Legend has it that the king of one of the warring Betsimsaraka clans climbed a mountain peak in what is now southern Madagascar and spoke with the gods, who ordered him to sacrifice a son. The boy's blood flowed, and then came the eternal rains, which fed six rivers, each bearing the son's name, Mana. The water sustained a thick growth of forest and a thriving people.
These sacred mountains, part of Andohahela National Park, are the scene of a pitched battle to save Madagascar's rain forests. Years of population growth and rice cultivation have destroyed 87 percent of the rain forests on this island, the world's fourth largest, off the southeast coast of Africa. Environmentalists stepped in 40 years ago and made Madagascar a cause celebre, but 150,000 hectares of forest are still disappearing each year. At this rate, in 30 years the forest will be gone and the island will be unfit for agriculture. "Madagascar could very easily become the next Haiti," says Mark Finn, a forester withthe Worldwide Fund for Nature. When this happens--and it seems inevitable--the world will have lost a treasure of biodiversity.
This downward slide started 2,000 years ago when immigrants from what is now Indonesia wiped out species of pygmy hippos and large, ostrichlike birds. More than a century ago the island's rulers realized that the traditional practice of slash-and-burn rice cultivation, known as tavy, was steadily diminishing the forests that act as nature's sponge, regulating the flow of rivers and streams. In 1881 a royal decree forbade the prac-tice, but it continued. Three years ago international experts, tapping foreign donations, dedicated Andohahela National Park. Laws forbidding farming in the park have gone ignored. Last spring peasants hiked from the remote village of Baketra by the Manapanihy River up into the hills to cut and burn patches of rain forest to plant rice and cassava. In a rare act of enforcement, authorities raided the village and made arrests, but most suspects were quickly released.
Losing Madagascar's rain forests would be a big blow to the environmental movement. "Madagascar has the highest profile in the world as a biodiversity hot spot," says Finn. "But how long can we keep the donors interested?" The obstacles have proved formidable. Slash-and-burn agriculture is more than just an easy way to plant crops; many peasants see it as a God-given right. Many of them have no other way to eat. And the government has failed to create incentives for ordinary people to protect the land. The state owns most of the forests.
Perhaps the biggest culprit is that modern African scourge: corruption. Consider what happened during the crackdown in Baketra last February. Public officials, having repeatedly warned the villagers not to practice tavy in the park, thought they had an airtight case. Authorities managed to round up 71 people, but most of them never made it to the nearby provincial capital, Taolanaro. Villagers say 48 suspects were released after each paid a 100,000-Malagasy-franc bribe to Pascal Emmanuel, the mayor. They also charged that Emmanuel himself was responsible for most of the cutting in the park and that he had paid others to clear fields for him. The mayor and a local forestry official denied both charges.
Even for those who couldn't escape arrest, it's unlikely the fines they've had to pay will serve as much of a deterrent. It costs 1.5 million francs--about $250--to buy each prisoner's freedom. To raise the money, some villagers in Baketra went off to dig illegally for rubies and sapphires on the country's southwest coast, while others were saving their rice crop to sell to itinerant porters. The fines gain prisoners a form of provisional release--for example, to work as gardeners for public officials. "We cut, we planted, we've been punished, we paid money, so we won't leave," said Jules Deho, 42, fresh from a three-month prison stay.
In light of these systemic problems, efforts to retrain peasants seem paltry. A demonstration farm east of the capital, one of several in the country, teaches intensive-agriculture techniques that should allow people to live on small plots of land without resorting to tavy. In two years the center has instructed only 800 peasants. The only hope, and it is a slim one, may be in fostering investment in textile and other industries that give locals another way to make a living. But this solution is likely to take decades, and the forests don't have that kind of time.