Madagascar: Political Instability and Conservation
The ongoing political unrest in Madagascar following the 2009 military coup continues to have a negative impact on the island’s conservation efforts. Financing of environmental programs by international agencies has been suspended, and illegal logging of tropical hardwood species has increased dramatically as government measures to regulate logging activity have crumbled.
We spoke to Dr. Luke Dollar, lead scientist on the Earthwatch-supported research project Carnivores of Madagascar. Dr. Dollar has worked at the coalface of conservation research in Madagascar for many years. He told us about the visible impacts of the ongoing political crisis on the island’s wildlife, as well as on the human communities of this desperately poor country.
“The impacts on the rural poor may not be immediately visible to an outside observer,” says Dr. Dollar. “Their day-to-day lives have not changed significantly, because they had very little to begin with, and therefore very little to lose. However, what they have lost is the likelihood of having any opportunities on the horizon—education and employment, for example. As a result, petty crime and small-scale banditry are on the increase, and poor people are willing to take illegal logging work as they have no other alternative.”
“So we are witnessing an increase in some areas in the illegal exploitation of natural resources. But those carrying out the illegal logging cannot be blamed for what is happening. They don’t want to decimate their country’s resources. They are trying to eke out a subsistence-level living, and it is profiteers who are driving the destruction by supplying demand and paying laborers to undertake this illegal activity.”
The impact of increased deforestation on the unique wildlife that Madagascar’s rainforests support is disastrous. Primatologist and former Earthwatch scientist Dr. Jonah Ratsimbazafy reported earlier this year that “The political crisis of 2009 has brought many lemur species even closer to the brink of extinction, due to a massive increase in illegal logging of ebony and rosewood and an increase in hunting lemurs for bush meat.”
However, Dr. Dollar notes that habitat destruction is not happening all over the island, and highlights the positive impact that research activity can have on deterring illegal logging. “Where we work at Ampijoroa Research Station, the forest is protected by two factors: We are not close to a heavily active port. Those areas within driving distance of ports are definitely more severely impacted as it’s easier there to quickly transport the wood out of the country. Secondly, management, researchers, and Earthwatch volunteer teams provide a vital human presence on the ground. Illegal loggers won’t work in areas where they are likely to be discovered, so our presence is the region’s defense.”
Despite the complex challenges that Madagascar faces, Dr. Dollar remains optimistic about the future of conservation in the country. “The recent troubles have probably set back conservation efforts in Madagascar by about 10 or 15 years. However, I have been working here for much longer than that. I have seen the great advances that have been made, and I’m confident that the Malagasy people can do it again. On our project, the direct impacts are at a very local level, but we are also training many Malagasy students who will become the conservationists of the future and will be powerful advocates for the protection of the rainforest. The potential ripple effect is huge.”