How one scientist is battling deforestation in Madagascar

3/7/2010 Guardian  Among the developing nations needing help is Madagascar, where traditional slash-and-burn agriculture has wiped out about 90% of the native tree cover.Patricia Wright has devoted most of her professional life to working on Madagascar, home to a remarkable collection
of plants and animals, more than 80 percent of which are endemic to the island
nation. For more than two decades, Wright has managed to combine her research —
among other things, she discovered two new species of lemurs on Madagascar —
with efforts to preserve the country’s beleaguered forests and the many species
of flora and fauna they harbor. She was the driving force behind the 1991
creation of Ranomafana National Park, a 106,000-acre World Heritage Site in
southeastern Madagascar that has been instrumental in preserving the island’s
biodiversity, which evolved as Madagascar was separated from other landmasses
for 80 million years.
Earlier this decade, Wright and scores of other scientists, conservationists,
and local activists made significant progress in slowing the rampant
deforestation of Madagascar — roughly 90 percent of the island’s forests and
ecosystems had already been denuded — and in building a thriving ecotourism
sector. But in the wake of a March 2009 coup by local politician Andry
Rajoelina, the destruction of Madagascar’s forests has resumed with a vengeance.
One of Rajoelina’s first acts was to lift a ban on the harvesting of precious
hardwoods, such as rosewood and ebony, and that decree — coupled with rampant
illegal logging in some national parks — has led to the felling of tens of
thousands of trees, a surge in bushmeat hunting for lemurs and other species,
and a drop in ecotourism, which is vital to Madagascar’s economy.
In an interview with journalist Steven Kotler for Yale Environment 360, Wright —
a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook,
executive director for the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical
Environments, and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” —
describes what she and others are doing to halt the current plunder before it’s
too late. Wright has helped publicize the recent wave of destruction in the
world press, has presented information on the decimation of Madagascar’s forests
to the U.S. government, and has worked with local activists in Madagascar to
halt the illegal logging.
The actions by Wright and others have had some effect, with the Rajoelina
government issuing a decree in April banning the logging of precious hardwoods.
Yet some illegal logging continues, with a shipment of banned hardwoods leaving
Madagascar recently, bound for China. Still, Wright, who just returned from
Madagascar, is pressing her fight to save Madagascar’s remaining wilderness,
pushing for a genuine halt in logging, backing programs to reforest the island
with native species, and working on initiatives worldwide to create meaningful
incentives to preserve tropical forests. “Right now there are laws all over the
tropics that say once you cut [the] forest, you own it,” she says. “We have to
reverse that somehow.”
Yale Environment 360: How important is Madagascar to science?
Patricia Wright: Madagascar is unique. It’s the fourth-largest island in the
world and it’s been isolated for [tens of millions of] years. That’s a long time
for evolution to take its course. So the things that have happened in Madagascar
are very important for us to understand because it’s in a very special position.
Only certain animals arrived on Madagascar. You don’t have any ungulates or any
woodpeckers — instead you have lots of lemurs. It’s the only place to go if you
want to understand these rare ecosystems.
e360: Before Rajoelina came to power, if you had to assess the state of
Madagascar’s ecological health, what would you say?
Wright: The state of Madagascar’s ecological health was actually improving. It’s
one of the success stories in all of the conservation world. Because of big
inputs from conservation agencies — U.S. AID [Agency for International
Development], the European Union — the infrastructure of the country improved.
The protected areas were being protected. Everything looked really optimistic
for keeping the island’s forests in place.
e360: And now? What’s the impact of the current political situation on the
island’s flora and fauna?
Wright: That’s the problem with a coup détat: Everyone assumes they can
literally take anything they want. So we have major rosewood being extracted
from the beautiful forests in the north. We have a certain amount of lawlessness
that’s going on, also in the north. Inside protected areas, the National Park
Service [rangers] abandoned their posts because they were afraid. They’ve since
returned, but it’s been a very difficult year for protecting wildlife.
e360: So what does all this rosewood logging jeopardize?
Wright: It’s a beautiful rainforest that’s being pillaged, where 13 to 15
species of lemur live, and the chameleons come from. [Madagascar is home to
about half of the world's 150 chameleons, with 59 species existing nowhere
else.] Many of Madagascar’s endemic birds live here, too. This used to be the
biggest tract of pristine forest in the eastern rainforest. But thousands, maybe
millions, of logs came out of there last year.
e360: Rosewood is a rare hardwood we’re all supposed to be avoiding — so who’s
doing all the buying?
Wright: My sources are saying it’s going mostly to Asia, to China.
e360: proposed a three-part plan to end the logging crisis: An
absolute moratorium on logging; an amnesty program for traders; and a
reforestation program funded by the sales of illegal timber. Would it work?
