Is There New Hope for Madagascar?

This post was originally published on Conservation International's blog, Human Nature.

Madagascar is one of the world's most unusual countries -- an iconic "hotspot" in every sense of the word. It has also been the site of devastating poverty and environmental destruction, accelerated in recent years by an ineffective, corrupt government.

Last month, I had the opportunity to meet Madagascar's new president, the first democratically elected leader since a 2009 governmental coup. The meeting left me surprisingly optimistic about the future of the country's natural heritage -- and consequently, the well-being of its people.

The world's fourth-largest island (about the size of Texas), Madagascar has been separated from other landmasses for more than 90 million years. As a result, an amazing range of species have evolved differently there from all other life on Earth.

The greatest ambassadors for Madagascar are the lemurs, a totally unique group of primates that now numbers 105 living species, with new ones still being discovered. In addition to helping maintain forests by dispersing seeds and pollinating plants, lemurs hold enormous potential to attract international tourists (and their dollars) to the country.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on Earth, and it has gotten a lot poorer since the 2009 coup. This development is especially tragic because Marc Ravolomanana, the president in office from 2002 to 2008, helped Madagascar make the greatest progress in conservation in its history as a country.

An Unprecedented Commitment to Nature

In 2003, Ravalomanana made an unprecedented commitment to triple protected area coverage in Madagascar. This ambitious plan was embraced by the international community and put into action almost immediately.

Ravalomanana made many strong statements about conservation; indeed, at one point he even discovered and reported illegal loggers himself while traversing the country in his helicopter.

His conservation vision did not come out of the blue. It was supported by a number of major international conservation organizations -- notably WWF and Conservation International (CI) -- as well as national NGOs, the World Bank and a 25-year effort by USAID, which I believe is the best biodiversity conservation effort ever supported by USAID anywhere in the world.

In late 2008, I drafted an article entitled, "Madagascar: An Incipient Conservation Success Story." Unfortunately, that article was never published -- because a month later, things suddenly took a turn for the worse.

Political Instability Spurs Illegal Resource Exploitation

In early 2009, the 37-year-old mayor of the capital city of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina, ousted Ravalomanana and sent him packing to South Africa.

The reasons for this conflict remain murky, and I won't go into them here. Suffice it to say that Rajoelina's reign was a disaster.

No country in the world has ever recognized his government; African nations were particularly incensed about his takeover. These leaders pushed hard for the country to hold democratic elections, but Rajoelina proved himself a masterful stonewaller.

There was an almost immediate breakdown of law and order in some areas following his takeover. In the northeast, illegal loggers entered some of the most important national parks in the country -- including Masoala and Marojejy, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites -- to poach valuable rosewood and a couple of other tree species.

This species of rosewood is the single most valuable tree in the world for making high-end guitars. However, almost all of it went to China to make expensive furniture, including bed frames going for as much as US$ 1 million each.

Sadly, to this day China has largely ignored the mountain of data indicating that it was illegally harvested. The value of this illegal trade has probably surpassed US$ 1 billion by now, and there are still hundreds of thousands of logs stashed away along Madagascar's eastern coast waiting for willing buyers, of which China appears to still have a large supply.

This liquidation of some of Madagascar's most important natural resources helped to finance Rajoelina's administration, but it also severely impacted some of the country's most important ecotourism sites and the forests, rivers and other ecosystems that supplied food, water, building materials and countless other services to local populations.

And as usual, the benefits to the local people who did most of the work extracting this timber were miniscule at best. Madagascar plunged deeper and deeper into poverty.

This complete violation of national and international laws would be extremely concerning anywhere. In Madagascar, where more than 90 percent of the original vegetation is already gone, much of the remaining 10 percent is severely fragmented and erosion is worse than anywhere else on the planet, it is disastrous.

As might be expected, most of the international donors bailed out on the country after the coup, with only the World Bank and the non-governmental conservation organizations holding to their environmental commitment. The World Bank in particular deserves major credit for sticking to its guns.

A Promising New Leader

In October, Rajoelina finally gave in to international pressure and a preliminary election was held. From a field of 48 candidates, two emerged: Jean-Louis Robinson, a doctor by trade, and Hery Rajaonarimampianina, the minister of finance during the transition period.

In the runoff election on December 20th, Rajaonarimampianina won 53 percent of the vote to Robinson's 47 percent. In spite of some feeble protests on the part of the losing side, the election results have now been accepted and the new president took office on January 25.

For more than two decades, Madagascar has been one of CI's highest priority programs. So in early February, I travelled to Madagascar to meet with the new president at the Iavoloha Presidential Palace on the outskirts of Antananarivo. I was accompanied by CI's vice president for Madagascar, Leon Rajaobelina -- a former ambassador to the U.S. and a former minister of finance -- and several other senior CI staff.

Although many of us were skeptical of the new president because he was considered the "chosen" candidate of Rajoelina, we were most impressed. It turned out I had already met the president before, when he was minister of finance. From the first few seconds of our conversation, I began to feel very positively toward him.

Rajaonarimampianina expressed his commitment to end the rosewood trade. He was also well aware of the importance of lemurs and other endemic species as major economic resources for the country, was very interested in ecotourism as a major potential foreign exchange earner, and clearly understood the value of Madagascar's protected areas as essential sources of ecosystem services for human well-being. He also came across as a very clear strategist -- a quality I have never seen before in Malagasy heads of state.

Several weeks ago, Rajaonarimampianina was the star at the meeting of African heads of state in Ethiopia. All of them professed their support of his administration (while also noting their dismay at having to learn how to pronounce his 19-letter name).

We in the international community need to provide as much support and positive feedback to the new president as possible. Donor agencies such as the critically important USAID have already begun discussions with him, and conservation organizations, beginning with CI, have already started to express our support. A recent article that several of us wrote for the journal Science on our 2013 Lemur Conservation Strategy also noted the importance of his new administration.

But things won't be easy. The former president, Rajoelina, is still trying to exert control and place some of his people in the new government, and things could still go awry.

We need to make it clear to everyone in Madagascar that the world is on the president's side, and that any efforts to reverse the results of a democratic election will not be well received. And those of us who are committed to Madagascar's unique natural capital must ramp up our existing efforts. Then perhaps I can dust off my 2008 paper on the success story of Madagascar -- and add a new chapter.

Russell A. Mittermeier is the president of Conservation International. He is also an author, primatologist, herpetologist and chairman of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group. He has made more than 90 trips to Madagascar since 1984.

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