Madagascar is the Earth's fourth largest island, geographically isolated for some 80 million years. Known to Westerners today as one of the most species-rich places on the planet, it is also one of the world's most humanly impoverished countries. In 2012, around three quarters of the Malagasy people live in rural areas, with 82% of them living on 32p or less a day (that's 0.4 of a euro, or half a US dollar.)
Unique & Endangered
With about 5% of Earth's plant and animal species found within this 0.4% of the planet's land surface, Madagascar is among the world's most significant biodiversity hotspots. The general level of endemism among its flora and fauna is estimated at over 80%, with many species yet to be named or even discovered. So 8 out of every 10 species found in Madagascar are found nowhere else…
An island with stunning natural scenery, its best known non-human occupant is the lemur. There are around 100 species and subspecies of this creature, from the swaggering ringtail to the enigmatic aye-aye, and tiny dwarf and mouse lemurs that can sit in the palm of your hand… or could have sat in the palm of the giant lemurs that once lived on the island, including one as big as a gorilla. An estimated 17 species of giant lemur have gone extinct. Lemurs today face different degrees of threat through loss of habitat, hunting for bushmeat and capture for the pet trade. Recently discovered lemur species, being typically confined to small regions, are considered threatened, whilst as yet undiscovered species could go extinct before even being identified. Six lemurs are listed among the "Top 25 Most Endangered Primates" (Oct 12): the Northern Sportive lemur, Silky sifaka, Sclater's Black lemur or ‘Blue-eyed Black lemur’, Red Ruffed lemur, Madame Berthe's Mouse lemur and the Indri.
Madagascar is also known for its many other unique species, including its biggest natural predator of lemurs – the tree-climbing puma-like fosa (or ‘fossa’, pronounced "foosh"). About two-thirds of the world's different chamaeleon species are here in Madagascar, from the cat-sized Parson's chamaeleon to the thumbnail-length Brookesia. The home of many exotic, endemic and endangered birds, the island once provided a habitat for the world's biggest known – the 10-foot tall, half ton Elephant Bird, Aepyornis maximus.
Of around 12,000 flowering plant species on Madagascar, some 10,000 are thought to be found nowhere else on earth. Six of the planet's eight baobab species are native to the island, a seventh being found both here and in mainland Africa. Madagascar's Rosy Periwinkle was discovered to have cancer-curing properties, and today these are used widely in the Western world in treatments for two of the deadliest forms of cancer: Hodgkin's disease and childhood leukaemia.
All this is threatened.
Though today it remains among Earth's top biodiversity hotspots, Madagascar has so far lost an estimated 90% of its original forest vegetation. The precise nature and extent of the island's ‘original’ tree cover – as prior to its first human colonisations between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago – is one of Madagascar's many mysteries, and the realms of ongoing debate amongst academics. For the majority of the Malagasy people, the extremely limited livelihoods options means that what forest remains continues to disappear: tavy, shifting agriculture, or ‘slash-and-burn’ is the traditional means of subsistence, along with fishing.
Adding to the pressures on Madagascar's natural environment are resource extraction operations where foreign interests play a significant and typically dominant hand. Madagascar is rich with minerals, and increasingly busy with mining activities. Explorations and exploitations are afoot with focuses on a wide range of minerals from sapphires to ilmenite, along with oil from the island's tar sands – such oil extraction in particular threatening a huge increase in carbon emissions at the same time as the loss of the island's natural carbon sinks (trees, etc.).
Impacts of climate change have been observed as on the increase in Madagascar, and as compounding its problems. Droughts and cyclones have become increasingly frequent and severe, and the cycles of the seasons increasingly subject to erratic change. Madagascar has experienced a 10% rise in temperature and a 10% decrease in rainfall over the last 50 years, and is one of the top three countries considered most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Taken together, the increasing demands for minerals, wood for fuel and timber, and land for agriculture means that the remaining forest is becoming more and more fragmented, and unable to sustain life.
Battling for Life
Second to none in their reputation for friendliness and generosity, the people of Madagascar make up an ethnically diverse population of some 21 million, with the number of inhabitants increasing at a rate of about 3% per year. It is one of the world's most impoverished and least developed countries, ranking 151/187 in the 2011 UN Human Development Index, with 77% of its population living below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day (that's about 80p). Only 27% of the population are classified as urban – the majority work in subsistence agriculture, and some 50% of children under three years of age suffer retarded growth due to a chronically inadequate diet. Island-wide, about 1 in every 10 children die before the age of five from easily preventable diseases, typically diarrhoea – rising to as many as 4 in 10 in rural areas. Poor hygiene is linked to typhoid, polio, acute respiratory infections and trachoma – the most common cause of blindness from infection.
The role of women in this heavily male dominated society is one of child bearer and household manager, with girls typically marrying and having children from as young as 12. Women's livelihood options and engagement in civil society are notably restricted by cultural expectations, and knowledge of and access to family planning options is extremely limited. Motherhood carries its own particular risks for women in Madagascar, and levels of maternal mortality are extremely high along with the levels for neonatal and infant mortality. Many deaths among women aged 15-24 are related to pregnancy or childbirth.
Lack of state capacity means service delivery is extremely poor, and virtually non-existent in the most isolated areas. Government educational services, extremely limited as they are across the island, rarely reach rural communities. State provided health facilities are seriously under-funded. Among rural populations only 35% of people have improved water sources and just 11% have adequate sanitation facilities – well below the average for sub-Saharan Africa (UNICEF, 2010). Poor health was recognised by the Malagasy government as being one of the key challenges to Madagascar's future development in the Madagascar Action Plan of 2007-2012, a national strategy developed in response to the Millennium Development Goals, but the situation overall has become notably worse during this period.
Already weak from long-term political instability, the island has seen both poverty and environmental damage significantly increasing over the last three years with a degree of breakdown in law enforcement following a coup. Trade in many of the island's endangered species has accelerated sharply in this time, pushing these closer to extinction. Whilst the price of basic food staples like rice doubled between 2009–2011, the price of key saleable assets (for example local cattle) halved and more than 228,000 jobs were lost, impacting heavily on people's coping mechanisms and survival strategies. Problems of lack of access to vital livelihoods resources have been further exacerbated by public services spending being cut by 40% and public services investment and maintenance spending cut by 67%. From 2008–2011, Malagasy government spending on health dropped by 75% (IRIN), and dropped by 82% on education (UNICEF). As a major factor in this, there have been widespread major cuts in international donor support, which had previously formed half of the total national budget (World Bank, 2011); this ‘response’ to the coup has not as yet helped generate any improvement in the situation. The situation in terms of poverty levels and environmental losses, as well as in terms of democratic freedoms, continues to deteriorate. In a review of various countries' vulnerability status between 1990–2000, Madagascar was ranked in the top category for the highest levels of hunger and showed a deteriorating progress towards improving this situation (IFAD, 2011). Recent figures suggest that this situation has worsened, with national figures for 2010 showing the second highest level of poverty since measurements began in 1993 (UNICEF, 2011).
In relation to the environment in general, although a stewardship mentality is evident among the Malagasy people it is also clear that conservation policies have been imposed on them from above with little or no community consultation, impacting negatively on those already greatly impoverished. Protected areas, although important for conservation, are negatively impacting local communities by restricting access to vital livelihood resources: fines are imposed for tavy, people walk many kilometres further every day to find wood for fuel and building, and pressure has increased on unprotected forest fragments. Protection alone does not address the root causes of forest degradation: forest dependent communities lacking access to alternative resources.
This is where organisations like Azafady can and must help: working alongside local Malagasy communities on their own sustainable solutions to the challenges of health, conservation, education and livelihoods.