A Botanist's Delight

In the old days, and I mean really old days, 150 million years ago, India was attached to Africa. It split off and moved east to where it is today and on its way it left Madagascar all by itself in the Indian Ocean. The island is not that well known but if you are into botany you know it - it is an absolute gem. Madagascar is the world’s oldest island and home to 200,000 species of flora and fauna. It is designated a global ‘Hot Spot’.  Because of its isolated location, many plants and animals (60% of the country’s total) exist nowhere else in the world.

One reason for the diversity is climate. The trade winds cross the Indian Ocean and create tropical rainforests on parts of the island, a dry desert on other parts and highlands and mountains in the middle. Species have adapted remarkably well to all this. Lemurs are the crown jewels of Madagascar’s biodiversity and are found nowhere else in the world. They come in over 100 varieties. Some thrive in the rainforests and others in the bone dry desert. Visiting Madagascar you marvel at how nature has evolved over millions of years.

But evolution is a threat as well as an opportunity, and right now the threat to Madagascar’s biodiversity is pretty apparent: it is us – human beings. Madagascar’s economy is a mess. Look at the chart on the following page and the country’s rank in terms of population growth, percentage of the population under 14 and GDP per capita. When you put an economic mess next to National parks trying to preserve rare species, the economic mess almost always wins. Economically, Madagascar makes even Haiti and Myanmar (Burma) look like development successes. 

Over 90% of the population of Madagascar live on less than $2 a day. The main driver of the economy is agriculture. Rice used to be a major export but the crop has dwindled and now the country has to import rice to meet demand. Vanilla is still a famous export as is sugarcane and many fruits too, including lychees. The economy has made very little progress since independence in 1960. A series of elected but bad governments have not helped. The situation is so bad that compulsory education was eliminated in 2009 due to lack of government funding. It is estimated that only 20% of children are in school today.

Bribes are a lifeblood for many in Madagascar. Slash and burn agriculture is illegal but grease the right hands and, no problem. The hillsides are burned to get the fuel for charcoal. The burning not only depletes the soil and causes erosion but also produces smoke and a brown haze which eventually reduces rainfall. The Economist in a recent issue on climate (November 28, 2015) noted that one of the worst forms of pollution is “black carbon” which comes from burning charcoal and from diesel engine exhaust. You won’t find a single long haul truck in Madagascar that is not belching smoke. 

So what can be done in Madagascar? The economy needs to improve for the National parks to survive. People earning less than $2 a day are not likely to preserve the lemurs, tortoises and chameleons that make the island so unique.

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