Fate of Madagascar's forests in the hands of incoming president

Andry Rajoelina has a spotty record on environmental regulation and conservation.

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Fire burns near baobab trees in Madagascar

Madagascar’s forests are increasingly under threat from illegal activities such as logging, and from climate change.Credit: Pascal Maitre/Panos

Madagascar is famous for its biodiversity and its new president-elect rode to victory on promises to combat corruption, lift people out of poverty — and protect natural resources. Now scientists are pressing Andry Rajoelina — who will be sworn in on 19 January — to make good on those pledges, starting with halting the destruction of the country’s world-class forests.

Conservationists and researchers remain wary after more than a decade of increasing deforestation, illegal mining, government corruption and clashes over resources. These activities, which threaten habitats that host thousands of species found nowhere else, surged during Rajoelina’s previous term as president, from 2009-2013.

In 2009, the military deposed former president Marc Ravalomanana and installed Rajoelina. Under international pressure, Madagascar held elections in 2013, and Rajoelina's former finance minister, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, prevailed. Ravalomanana, Rajoelina and Rajaonarimampianina faced off in a bitter election last November that culminated in a December runoff; Rajoelina won with nearly 56% of the vote.

Many hope the incoming president will recognize the need to protect Madagascar’s forests, which support local communities while attracting tourists and the philanthropists who help to fund conservation efforts.

Curbing corruption

“Rajoelina has no choice,” says Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a primatologist at the University of Antananarivo. To garner international respect, attract investment and improve livelihoods, Ratsimbazafy says, the president-elect must curb corruption and improve the government’s management of natural resources. “That is the big issue.”

Ratsimbazafy was part of a group of scientists and conservationists who met with Rajoelina this week to state their case. He says the president-elect seemed receptive to their agenda and expressed a desire to make Madagascar a model of conservation and a destination for ecotourism.

But Rajoelina’s track record raises alarm: illegal exports of valuable rosewood soared under both him and Rajaonarimampianina, and environmentalists allege that Rajoelina’s government was complicit in the activities of powerful timber barons. Many continue to question his motivations and fear that corruption will continue.

“There’s a saying here in Madagascar: better to know the judge than the law, because the judge can be bribed,” says Lucienne Wilmé, who coordinates the Madagascar programme for the World Resources Institute in Antananarivo.

The environmental situation is dire. Madagascar has lost nearly half of its forests since the 1950s, and satellite data indicate that deforestation hit a record high in 2017, with the loss of tree cover on more than 500,000 hectares. Scientists warn that all but 6 of the country’s 111 lemur species are threatened with extinction. And an assessment of 23 biodiversity hotspots in Madagascar, published last year, found that 43% of the freshwater species in these areas are similarly imperilled, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The country has over 100 protected areas, but many receive little to no support from the federal government. Instead, they rely on conservation groups to raise money for operational costs and to implement management strategies. “The government doesn’t really have the money to manage them,” says Herizo Andrianandrasana, a forest ecologist with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Antananarivo.

Last chance

Andrianandrasana’s group is working in eight of Madagascar’s protected areas, and is in the process of signing agreements with the government to officially manage two of them in cooperation with local communities. He says that the deteriorating environmental situation has discouraged villagers from participating in the management of these areas, because they feel their forests are being pillaged for hardwood and other resources by wealthier — and politically connected — individuals.

Researchers have also raised alarms about a spike in violence around Ranomafana National Park, a popular tourist destination in eastern Madagascar. In one recent case, bandits raided a village on the edge of the park in November, and then a police commandant who arrived to investigate was killed, says Julia Jones, an ecologist at Bangor University, UK, who studied crayfish harvesting there in the 2000s. Gold miners have also invaded the area, destroying forests, polluting local waterways and threatening the livelihoods of villagers.

“Ultimately, it comes down to the challenges the government of Madagascar has with tackling law and order,” Jones says. She is sceptical, but hopes Rajoelina will realize that the government must take action.

Rajoelina might have a bad image, particularly among international donors, but Ratsimbazafy stresses that the politician was democratically elected this time around. “We have to help him,” he says. “This is the last chance for Madagascar.”

Nature 565, 407 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00189-8

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