To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
18 Nov 2009 07:23
The lemur, a furry primate that symbolises Madagascar’s unique biodiversity, is under renewed threat from a “timber mafia” pillaging the island’s forests for profit.
Environmentalists warn that a political crisis in the impoverished country is reversing conservation gains of recent years and putting “hundreds if not thousands” of species, many not yet identified, at risk of extinction.
Madagascar, which has been isolated from landmasses for more than 160-million years, is the world’s fourth largest island and a “conservation hotspot” with thousands of exotic species found only here. These include nearly 100 species of lemur, six of which are deemed critically endangered.
Decades of logging, mining and slash-and-burn farming have destroyed 90% of Madagascar’s forests, though the rate has slowed in the past two decades.
The former president, Marc Ravalomanana, was praised for putting 6m hectares under protection and backing eco-friendly community projects and sustainable farming.
But Ravalomanana was ousted in March in a violent coup that led to a breakdown of law and order and a “gold rush” of armed loggers and poachers.
Lemurs’ natural habitat is under threat from the accelerating deforestation. In addition, the endangered animals are being hunted for bushmeat, either to be eaten by drought-afflicted local populations or sold as a roasted delicacy in city restaurants.
Dr Hantanirina Rasamimanana, a researcher and teacher at Antananarivo University, said: “Deforestation is always a problem, but in these past five months bushmeat is also very dangerous. People are desperate because of the lack of rain.”
She added: “Here in Madagascar, when there is a political change, everything is burning. It’s always like that. They burn, they cut, they destroy, they steal. “If they don’t stop, I am afraid that some species will become extinct.” Conservationists say that armed gangs are exploiting the security vacuum to pillage rosewood and ebony from supposedly protected forests on behalf of a so-called “timber mafia”.
This year an estimated $100-million worth of hardwood has been cut down and sold, mostly to China to be turned into furniture.
The government, which levies a 40% export tax, is accused of not only failing to stop the trade but actively encouraging it.
It issued an order last month authorising the export of raw and semi-processed hardwood. This supposedly related to trees already felled in cyclones, but environmental activists say it has only provided an incentive for more illegal logging.
Niall O’Connor, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Indian Ocean regional office, said: “This is the legalisation of illegally cut timber. The government stands to make a lot from the tax levied on this timber. The current crisis is setting back the good impacts made in conservation in the past 15 to 20 years.”
About half of Madagascar’s national budget, and 70% of investment spending, comes from outside assistance. But after the coup by city mayor and former DJ Andry Rajoelina, most international donors and lending agencies suspended or cancelled non-humanitarian assistance until a constitutional government is elected.
The WWF has been forced to suspend several projects. O’Connor said: “The impact of not having funding is probably greater than the political crisis. You start to lose the confidence of the communities. If the World Bank doesn’t fund Madagascar national parks, they will run out of money very quickly.”
Madagascar’s $390-million a year tourism industry, of which eco-tourism is the backbone, is down to just 40% of its normal level due to this year’s instability.
O’Connor warned that Madagascar’s priceless natural laboratory was in jeopardy. “We have the potential for losing hundreds if not thousands of species. There are still new species being discovered: plants, birds, chameleons, lemurs, tortoises that we might not yet know about, that could be on the brink of extinction.” - guardian.co.uk
Create Account | Lost Your Password?