Correction to This Article
An Oct. 16 A-section article credited only Global Witness for producing a report on illegal logging in Madagascar. The report was jointly produced with the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Natural Resources Under Siege

Illegal Trade Soars in Madagascar As Island Nation Struggles Politically

In places like Andasibe National Park, tour guides are finding themselves out of work as the country's political instability has deterred ecotourists, many of whom had come in recent years to see animals such as the Indri lemur.
SOURCE: | By Mary Kate Cannistra - The Washington Post - October 16, 2009
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.

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