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Madagascar Coup Threatens Bio-diversity “Hot Spot”

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Isalo National Park, Madagascar (photo: Bernard Gagnon)

160 million years ago, what is now called Madagascar–the world’s fourth largest island–broke free from its parent continent (Africa), allowing evolution to do some of its most creative work.

The Island, located just off the Southeast coast of Africa and roughly the size of California, is home to an amazing array of life-forms found no where else: bats (with suction cup “elbows”), the Silky Sifaka lemur (an ancient line of primate relatives), dozens of “new” species of scorpions and spiders, and an estimated 200 – 400 new species of frog (most of which have yet to be named). There are also numerous, unique species of plants. An estimated 80% of these new species (especially the frogs) exist only in protected areas of Madagascar’s remaining rain forests.

Nearly four fifths of the island’s rain forest have been cut down for farming, plantations, and other development purposes. But in the last decade, a favorable political climate (for science and scientists), aided by eco-tourism dollars, has opened up Madagascar’s biodiversity to the world and offered scientists unprecedented opportunities for new discoveries, research, and conservation of its unique flora and fauna. Madagascar, despite its accelerated loss of habitat over the past several decades, has been recognized as one of our Planet’s richest biodiversity “hot spots”.

But in March of this year, a political coup–following a bloody police crackdown by the ruling government– ousted the former president (a Mr. Ravalomanana) and installed a much younger leader (former DJ named Rajoelina). While arguably less corrupt and less deaf to the peoples’ complaints, the new leadership is struggling to contain the instability, shore up the drain of commerce dollars (much of which has come from tourism), and deal with rising inflation and unemployment. It is perhaps less shrewd about maintaining the island’s natural and scientific value–although it has recently shut down the Marojejy National Park due to rampant looting (of animals, trees, etc) and destruction. Most of the island nation’s foreign scientists have fled, some narrowly escaping injury or death.

Sadly, this is a common pattern throughout the world where either political instability and/or lax enforcement has led to massive poaching and/or black market trading of exotic species. In some cases, its a matter of food. The crisis in Madagascar was precipitated by a government deal that awarded one half of the island’s arable land to a Korean company for corn and palm oil production. This follows a world-wide  pattern of foreign nations seeking resource exploitation of less wealthy, smaller nations. The threat or damage to resources is often over-looked in the interest  of much needed money infusions to the economy. Currently, large-scale mining projects on the island are posing an additional threat to resource preservation efforts.

The international community has condemned the coup (but not the dubious economic deals that preceded it) and frozen most of its non-humanitarian aid. For now, the violence has ended. * However, economic uncertainty–ever-worsening since the financial crisis that began last year–is growing. Under such conditions, governments are often forced to sacrifice natural resources for economic gain, however short term.

Biological and ecological scientists around the world–many of which worked on the island for years–are waiting for stability to return to Madagascar and are using what political muscle they have to convince the new government to restore stability, and to resume and  expand its eco-tourism trade. The survival of one of the world’s last, great, biodiversity hot spots depends on it.

* This statement was made based upon a news report in Science Magazine (March 27, 2009). Given the fact that I am writing about this 3rd/4th hand, and given the comments posted to this article (but which I note come from people who are also not currently in the country), it is reasonable to assume that reports of subsiding violence are unreliable, at best. I also note that the article recognizes on-going “instability” in the island nation, and this always brings the potential for violence. Such is the nature of modern science, sometimes–one steps into a political conflict when all one wishes is to conduct (or report on) science.

– M. R.

photo credit:
Bernard Gagnon on wikipedia.org

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