By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 16, 2009
MAROJEJY NATIONAL PARK, Madagascar -- A political crisis in this African island nation has triggered a pillage of its mythical wildlife and forests, and conservation groups fear that the peril will worsen as donors suspend funding to punish coup leaders running the country.
Conservationists say the problem is particularly distressing in Madagascar, because it is a land like no other. After the island broke off mainland Africa 160 million years ago, Indian Ocean isolation created a biological laboratory that spawned thousands of plants and animals -- massive moths, brawny baobabs, a hundred species of furry lemurs -- that exist nowhere else.
Security in Madagascar has broken down since a coup in March, and traffickers have smuggled out record numbers of Ploughshare tortoises, one of the world's rarest, for sale to Asian and European collectors, environmentalists said. A nature organization has exposed a lemur-poaching racket providing scores of the rare primates, roasted, to restaurants in port cities.
Most troubling, activists said, is a brazen plunder of protected forests by armed bands of illegal loggers who, by threatening park rangers, loot prized hardwoods for a "timber mafia" that exports them to lucrative furniture markets in Asia and the United States.'Exploiters Everywhere'
"Once the crisis exploded, there was no more state of law in Madagascar," said Herve Bakarizafy, the director of this park, which closed for two months this year as gangs felled hundreds of rosewood trees in a luxuriant forest that is home to 11 species of threatened lemurs. "Everyone saw the exploiters everywhere, even us. What could we do?"
On a continent with fantastic natural wonders and turbulent politics, what is happening in Madagascar is simply a fresh example of what can occur when the two intersect. Years of war in Congo have fueled assaults on forests and gorillas. A decade of economic collapse in Zimbabwe has coincided with sharp declines in rhinoceroses and other wildlife.
"When there's a governance crisis . . . you just know what's going to happen," said David Reed, director of the macroeconomics program at the World Wildlife Fund. "The profiteers are going to come in. You know there's going to be illegal logging, game hunting, extraction of mineral wealth. It's very predictable."
Years of deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture left just 10 percent of Madagascar's original vegetation, and protecting what remains is an urgent concern of international conservation groups. That effort has made great strides in the past three decades, they say, through programs to expand protected areas and encourage sustainable farming.
That is in large part because of donor funding that props up one of the world's poorest nations. About one-quarter of Madagascar's national budget, and 70 percent of investment spending, comes from outside assistance. Its national parks system draws 80 percent of its budget from donor funds, according to a parks official, and half of that is from the World Bank.
But after the coup, most international donors and lending agencies suspended or terminated non-humanitarian assistance, such as environmental programs, until a constitutional government is put in place. That is a typical response, but conservationists say it could be devastating for Madagascar's flora and fauna and the thousands employed to preserve it.
"Madagascar's real brand, the real competitive advantage, is this unique biodiversity," said Russell A. Mittermaier, president of the Washington-based Conservation International and a lemur expert. "By cutting the funding, we're not just hurting Madagascar, we're hurting the world as a whole."
Tourism and economic growth, which rose steadily in recent years, have plummeted since former president Marc Ravalomanana, a business tycoon with an authoritarian streak, was ousted by the DJ-turned-mayor of the capital city, Andry Rajoelina, who had military backing.Timber Frenzy
Here in the forests of Madagascar's remote northeast, the breakdown has allowed a veritable "gold rush" of illegal logging and poaching, transforming corners of languid parks into mini-battlegrounds, said Niall O'Connor, the WWF's regional representative.
A decree issued by the Ravalomanana government in January permitted select companies to temporarily export stocks of rare rosewood and ebony trees that had been felled by a cyclone. When the government collapsed, those exporters saw a green light to pillage, and a renewed decree in September has only validated that, conservationists and park officials said. Local politicians, some suspected of involvement in the trade, spread word that rules no longer applied. Exporters broadcast radio ads offering money for timber.
The rush began at Marojejy, a 230-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site that is marked by a rocky peak and patrolled by 14 rangers who have bicycles, but no weapons or powers to arrest.
Hundreds of loggers descended on the park, passing through Mandena, a sleepy village of wood huts on the park's periphery. Villagers who resisted were threatened. Bakarizafy, the park director, was warned that his house would be torched.
That is what happened to the house of Mandena farmer Jaotombo Mahajery.
"Each time there's a political problem in Madagascar, that touches the people here under the trees," said Mahajery, 61, stoically recounting his losses -- axes, dishes -- in a blaze he is sure was meant to quiet him.
Loggers earned $5 a day to chop and drag precious logs to faraway roads, said park officials, who recently took a visitor to see the aftermath of the plunder in one corner of the park. A makeshift trail was cut far up a slippery hill home to the world's few hundred remaining silky sifaka lemurs. Rouge-colored rosewood stumps dotted the area.
The situation in Marojejy cooled by summer, after national police were called in to patrol with park rangers, though some park officials worry that logging continues in the northern reaches.
The police patrols were possible in part because the park's main funder, Germany's development bank, did not suspend environmental programs. The bank suspended other non-humanitarian aid.Selective Aid
That is the approach environmentalists are urging donors, including the United States, to take. U.S. environmental assistance of $8.5 million a year funds agriculture and forestry management programs and the expansion of protected areas, but not law enforcement or park patrols. That funding has been or will be suspended, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said.
In a statement, the World Bank said it is "concerned" about illegal logging and considering resuming the $10 million annual environmental funding it froze in March. U.S. officials are standing firm, noting that the Madagascar coup was the fourth in one year in Africa.
"We warned the Malagasy that there would be serious consequences if they went ahead and had a coup . . . we didn't do this lightly," U.S. Ambassador Niels Marquardt said in an interview in Antananarivo, the capital. He added: "I do not share the analysis that the lawlessness that has become prevalent in the northeast part is due in any way to the suspension of assistance programs."
In recent months, logging has escalated in the parks southeast of Marojejy, according to conservationists and government reports.
There, according to one park report, "a pillage without precedent" is underway. A preliminary report by Global Witness and the Environmental Investigation Agency, international environmental watchdogs, said that about 500 loggers fell 200 rosewood trees a day -- a bounty worth as much as $1 million.
Dozens of loggers involved in illegal activity have been arrested this year, as have a few lemur poachers. But convictions are elusive, conservationists say, and national parks officials suspect that high-level corruption will keep it that way.
Conservation activists said they are encouraged by the new environment minister, an army colonel named to the transitional government last month.
There is a one glitch. Though an agreement on a new transitional government was reached last week, the international community views the administration the minister serves in as illegitimate. So it is anyone's guess how long he will keep his job.