By Rhett Butler
Since the government's collapse after a coup last March, Madagascar's rainforests have been plundered for their precious wood and unique wildlife. But now there are a few encouraging signs, as officials promise a crackdown on illegal logging and ecotourists begin to return to the island.
Only 10 years ago, Madagascar — the California-sized island off the eastern coast of southern Africa — was notorious for its environmental degradation and deforestation; astronauts orbiting the Earth remarked that the red color of Madagascar’s rivers suggested the country was bleeding to death as its denuded mountainsides hemorrhaged topsoil into its waterways.
But that began to change earlier this decade when President Mark Ravalomanana, working with international conservation organizations and local groups, set aside 10 percent of the country as parks and nurtured a thriving ecotourism business, all of which slowed deforestation and safeguarded more of the nation’s legendary biodiversity. Madagascar’s park system mandated that half of park entrance fees flow back to local communities, ensuring that at least some benefits of ecotourism — two-thirds of visitors come to Madagascar for nature-related activities — reached people who might otherwise be disadvantaged by conservation initiatives. Indeed the emergence of ecotourism helped make local people partners — rather than adversaries — in conservation. In short order, Madagascar went from being a pariah of the conservation world to a model.
All of which makes the spasm of forest destruction that has swept the country since a coup last March even more tragic. After President Ravalomanana was chased into exile at gunpoint, the civil service and park management system collapsed, and donor funds, which provide half the government’s annual budget, dried up. In the absence of governance, organized gangs ransacked the island’s protected rainforests for biological treasures — including precious hardwoods and endangered lemurs — and frightened away tourists, who provide a critical economic incentive for conservation.
Now with the prospect of political stability returning, the question is whether Madagascar’s once highly regarded conservation system can be restored and maintained. More....