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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 16:59 GMT
Madagascar biodiversity threatened
Ifotaka village girls
Ifotaka village girls know little of elections or conservation
By Ruth Evans in Madagascar

Southern Madagascar's spiny forest is like a fantasy land, the driest, wildest and most startling of the island's unique ecosystems.

Most of the 200,000 plus species of plants and animals found here are found nowhere else on earth and the island has been classified as one of the world's top three "hotspots" for biodiversity.

Impenetrable thickets of weirdly adapted succulents and cactus plants, are peppered with pachypodia and bloated giant baobabs.


The forest is also home to the white sifaka lemur, who depend on the spiny didierea trees for their habitat, eating the leaves and fruits.

Yet Madagascar is one of the poorest and most environmentally challenged countries in the world.

And loss of habitat is a serious problem, especially when combined with damage from the periodic cyclones, droughts and locusts that have hit the island.

Village life

Against a backdrop of prickly octopus arms of didierea reaching into a cloudless sky, two weary girls drop their bundles of wood on the river bank and wash their sweating faces.

Forests
The forests have spiritual significance - but are being destroyed

It has been a long hard haul through the relentless heat, collecting wood for cooking from the dry forest.

In front of them, across the shallow river which they now wade across, lies the village of Ifotaka, a dry, dusty and impoverished place where the houses are built entirely of planks of didierea.

The forests have a spiritual significance for most Malagasy, and it is a measure of people's desperate poverty that they are now destroying these forests and species at such an alarming rate.

In Ifotaka, there is no TV, just one newly acquired wind-up radio for the whole village.

The children do not go to school, the village pump has broken and their only transport is by ox and cart.

And the girls are not even aware that a presidential election has been taking place, let alone what the candidates are promising.

Elections

In Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo, election talk has taken over.

Marc Ravalomanana (Pic courtesy DMD/Midi)
Mr Ravalomanana promises economic benefits - but at what cost?

Last week it was convulsed by demonstrations demanding that opposition candidate Marc Ravalomanana be declared the outright winner of the inconclusive December presidential elections.

A recount has now been ordered.

Mr Ravolomanana, the current mayor of Tana and a self-made dairy millionaire, has promised to raise living standards for Madagascar's 16 million people, but even if he is elected, meeting those expectations may not be such an easy task.

Madagascar is the eleventh poorest country in the world, and an estimated 75% of the island population lives below the poverty line.

When President Didier Ratsiraka resumed power back in February 1997, he outlined plans for what he called a "humanist and ecological republic", based on "rational exploitation" of the country's natural resources.

Cactus plant
Madagascar's diverse fauna and flora are also threatened by American cactus

It made a refreshing change from the former Marxist dictator that had first came to power in 1975, but opponents argued that Mr Ratsiraka was merely trying to steal nature's mantle, since Madagascar already is an ecological paradise, a treasure-trove of some of the most unique flora and fauna in the world.

But the statistics are stark: In the past 40 years Madagascar's population has doubled and the forest area has halved.

There is now only about 10% of the original forest left - and in the next 20 years the population will probably double again.

Conservation

There has, however, been some progress towards protecting Madagascar's biodiversity in the past 16 years.

New protected parks and reserves have been set up and the World Bank and WWF have negotiated a "debt for nature" deal, which not only funds some of the government's conservation efforts but tries to involve local people and provide them with economic alternatives and opportunities.

There is a growing realisation that people and their economic welfare are a vital part of the conservation equation.

But for Madagascar's next president, if they are successful in tackling poverty then the needs of villages like Ifotaka and of Madagascar's fragile ecosystem could both benefit.

See also:

16 Jan 02 | Africa
Madagascar recount ordered
11 Jan 02 | Africa
Madagascar protests halted
11 Jan 02 | Africa
Two sides to Madagascar row
08 Jan 02 | Africa
More Madagascar protests
17 Dec 01 | Business
Madagascar raises economic hopes
17 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Madagascar
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