The huge Indian Ocean island is home to some 200,000 plant and animal species – three-quarters of which are found nowhere else and are the product of millions of years of separate evolution since it broke away from Africa when the continents first formed.
Rolling hills cushioned with thick green forest stretch for miles in every direction. Coniferous trees rub branches with weird, spidery plants. The sky is awash with multi-coloured tropical birds. The trees echo with the high pitched squeal of the indri lemur.
But it is not long before the scene gives way to barren, eroded grassland. In places, the soil erosion is so bad as to leave deep earth-red gashes on the hillsides.
‘This has to stop’
Environmentalists say traditional “slash-and-burn” farming – where forests are cut down and set ablaze to clear land for planting subsistence crops – is destroying its unique rainforest cover and threatens to kill off its endangered wildlife altogether.
“This is our way of life. If we can’t cut the forests, we can’t feed ourselves” – Dimanche Dimasy, Mahatsara chief elder
The island’s treasures include dozens of species of lemurs – a family of primates older than the monkey and a distant relative of humans – as well as several endemic birds and a colourful cast of chameleons.
At the World Parks Congress in South Africa in 2003, President Marc Ravalomanana delighted conservationists when he pledged to more than triple the size of Madagascar’s nature reserves from 1.7m hectares to 6m hectares by the end of 2008.
“[There is] a very strong mandate from the government and from the president himself who is following this through and is setting milestones, ” says Helen Crowley, country director of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
“He’s been likened to [former U.S. President] Teddy Roosevelt at the start of the last century, who saw his country’s wilderness getting decimated and said: ‘This has to stop’.”
But aid workers say putting the plan into action on an island in which three-quarters of people live in abject poverty will be tough.
The government has drawn up a map of the areas it wants to target and has started negotiating with local communities before enforcing any bans on chopping trees.
Protecting the land of lemurs
A number of steps have been taken to sensitise rural communities about the need to preserve the forests, it says.
But when I went to visit a recently-created forest reserve, in which slash-and-burn farming has been strictly banned, I didn’t see too much evidence of locals being consulted.
“Our village has been burning forests to plant rice here for generations. Then suddenly they come and tell us we no longer have the right to do this,” said Dimanche Dimasy, chief elder of Mahatsara village, which lies deep inside the eastern Mantadia forest reserve.
“This is our way of life. If we can’t cut the forests, we can’t feed ourselves.
“The government want to protect the forests but nobody cares about protecting the peasants who live here.”
Conservationists say there are long-term benefits to the poor if they conserve the forests, as the land retains water and nutrients.
Soil on land where trees have been cut down quickly erodes away, rendering it useless, so more land soon has to be cleared.
But government officials say persuading poor farming communities of the value of preserving Madagascar’s wild forest needs a fundamental shift in ways of thinking.
“It isn’t easy to change how people think in the countryside.” Sylvain Rabotoarison, Environment minister
“When people are poor they are only thinking of their immediate day-to-day needs,” says Environment Minister Sylvain Rabotoarison.
“We need to educate people on why it is important to preserve the environment. But it isn’t easy to change how people think in the countryside – it means changing some very old habits.”
It might also mean finding something else for them to do.
Plans are underway to teach better rice growing techniques that increase yields using less land and conservation groups are handing out energy efficient stoves to reduce the need for chopping trees for firewood.
But much hangs on whether tangible short-term benefits can be brought to Madagascar’s rural poor.
Without their cooperation, President Ravalomanana’s pledge looks unlikely to succeed. Tim Cocks, BBC