud homes where people have long survived by growing rice and other crops.

Bolo Rakotomanga stuck his head out of his one-room grocery. "I started this store because of tourism," he said. "The tourists are a good thing up to now. The kids in the school get to practice their French and English. The parents want them to stay in school longer so they can be guides. And we are making a little bit of money."

On the second floor of one house, accessible only by a rickety ladder made of branches, Michele Rakoto, 68, mused about all the changes to the village in the last decade. First, a new 29-mile road was built with US funds, and that meant for the first time the village was economically and culturally linked to other villages, and the world beyond. Then came Grenfell and the development of the park.

Rakoto said he was worried that opening up to the world could bring in trouble, such as the spread of HIV. But he said the villagers have seen a multitude of benefits from the park, including jobs, and more money to educate the young.

"The population was like a baby that the WWF has nourished and educated," said Rakoto, who is the president of Eco-Tourism Development board, a group of elders from several local villages. "They taught us how to sit, how to crawl, and to stand up. The baby has started to learn to walk."

The sun was disappearing behind the ragged peaks of Andringitra. Against the mountain backdrop, children wearing shorts and coats to ward off the late-afternoon chill kicked a soccer ball made of wound-up string. Rakoto looked over his village. "Life is much better now," he said.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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