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A happy ending for Madagascar?

Richard Black | 08:29 UK time, Thursday, 19 March 2009

To those fortunate ones closer to the age of lollipops than lager-bellies, the wildlife of Madagascar is doubtless best known through the lens of the 2005 DreamWorks movie, which saw the denizens of a New York zoo pitched back into a more - erm - "native" environment with, as they say, "hilarious consequences".

Golden_crowned_sifakaIn real life, though, Madagascar has become an important proving ground for a number of forward-looking concepts in conservation and sustainable development; which is why there is some concern in environmental circles now about the country's political turmoil.

President Marc Ravalomanana became a prominent developing world voice in various international processes connected with environment and human development, and sought ways in which his population could profit from preserving the indigenous wildlife rather than ransacking it.

International conservation organisations have been able to work alongside local communities, developing ecotourism ventures and sustainable forest products.

And as a reservoir of biodiversity, it's up there with the best the Earth has left to offer. It's home to 49 species of lemur - two had remained undiscovered until 2005 - it has about 30 bats, and thanks to its 100m-year isolation from any other landmasses, it posesses some unique species such as the fossa, a mongoose relative.

Amphibian experts estimate there may be as many as 4,000 species waiting to be discovered - and if that's right, maybe a quarter of them will turn up in Madagascar.

So whatever the rights and wrongs of Mr Ravalomanana's ousting earlier this month by Andry Rajoelina, it's an event of no little interest to conservationists.

There are two principal worries; firstly, that a power vacuum and civil unrest will create a situation in which local structures break down, allowing "harvesting" of species (plant or animal) that would be forbidden in more peaceful times - and secondly, that Mr Rajoelina (who has yet to unveil a policy platform on most issues) may turn away from the sustainable development path mapped out under his predecessor.

Marc_RavalomananaOne of the international groups that's been most active in Madagascar is the US-based Conservation International (CI); so I called up Frank Hawkins, who lived on the island for about 15 years and is now the organisation's vice-president for Africa.

In two previous periods of unrest (1991 and 2001), he told me, turn-a-quick-buck "harvesting" is exactly what had happened - with rosewood and the big-headed turtle (now critically endangered) among the prime targets.

Apart from its direct impact on wildlife, periods like this make life more difficult for communities and entrepreneurs attempting to make a sustainable living - and having them make a sustainable living is probably the only way to preserve the forests and their wildlife in the long term.

But, Frank said, there is also concern about the future of some innovative ventures that CI and other international groups have been working on with local communities.

On the international side, money will almost certainly begin to flow quite soon from the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) mechanism that is very likely to become part of the UN climate change convention later this year. But where it flows to depends on stability; unless REDD funders are persuaded Madagascan forests really will be protected, they will look to other countries instead.

REDD is a kind of "carbon offset", albeit one that carries benefits to wildlife as well; but Mr Ravalomanana had also spoken of trying to develop "biodiversity offsets", where companies (locally or internationally) have to fund measures that compensate for the ecological damage they cause, whether it's avoidable or not.

FossaFrank also said there were proposals that would see downstream users of water, such as farmers, having to contribute something to the protection of natural zones upstream (such as forest or wetland watersheds) that naturally regulate the supply of clean water.

The potential loss - and until Mr Rajoelina reveals his hand, it is just "potential" - of these schemes would not just represent a significant step backwards for conservation locally, but internationally too.

While some developing country governments recognise that exploitative "business as usual" isn't really a forward-looking option, not many of them are pursuing the kind of innovation seen in Madagascar (Costa Rica is another outstanding example) that could, if they prove successful, be instituted much more widely.

A couple of weeks ago, CI wrote to me about the establishment of the first nature reserve in Papua New Guinea, another country fabulously rich in wildlife and where many undiscovered species are presumed still to exist.

It's a development that should bring benefits to both people and wildlife. Communities will receive better access to health and education in return for managing their lands sustainably.

Papua New Guinea is at the beginning of a path on which Madgascar embarked more than a decade ago. But the current lesson of Madagascar is that all effective in-situ conservation, whether national parks or species protection or sustainable logging or whatever else it may be, depends in the end on good and stable governance.

Environmentalists will be among those casting an anxious eye towards the island state and hoping its tensions die quickly, rather than its conservation ambitions.


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