Widespread poverty has provided an easy ground for the increasing illegal exploitation of protected areas of Madagascar. The island boasts a unique fauna and flora, including the famous lemurs and no less than seven different kinds of baobab trees (as against one in the entire African continent). Today, this treasure is under threat. Over the last ten years, more than 500,000 ha of forests have been destroyed owing to a variety of factors. The rush for gold and sapphire has brought thousands of wildcat diggers into the last forests. Slash and burn agriculture is another important factor of destruction. Logging and charcoal production also contribute to the carnage. All along the road between Antananarivo on the highlands to the main port of the country, Tamatave on the eastern coast, destroyed forests and charcoal selling points remind of the drama. Environmentalists fear that at the current pace of destruction, the forests will disappear completely within the next ten years and the landscape will be as desolate as in Haiti.
The national parks of Masoala, Manarara, and Ambatovaky have been particularly damaged by the trafficking of rosewood. Deforestation is also affecting the mangroves of the Tulear region in the south. Mangroves play a key role for food security, offering safe reproduction environment for the shellfish and protecting the coastline against erosion. In Beheloka, at 250 km to the South of Tulear, the beach has receded 200 meters in only seven years, as a result of deforestation and the extraction of coral reef blocks.
These mangroves are victims of the local people who cut down trees to produce charcoal or obtain wood for construction. Rio Tinto’s titanium dioxide mine in Port Dauphin has also been blamed by the local population. In an article published by the UK-based “Journal of Peasant Studies”, anthropologist Caroline Seagle recognizes that Rio Tinto has created a 620 hectares protected area within the perimeter of its concessions. But she also deplores that the entire project has been responsible for the deforestation of 6,000 ha of biodiversity-rich areas along the coastline. Catherine Seagle also disagrees with Rio Tinto’s claim that the area would anyway have been destroyed by the local people over the next 20 years, owing to their non sustainable management of natural resources; this kind of rhetoric merely reverses responsibilities. Rio Tinto however claims that it has taken commitments to rehabilitate the mining operations areas and that it has consulted with environmental NGOs such as Bird Life, and it helps the NGO to carry out conservations projects. In Rio Tinto’s view, it is not mining but poverty which is responsible for the deterioration of the environment.
Further north, crowds of gold-panners or wildcat diggers are rushing for gold or precious stones. The the sad irony is that the National Treasury doesn’t cash anything since almost the entire production is smuggled out of the country. The last rush took place last June in the Ambatodrazaka area, to the North-East of Antananarivo, where some 30,000 miners invaded the area looking for sapphires. The main dealers are reportedly Sri-Lankan traders who come to Madagascar with tourist visas. Gold is also intensely mined and smuggled. The production is estimated at some 5 tonnes per annum, yet Rajo Daniella Randriafeno Tolotrandry, minister of Mines, expects to cash taxes and royalties on no more than500 kg before the end of this year. There is a long way to go before the situation gets under control. Last June, customs officers in neighbouring Comoros seized over 60 kg of gold on board of two aircrafts from Madagascar.
The anarchy is such that even live zebus are being smuggled out of the country to the Comoros and Mauritius. Originally, cattle-rustling was a way of life in the arid areas of southern Madagascar. Youngster stole cattle in a ritual practice aiming mainly at proving to the fiancées that their future husbands were audacious and able to take care of them. It has now transformed itself into a criminal industry. According to the police, a group of 150 dahalo, as the cattle rustlers are called, stole over 3,000 animals in recent months.
Fish resources are also being looted. Madagascar’s navy – with only three coast guard ships and ten outboard powered boats and without any aircraft or helicopter – is absolutely unable to protect the 5,600 km coastline. As a result, Chinese and Taiwanese trailers often raid the two mile strip reserved to traditional fishermen. Félix Randrianasoavina, national director of the Catholic Sea Apostolate – which provides assistance to the Malagasy fisherman and sailors – claim that, as a result, the volume of catches of the small domestic fishermen is decreasing. Reportedly, an even more insidious form of pillage is developing. Some French fishing companies established in Madagascar use their own trailers as mother ships. They stay off the coast, respecting the law, but take on board small pirogues powered with engines which penetrate coastal waters and compete with the traditional fishermen which supply the local market, explains Felix Randrianasoavina.