In Madagascar woodworking Zafimaniry remember lost forests
A wood-carving community copes with forest loss
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
May 12, 2005
However, these are not good times for many Zafimaniry. Severe deforestation for slash-and-burn cultivation ("tavy") has left their surroundings nearly completely devoid of trees. Once encircled by vigorous forests, some Zafimaniry villages are more than a day's trek from the nearest natural wood source.
For these reasons, visiting a Zafimaniry village today can be an uncomfortable experience. Typically you reach outer villages with the help of a local guide who can be hired from the town of Ambositra which lies along the national road (RN7) from the capital city of Antananarivo (better known as "Tana"). Ambositra is the destination for many of the wood carvings so carefully crafted by woodworking experts in the outlying communities.
The main Zafimaniry village is Antoetra, which probably has around 1000 inhabitats. Here the impact of uncontrolled tourism is evident by the swarms of children who attempt to sell tourists various carved objects. They aggressively underbid eachother in an efforts to sell whatever they can to visiting "vazaha," as white foreigners are called. Visitors are expected to make a 2000 Ariary payment (around $1) to the town before heading out to the smaller communties.
As we hike through the grassy savanna we pass a number of Zafimaniry women awkwardly balancing giant wood planks on their heads. We see groups of men carrying heavily worn shovels to work in the fields. Unlike in most of Madagascar, maize and beans are grown in this area. Due to the soil composition, effective rice cultivation -- rice is the staple food of Madagascar -- is a relatively new development here. With the help of some agronomists, the productivity of rice cultivation in the immediate area has increased significantly. However, it is a little too late for increased crop productivity to save the region's forests. The Zafimaniry's traditional reliance on tavy has left them in a denuded landscape with scattered patches of eucalyptus groves and fern cover. The forests that once afforded them with hardwoods for their carvings are now but a memory.
George, a village elder, invites us into his house. As a number of kids join us we talk about the village and how times have changed since he was young. He remembers a time before the forests disappeared over the ridgeline when the village was a happier and healthier place. Digging through a wooden box he pulls out a black and white photograph that shows a line of robust Malagasy standing in front a formidable forest and laments, "In the old days, when there was forest, the men were strong. Now the forest is gone and the men are weak" (Note: this is a loose translation from Malagasy; George does not speak a word of English).
While Madagascar's environmental degradation has left it a poorer place, today there is a great deal of hope for the country and its people. The country now has a relatively stable and progressive government, one that has recently signed an aid package that will enable poor farmers to get small loans to help them gain title to land. Gaining land title will give rural Malagasy a larger stake in their agricultural practices and a greater interest in maintaing soil productivity. The government has also clamped down on deforestation by restricting slash-and-burn agriculture in pristine forests while setting aside large areas for permanent preservation. The government expects these protected areas to play an important role not only in ensuring critical ecological services like watershed protection and erosion prevention but also as the basis for a budding ecotourism industry which stands to benefit from the launch of a new blockbuster movie in May 2005. The film, entitled Madagascar, is expected to signifcantly increase the number of Western visitors to the island, particuarly those interested in its unparalleled wildlife. It is just these visitors who hold the key to Madagascar's economic future. This time around, lessons have been learned and every effort will be made to minimize the negative impact and maximize the benefits of a new generation of visitors who will come to see Madagascar for its astonishing uniqueness and not merely as a place for a cheap holiday.
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