Madagascar elections: An environmental disaster in waiting

What links Brazil and Madagascar? 

Both have lent their names to fanciful films. Both are globally renowned for their biodiversity. And both face the prospect of an autocratic leader bent on destroying their nation’s environment for short-term gain.

Unfortunately for Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has already been elected, due to take up his presidential post on January 1. On the campaign trail, he made clear his desire to plunder the Amazon rainforest, tearing up environmental protections and regulations to advance mining and industrial-scale farming.

This is a devastation not only for the Amazon, but climate change affecting the whole planet: its role in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen has earned it the title, the “lungs of the planet”. Yet Bolsonaro’s new foreign minister has claimed climate science is a plot by “cultural Marxists” to stifle development.

The ruinous path Brazil looks set to forge may, sadly, be followed by Madagascar. The fate of its environment hangs on an election chalked for December 19th. After an inconclusive first round in which no candidate gained an absolute majority, Andry Rajoelina — a DJ turned-media mogul — will face off against Marc Ravalomanana, the president between 2002 to 2009. If the Malagasy people opt for Rajoelina, it will represent yet another blow to the survival of nature.

Like his Brazilian counterpart, Rajoelina has a fondness for military coups. Bolsonaro has merely praised the military government that Brazil endured, but Rajoelina has been the actual beneficiary of one: in 2009, the army deposed the democratically elected president and installed him as “President of the High Transitional Authority of Madagascar”. Predictably, this “transitionary” measure lasted longer than expected – comprising a reign of nearly five years.

Because he has not yet taken power, we have so far heard only rhetoric from the Brazilian President-Elect. But we can see Rajoelina’s predatory attitude to the environment as demonstrated by his track record. His slick, expensive campaign should fool no one into thinking he has embraced democracy or the environment. One must only look to the appalling state of the Malagasy rainforests to witness his rapaciousness.

Madagascar’s forests harbour much of the nation’s abundant biodiversity, including its remarkably unique flora and fauna. Five percent of the world’s species are found on Madagascar and more than 80 percent of these live nowhere else. One of them is the Rosewood tree – prized for its deep, red wood and fetching high prices internationally.

Illegal logging has always been a problem in Madagascar: local law enforcement in one of the world’s poorest countries cannot match the global appetite for prized wood. However, under the tenure of Rajoelina and his hand-picked successor, the illicit export of Rosewood soared.

As Madagascar’s rainforest’s resources were plundered, its natural riches were depleted. The removal of one tree leads to the felling of many others, greatly endangering biodiversity. The demise of Lemurs provides a sketch of the larger picture. All 111 species are unique to the island, yet nearly all are on the brink of extinction, making them the most endangered primates on Earth. And it is illegal logging that is destroying their habitat, the damage wrought cannot be easily reversed.

Accurate numbers for timber trafficking are difficult to come by, but World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimated that since 2010 at least one million rosewood logs have been illegally shipped out of Madagascar. Numerous news reports and analyses document the spike in illegal logging that followed the military coup that brought Rajoelina to power. Appallingly, one of Rajoelina’s first acts was to legalise the felling of precious hardwoods by executive decree. Bowing to international pressure, he soon reinstated the ban but did little to enforce it.

The illicit trade flourished: after a year of Rajoelina’s presidency, illegal logging led to the Atsinanana, a region of eastern Madagascar containing the Betampona and Mangerivola nature reserves, being placed on the “List of World Heritage in Danger”. A few timber barons became enriched, as did Rajoelina himself. Upon his removal, a stash of rosewood logs was found in the presidential palace.

Rajoelina’s opponent, Marc Ravalomanana, is less than perfect on the environment, but next to Rajoelina he looks like a battle-hardened eco-activist. During his tenure, Ravalomanana tripled protected areas to account for 10% of the island and banned all commercial felling in them.

From an environmental perspective, then, the rest of the world can only cheer for one candidate in Madagascar. As we have witnessed with the election of Donald Trump and then Jair Bolsonaro, leaders are coming to power who actively oppose environmental protections. 

Come December 19, we must hope this destructive club will not gain another member. — Al Jazeera

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