Prospects For The Future

In the crisis year of 2002, Madagascar gained a new President, Marc Ravelomanana. As of this writing, the President is in charge of a business-friendly regime which welcomes foreigners and which is fixed on economic growth. It may be that rising oil prices and the structural weaknesses and poverty of Madagascar frustrate these goals, but for the present this is the country's trajectory.

In 2003 President Ravelomanana stunned the International Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, by announcing that Madagascar plans to triple the amount of protected area from the present 2 million hectares of forest to a future 5 million hectares plus another million of marine reserves. It will take time for the "Durban Vision" to materialize on the ground. It envisages a whole new regime for forest management. The central government's rights over forests were promulgated in 1881 by the Merina Kingdom and have continued by every régime since then. The Durban Vision now plans to gradually transfer management of the new protected areas to local control, but with checks against felling and rewards for preservation. This would be a radical departure in policy. It is also a radical philosophical change, from Perrier de la Bathie's view of peasants as the executioners of the forest to seeing them as the only credible saviors of forest.

Ecological studies have for the most part focused on the remaining richest areas: indeed, within the great reserves first set aside in 1927 for their scientific treasures. The few surveys of forest fragments and degraded forests predictably find a much decreased species richness of lemurs. However, there will be great returns to ecologists who work on village-managed areas, and on forest corridors between the integral reserves. They will discover how many species can survive, in how much land—even, indeed gain insight into the future possibility for continued speciation in Madagascar.

A second new development is the involvement of big business, especially mining, in aiding conservation. This seems paradoxical, since mining in the past has been responsible for so much environmental degradation. It would be naive to expect a profit-making company to voluntarily diminish its own profits. However, a company that is vulnerable to public opinion worldwide, and which wishes to operate in a favorable environment in the local region, can see the profitability of environmental improvement. A case in point is the Rio Tinto subsidiary Quebec Madagascar Minerals. QMM has announced its investment decision in 2005 to open a titanium mine amid ancient littoral forests near Taolagnaro, in the far south. The actions of the company over the 20-year run-up to the decision have been a net gain for the biodiversity of the Anosy region as well as funding a great deal of fundamental research. It remains to be seen whether QMM fulfills the promises and hopes it has raised for the future, or in the end, simply destroys the mine site forests.

One very important difference from either government or external aid is the time horizon. A mine's lifetime and returns are calculated over 40-60 years. This is longer than the perspective of any democratically elected politician, and far longer than a 5-year aid program. As Jörg Ganzhorn points out, from the point of view of research scientists this opens the possibility of environmental protocols maintained over decades. Madagascar is now in the course of negotiations with other multinationals which may also prove to be long-sighted and lemur-friendly— or, of course, the opposite.

The final major prospect is global warming. Climate changes created the richness of Madagascar's biodiversity. Climate change will certainly impact the distribution of the remaining forests. Madagascar's abruptly adjacent climatic zones, like the "rainfall faultline" near Fort Dauphin or the mosaic of wet and dry forests around the Montagne d'Ambre, mean that a small global temperature change may drastically shift lemur habitats. The predicted increase in frequency and severity of tropical storms and El Niño droughts will test lemurs' physical adaptations to catastrophe—perhaps to the limit. For a pure scientist, what opportunities for research! But as global warming also tests the enduring resilience of Malagasy people, there will be ever less excuse for picturing lemur ecology only as a science of primeval creatures in ancient biological communities.

As Richard Jolly said long ago, "Tell the whole story: ecology with people, not just your lemurs."

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