Wright: It takes a long time to regrow a rainforest. We know from studies in
Ranomafana, where there was some timber exploitation in the 1980s, that these
forests can recover — so there’s no question about that anymore. But it takes a
long time. Even after 25 years we’re still seeing the damage in things like the
reproduction of the lemurs. But the damage has already been done, and we can’t
go backwards. Reforestation with native trees has to be part of the plan. I
think it’s the way to go.
e360: Along the same lines, there’s a new paper in Science calling for rosewood
to be added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of
Wild Fauna and Flora [CITES] list. But would this even do any good considering
the current situation?
Wright: Again, it would be a step in the right direction.
e360: Are foreign governments applying any pressure to stop hardwood
Wright: There has been some, but not enough to make an impact. In the U.S., we
have been putting pressure on anyone who buys rosewood from Madagascar to stop,
but as far as I know there hasn’t been major pressure put on China.
e360: There have also been reports that the bushmeat trade has risen
significantly because of the crisis — what have you found on the ground?
Wright: With the lawlessness, people are not obeying the rules. In Madagascar,
obviously, it’s against the law to kill lemurs. They’re an endangered species,
some of them critically endangered. But the loggers are also hungry, so they’re
buying bushmeat for cash. The people of Madagascar are poor and need the money.
So without any kind of enforcement of the law, there’s more poaching than we’ve
ever seen before. And lemurs are primates, and primates don’t reproduce often —
or every year. This means the bushmeat trade will make a major impact on lemur
populations in the future.
e360: There are also roving bands of armed thugs running around the national
parks — especially in the north — scaring off tourism. Your park, Ranomafana, is
not in the north, but have you seen an impact?
Wright: Well, the Madagascar National Park service has put a ban on anybody
going into the forest at night because of security problems. Now we don’t have
any security problems at Ranomafana, but it does impact our research on
nocturnal lemurs. So we have had to make special cases for our work.
e360: You’ve taken a very bottom-up approach at Ranomafana, where you’ve
employed and educated a large chunk of the local population. Do you feel that
Ranomafana is more protected because you’ve worked so closely with the locals?
Wright: Yes, I think so. We now, at our research station, employ 71 people
full-time, with benefits. Each of those people represents a good-sized extended
family. And that helps. When I first returned to Madagascar after the coup, the
mayor [of Ranomafana] asked to see me. They had held a meeting with all the
gendarmes and the traditional leaders and voted to keep this forest intact, to
not allow in the problems they’ve been having in the north. We’ve also been
working with very remote villages and even those villages have a feeling that
this park — these forests — are protecting their watersheds and that the tourism
and research in this forest have resulted in a big economic increase for them.
These days, I see people on bicycles in Ranomafana. I see houses improving and
people putting their kids through college. This is something they couldn’t
afford in the past. It’s really gratifying after 20 years to see that this does
make a difference, but it sure does take a long time. Progress is slow, but
progress is there. And the people in this region do understand that it’s the
national park that has given them this opportunity to increase their income.
It’s a good thing…
e360: You have a different relationship with the environment than most
conservationists. As a primatologist — especially because lemurs are so
long-lived — you’ve been studying the same families of animals since you’ve
gotten to Madagascar, so you have intimate and personal relationships with some
of these animals. Does that make it harder when they’re threatened?
Wright: I do have a long-term study, now over 25 years. And many lemurs live to
over 30. So many of these animals I’ve known for a long, long time. And they do
become your friends. You’re following them through the forest and you get
involved in the soap opera of their lives: who’s fighting with who, and which
teenagers are going to exit the group, and what does that mean, not only for the
ones who are leaving, but for newcomers who are entering it. We have predation
events that occur. They’re very tragic to the families of lemurs, and we feel
sad to see some of our friends no longer with us. Having gone through a lot with
these animals, I do feel really close to them. The one thing I don’t want is for
them to be further threatened by deforestation and hunting. Every day, when I
wake up, it’s my goal to make sure that doesn’t happen.
e360: You did something a little unprecedented in response to the crisis — you
got all the environmental groups on the island to work together. How exactly did
you pull that off?
Wright: It’s a very important part of what’s happened this last year that’s been
a collaborative effort. We started early on, when we first heard about the
danger to the rosewood.
e360: What did you do exactly?
Wright: First, I alerted the press, and also some of the conservation groups.
Then we started organizing against the slaughter. Everybody came together. The
first meeting was held at the World Wildlife Fund’s office. Then we put together
a document that was published in the newspaper, presented to the government,
given to the press, and also given to the U.S. Congress. It was our way of
letting the world know that this last remaining rosewood forest was being
e360: And you were successful, sort of. In April, 2010, the transitional
government signed a decree banning the logging of precious hardwoods. But a
shipment of rosewood just left Madagascar for China. So what gives?
