MADAGASCAR: Despite odds, country saves more trees

Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Despite a demand for more agricultural land, poverty-stricken Madagascar has managed to reduce deforestation by almost half, environment groups say.

Malagasy people cut down the forests to cultivate land, their main source income. The enormous forests on the world's fourth largest island are home to some of the planet's rarest species, including lemurs, chameleons and baobab trees, but deforestation has put great pressure on its diverse environment.

Conservation International (CI), a US-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), which works to preserve biodiversity globally, said that by 2005, Madagascar had managed to reduce the deforestation rate to 0.5 percent per year from almost double that figure in the 1990s. Statistics for the past three years were not yet available, but the figures were likely to show further reductions, CI said.

In 2003, President Marc Ravalomanana's government announced an ambitious national effort to protect Madagascar's remaining biodiversity while simultaneously reducing poverty and promoting rural development. The plan was to increase the country's protected habitats from 1.7 to 6 million hectares, or from 3 percent to 10 percent of the Indian Ocean island's surface area.

"The government and we have put much effort into raising the awareness of environmental protection among the people here. The main thing is to show the population that it would also help them to stop cutting down their forests," the CI's Andriviamdolantsoa Rasolo Hery told IRIN.

"Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, which makes the government's commitment to biodiversity even more remarkable," Alison Cameron, co-lead researcher of a project that put together a conservation map for Madagascar, told a Western newspaper.

All part of a vicious cycle

Cutting trees to grow maize in the eastern part of the country, and to cultivate beans and rice in the west, are the main causes of deforestation, which contributes to the further erosion of cultivated land. Less than 10 percent of the Makira Forest in Madagascar's eastern half still stands today.

"Small-scale agriculture is the biggest concern. Farmers cultivate hillside rice by burning down trees and irrigating with rainfall. Over time, this traditional practice exhausts the soil, increases erosion, and contaminates water supplies," according to CI. This has an immediate impact on the welfare of the Malagasy population.

Faralal Rasafi, of The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), said: "We use simple words: No forest - no rain - no forest - erosions. This way we are introducing the term, 'climate change'. We start with easy language and then we talk about more complicated issues." WWF, which runs several projects in Madagascar, uses these arguments to convince local people to stop cutting down their forests.

CI is working with the government and the Wildlife Conservation Society, a US-based NGO, to train farmers to improve harvests on the same plot of land instead of cutting down trees to make space for new fields every few years.

The United Nations estimates that across the world around 13 million hectares of forest are cleared every year. Tropical deforestation contributes to 20 percent of global carbon emissions, and experts say slowing the rate of forest destruction is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to fight climate change.

Climate change is already affecting the people of Madagascar, which is hit almost every year by deadly cyclones, more than those in many other countries in the world.

Scientists say warming seas, linked to climate change, are likely to increase the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones in the coming decades, and some suspect this is already happening.

The destruction of forests is also endangering the country's unique biodiversity, which could reduce income from ecotourism, environment groups warn.

Madagascar broke away from the rest of Africa around 160 million years ago, leaving its flora and fauna to evolve separately from the African continent.

Due to its isolation it has developed an enormous variety of endemic species: of more than 200,000 known species found on Madagascar, about 150,000 exist nowhere else.

Source: IRIN