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Last Updated: Monday, 11 April, 2005, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
Madagascar's conservation conundrum
In the last of a three-part series, the BBC's Alastair Leithead examines whether Madagascar can balance its economic needs with that of its precious and diverse environment.

Forest
Madagascar is a world bio-diversity hotspot

Madagascar is a country rich with weird and wonderful wildlife, plants found nowhere else in the world.

It's the only place you'll see lemurs in the wild - primates which could be man's early ancestors.

There are unique orchids, trees, chameleons, frogs - hundreds of species trapped in time which have evolved in their own peculiar ways.

But Malagasy people are among the poorest on earth, the economy desperately needs a boost, and beneath the precious forests are minerals that could make the country wealthy.

Crisis

Three years after the height of a political crisis that brought a new president to power, the tourists are coming back in ever-increasing numbers, many to experience the wildlife.

Mining can either lead to the destruction or it can contribute to the protection of the forests
Frank Hawkins
Conservation International

But the mine developers are also arriving, and bringing offers of investment and development, in exchange for digging up blocks of forest. "I think at the moment we seem to be in a crisis of conflict between mining and conservation," said Martin Nichol from the WWF.

"Madagascar is the number one for bio-diversity in the world, and the president has made a promise to triple the size of protected areas in the country." But the pressure is on.

Riches

Dynatec is just one company at an advanced stage of exploration. It has found cobalt and nickel reserves east of the capital, at Ambatovy, that represents a $2.25bn (1.12bn) project.

Yves Fourmanoit
Could Dynatec help map out a better future?

"It is worth one and a half times the annual budget of the country, has a life of 27 years; we will double the exports from Madagascar, and employment will be in the region of 1,700 people," said Yves Fourmanoit, the senior country-based manager.

"The mine could generate a better environment, because we will generate revenues to better manage the forests and what is around us."

You might expect conservationists to do anything possible to block the mining proposals, but protecting Madagascar's flora and fauna is a lot more complicated than that.

A slurry plant will cut into the forest, roads will tear through the hillsides and a pipeline will cross half the country, but many believe it could be the lesser of two evils.

"I'm not defending the mining sector," added Martin Nichol, "but one could argue the conservation community is somewhat hypocritical by strongly protesting mining development when at the same time we are unable to stop really destructive slash and burn agriculture.

"Perhaps mining can bring more good than harm - it will do harm, but it may be something we can live with and use the benefits to reduce the on-going loss of forests in the country."

Compromises

Most of Madagascar's forests have already gone - over the past decades they have been cut down for charcoal, or to clear areas for grazing or growing crops.

But the soil erodes away, the land loses its value and the farmers move on year after year.

Dynatec
WWF say mining companies could have a positive affect on the forests
Because mineral-rich soil is the worst for agriculture, the strip of forest that is left coincides with the prime pickings for valuable ores. So mine companies and conservationists need to work together - one advising on damage limitation and the other putting money into protected areas, and education to teach people to keep a sustainable forest.

"Mining can either lead to the destruction or it can contribute to the protection of the forests," said Frank Hawkins from Conservation International.

"I find it painful to watch the impact a mine has, but Madagascar needs to develop in order to conserve them. If you don't generate enough economic benefits for the local communities so they can afford to conserve the forests, you're wasting your time."

There will be conflicts that will need to be resolved, however, so what are President Marc Ravalomanana's priorities?

"Mining of course is so good for the foreign currency, but to protect the environment is so important for me also," he said.

"We have to work closely with businessmen who invest in Madagascar, but the most important for me is the environment, it's the priority, as it's not just for our generation but for the future generation."

A confident promise from a confident president - a man brought to power by a popular revolution and who almost three years later appears committed to Madagascar's environmental future.

The question is whether the cooperation and environmental support will continue or whether the needs of the economy will force a compromise.


SEE ALSO:
Down to business in Madagascar
25 Mar 05 |  Africa
Profile: Marc Ravalomanana
11 Mar 02 |  Africa
Country profile: Madagascar
19 Feb 05 |  Country profiles


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