Wright: It’s been very difficult because the current government seems to be
going in one direction — towards stopping the exploitation of the forests — and
suddenly they reverse their verdict. I think this latest reversal took place
after they met with the loggers. Either way, the wood got sent to China. It was
very discouraging.
e360: Even more discouraging, the European Union voted in early June to suspend
all aid to Madagascar. What does that mean both for the Malagasy and for the
island’s environment?
Wright: The European Union has been in conversations with the government since
last July about having legitimate elections, but nothing happened. So on June 1,
the EU decided they have no recourse but to cut off aid to Madagascar. What does
that mean? Well, Madagascar pretty much runs on aid. The EU and the U.S.
government have both been instrumental in making the kind of economic progress
Madagascar has made in the past five to eight years. It’s amazing, really. It
used to be that 80 percent of Madagascar lived below the poverty line; now
that’s down to 60 percent. The roads have all been fixed. The tourism industry
has been booming. Then suddenly, because of the coup, everything has been put on
e360: Considering how many other biodiversity hot spots are now threatened — and
given the limited supply of capital for protecting such places — has the time
come to make a global priority list?
Wright: I think so. This is not just Madagascar’s problem. There are forests
everywhere that are threatened. If we don’t take this seriously, we’re going to
have big problems in the future with climate change, loss of biodiversity. This
is supposedly the year of biodiversity, yet we’re finding that the world’s
conservation agencies haven’t fulfilled their promise. We haven’t been able to
stop loss of biodiversity by 2010. So I think we need to revisit these old
issues in a more realistic way. It’s time for these agencies to join together to
make a plan that governments of the world take seriously.
e360: This raises a deeper question about the nature of protected landscapes.
You created Ranomafana, which became a World Heritage Site in 2007. The whole
purpose of designating something essential to the planet’s scientific/cultural
heritage is in order to protect it. Is it time we actually had some muscle
behind World Heritage Sites?
Wright: Yes. The designation, calling something a World Heritage Site, is
important. And not just for Madagascar — for the whole world. But we need some
teeth behind those declarations. There’s money for crisis situations when a
World Heritage Site is threatened — but I haven’t seen any action. Two of the
sites that have been pillaged for rosewood in Madagascar are also World Heritage
Sites. They should be receiving that emergency aid.
e360: So can that money be used for protection? Can you use it to hire armed
Wright: I think so — and just releasing those funds would put pressure on the
Malagasy government. We need to treat these situations more seriously. As if a
country was invaded. This wildlife that’s being eliminated can’t be replaced
easily. You can’t get these forests back easily. It’s going to take hundreds of
e360: So we need new ways to protect species?
Wright: We have to think up something that’s going to work a little better in
the future than what we’ve done in the past. There has been a sea change in how
we treat protected areas in the last 20 years. We’ve started to work with the
local people — and not just for a year or two years. Rather, working with them
for a very long time — training them, capacity building, making their lives
better. And making them understand that it’s the protection of the forest that
makes their lives better… We have to make sure there’s funding for this
because it seems to be very successful. But we have to be very careful and make
sure we evaluate what is going on. We’ve had instances in Madagascar when the
forest was handed over to the local people, and they just sold it to the timber
operators. So you have to be sure people understand what their responsibility
We also have to think about reforestation with native species. We have to be
thinking about what’s going to be happening to these forests in 50 years, in 100
years. One of the most optimistic things for me is that we had replanted
rainforest trees in the 1990s in areas that had been slashed and burned. I
didn’t think these trees would actually grow. Now we’re seeing them, 15, 20
years later, fruiting and flowering and doing well. That means the lemurs can
come back. And they’ll increase the forest by doing their job of seed dispersal.
Pretty soon we’ll have more and more forest being reforested by the lemurs. This
reforestation is very important, and not just for our carbon footprint. Ninety
percent of the forest in Madagascar has been destroyed already — and destroyed
to the point that no one can live on it because the soil has been depleted of
its nutrition. To get that nutrition back you’ve got to have the forest doing
it. Once you have the forest growing up, you get this replenishing below. But in
order to do that, you first need to convince the population that it’ll mean
something to them. And we have several new programs giving incentives to local
people to keep their forest.
It’s very important, incentives to keep the forest rather than cutting it. Right
now there are laws all over the tropics that say once you cut your forest you
own it. Logging is encouraged by the governments. We have to reverse that
somehow. We need laws and compensation for preserving forests and biodiversity.
e360: Does that also mean we need some kind of centralized authority overseeing
various conservation projects — a way to give all of these protected ecosystems
a solid voice?
Wright: I think the time has come, but that’s a very complex endeavor. You don’t
want to add a layer of bureaucracy and slow things down even more, but you do
want an effective coalition that’s worldwide. But we’ve reached the point that
we’re ready for it. We weren’t back in 1993, when we had our first worldwide
biodiversity conference in Rio. Since then we’ve learned a lot. We’ve gathered
incredible amounts of data. We have to use that data, put it together, and make
a plan.
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