On the west coast of Madagascar there is a breathtakingly beautiful place that people from all over the world travel to see. They take long plane rides from Japan and France and the United States, suffer spine-jarring trips over bad roads and endure extreme heat and humidity to see this natural wonder.
And then they take photos and go home.
Great stuff, surely? Not exactly, say the locals. For, while these tourists to Menabe’s legendary Alley of the Baobabs spend thousands and thousands on plane tickets, hotels and tours, the people on whose land this marvel exists get … well, nothing actually.
The baobab alley is not in a national park, so there are no gate-fees to be paid or local guides to be hired. There is no gift shop, restaurant or information centre where jobs might be created or local products sold. Instead, as jeep-loads of tourists arrive, the local children rush out brandishing chameleons clinging to sticks, demanding money to have their pictures taken or begging for bonbons.
And even this meagre source of income might soon dry up: the encroachment of nearby rice paddies and sugar-cane plantations means the giant trees are being exposed to too much water. If this problem is not dealt with—and soon—the baobabs will be gone in 10 years.
For the people of the Menabe region, the baobabs are their symbol and their pride. Artist Jo-Arthur Razafimbelo, who lives in Morondava, a coastal town in Menabe, says the trees are to the region what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Razafimbelo paints pictures of the trees being submerged in a tide of water to illustrate his distress. “If the baobabs die, Morondava dies.”
Help is at hand though: Conservation International has linked up with local NGO Fanamby, as its implementing partner, in an ecotourism project that aims to provide real benefits to the rural community, which conventional tourism does not do.
The recent declaration of the Alley of Baobabs as a protected area by Dr Koto Bernard, Madagascar’s Minister of Environment, Water and Forests, gave these plans a further boost. Fanamby will manage the area, charge entrance fees, set up a curio shop and train members of the community to welcome visitors and show them around, sharing their knowledge and cultural beliefs about the baobabs.
The idea, says Andry Randriantsoa, ecotourism project manager for Conservation International, is that by providing tangible benefits from the conservation of biodiversity hot spots, the rural population will begin to see conservation as an economically viable option.
“It is important to involve the community in ways that they can generate their own income instead of destroying the forest. But it is difficult to explain this to them because they depend on rice and sugar cane for an income.”
To this end the ecotourism project has begun training local people to help get a slice of the tourism pie through skills, such as cooking, accounting and agriculture. “We want the local community to produce the fruit and vegetables that are used in the hotels. At present all the hotels in Morondava buy their fresh produce in Antsirabe, 500km away, because they can’t get what they need locally,” Randriantsoa says.
Agricultural business trainers are working with the community to establish exactly what the hotels need and helping them to plan their crops to ensure they can meet the demand.
“Our goal is that all the produce used in the local hotels should be sourced in the Menabe region,” Randriantsoa says.
People are trained to work in the hospitality industry and trainers are brought in from as far afield as the capital, Antananarivo, and the island of Reunion.
Menabe is a key dry forest biodiversity corridor, home to numerous species of lemur unique to the area, as well as the fabled giant jumping rat. Another link in this project is the village of Marofandilia, which is about halfway between baobab alley and the Kirindy forest.
Previously the village saw nothing of tourists as they roared past in their 4x4s on their way to the forest reserve. Now the tourists stop at the village, attracted by the bright blue wooden cabin, which houses the Fivoarantsaina association’s shop, selling wooden sculptures carved in the Sakalava tradition and detailed, colourful embroidery work.
“We saw lots of tourists passing by on their way to Kirindy, so we decided to produce handicrafts and exploit our culture” says Jean Francois Redo, one of the leaders of the association.
The community association, which started in 2003 and has 34 members, practises bee-keeping, chicken farming and has introduced more effective agricultural practices to increase crop yields.
“We wanted to find a way to help ourselves fight poverty,” says Redo. The woodcarvers of the village have made a commitment to use only dead wood for their sculptures and are active players in protecting the environment.
“Fanamby gives us everything we need to plant new trees to replace the dead ones. We plant baobabs which are easier to grow than other trees—you just drop a seed and then it grows itself,” he says, grinning.
Part of the ecotourism project is to encourage hotels in Morondava to buy handicrafts from the association when decorating their rooms, says Randriantsoa.
Hangisoa (her full name), one of the older women in the association, says that the quality of life is definitely improving. “In the past we would each have at least nine children and we didn’t have enough money for food. I have 11 children, including three sets of twins, but now we are using family planning. Now we make enough money to send our children to school, buy them clothes and better food and build proper houses.”
Redo also points out that for the first time the community can save money, with its members sometimes being able to save up to 200 000 Ariary (about R750) a month. While the men in the association pay a membership fee, women are exempted: “The sculptures made by men get higher prices than the sewing done by women, so they don’t have to pay. When they join us we buy them some materials as a gift to start up, such as fabric and thread,” says Redo.
The men of the association dream of starting a restaurant across the road from the souvenir shop. The women have other plans: “I have many, many big dreams,” says Hangisoa. “I have four zebu, but I would like 100,” she says. “And I’d like to show movies to the people in this village.”
- Roughly 160-million years ago Madagascar broke off from the mainland of Africa and grew in isolation into a land of biodiversity that is unlike any other place on Earth.
- Madagascar is home to 340 reptile species, including more than half the world’s chameleons.
- Of the country’s 222 amphibians, only one is found elsewhere.
- More than half the world’s 209 bird species are found regularly in the country and nearly 50% are considered to be endemic to the island.
- The island’s primates range from the smallest in the world—Madame Berthe’s Mouse lemur—to the large black and white Indri.
- Scientists estimate that there could be as many as 14 000 vascular plants on the island, 90% of which are endemic. Among Madagascar’s notable plants are six of the world’s eight species of baobab tree.
- At least 22 new mammal species and subspecies have been documented in Madagascar in the past decade and a half.
- Slash-and-burn agriculture, cattle grazing, mining and unchecked logging have denuded much of Madagascar, stripping roughly four-fifths of the country’s forests. If the rate of deforestation remains at current levels, all of Madagascar’s forests will be lost within 40 years.