Lessons from the crisis in Madagascar, an interview with Erik Patel
August 11, 2009
The unrest and confusion that usually accompanies such a coup brought disaster on many of Madagascar's biological treasures. Within days of Ravalomanana's resignation, armed gangs, allegedly funded by Chinese traders, entered two of Madagascar’s world-renowned national parks, Marojejy and Masoala parks, and began to log rosewood, ebonies, and other valuable hardwoods.
The situation began to calm down over the summer. One sign of this is a recent action by authorities in Madagascar to block a shipment of illegally harvested wood until a fine is paid to the government.
However, now that the crisis has abated—at least for the time being—it’s time to take stock. In order to do so, Mongabay spoke to Erik Patel, an expert on the Critically Endangered Silky Sifaka and frequent visitor to Madagascar, to find out what the damage looks like firsthand and to see what lessons might be learned.
Mongabay.com: You were just in Madagascar—what did you see? How bad is the damage?
Erik Patel: It was relieving to see that Marojejy N.P., arguably Madagascar’s most biologically diverse protected area, had finally reopened after being closed (due to the lawlessness associated with massive illegal logging) for the first time in its history. When I was there in late May, relative calm had returned to the tourist zone which was now guarded by half a dozen police from Sambava, a nearby coastal city. Tomorrow I am entering the park to begin a new 6 month silky sifaka study. I believe that our presence there will deter logging in the small region we will be occupying.
Mongabay.com: Is there any progress on the ground?
Erik Patel: Although the small tourist zone is calm now there are still reports of rosewood logging happening in the far north of the park where there is direct road access to Sambava. Even more distressing is the fact that these selfish criminals are about to receive a huge payday: 35 million dollars of rosewood is at the port of Vohemar right now in over 170 huge containers.
Mongabay.com: Why do you refer to the logging in Marojejy National Park as a 'tragedy with villains'?
Precious wood logging has angered local communities by trampling on the beliefs and taboos of local people. In traditional Sakalava culture, ebony is a sacred wood only cut by priests who conduct traditional ceremonies with ebony staffs.
The chief of Ankalontany, a Sakalava Malagasy village in the northeast, explains that in 2005 "some strangers from outside our village came here. They started cutting ebony and they clearly had no right. We asked for their authorization but they said they didn’t have to show us papers. They said they had police clearance and we can’t stop them."
The value of such stockpiles are staggering. In Vohemar and Antalaha, high quality rosewood is purchased by the Chinese exporters for $5 to 6$ USD per kilogram, but in some cases $10 to $11 USD per kilogram. By comparison, local people are only paid between 3000AR to 5000AR per day for finding, cutting, and dragging the enormous tree pieces. A two meter piece or "bola bola" weighing about 150kg is worth about $300 USD (See Figure 4) which is more than the average annual per capita income in Madagascar which averages $255 USD (US AID, 2005). A single 25m meter tall mature rosewood tree may be 400 or 500 years old with a retail value of approximately $3750 USD.
Mongabay.com: How might the logging be affecting the silky sifaka?
Erik Patel: In general, the negative ecological impacts of selective rosewood logging include violating local taboos as well as ecological consequences such as increased likelihood of fire, invasive species, impaired habitat, and loss in genetic diversity.
Mongabay.com: Many of the tree species that are being logged are considered threatened (i.e. Vulnerable or Endangered by the IUCN)—what protection do these species have in Madagascar?
Erik Patel: It is shocking and intolerable that none of Madagascar's rapidly dwindling precious hardwoods, such as rosewood and ebony, receive any protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Brazilian rosewood Dalbergia nigra, listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, is the only type of rosewood in the world that is protected under CITES. Although Dalbergia louveli, found in Marojejy National Park, is even more endangered, it has not yet been included in the CITES Appendices.
Mongabay.com: How would you recommend tackling poverty in Madagascar, while at the same time safeguarding its ecological treasures?
Erik Patel: Rosewood logging is less tied to local poverty than other forms of habitat disturbance because local residents receive little money from the rosewood barons in Antalaha.
Increased village level efforts to assist in family planning, such as birth control, are needed in the Marojejy/Andapa region which has one of the highest population densities in Madagascar.
Mongabay.com: What lessons would you suggest people take away from this crisis?
Erik Patel: Given the extensive corruption at all levels, it is difficult for us to do much about the 35 million dollars of illegally logged rosewood (from Marojejy and Masoala) which is right now about to be exported from Vohemar. Media is one of the few weapons we have. The extensive illegal selective logging which is occurring in Marojejy and Masoala challenges the traditional notion that large-scale commercial logging has not really yet occurred in Madagascar’s rainforests. Given that bushmeat hunting, harvesting of other forest products, new roads into the parks, and entire park closures are now known to accompany precious hardwood logging in Marojejy and Masoala, it may be worth re-evaluating whether "highly selective small scale logging of precious woods such as rosewood and ebony…may not have a serious ecological impact overall…" (IUCN, 2007, p. 6).
Documentary video on silky sifakas, featuring Erik Patel:
To learn more about the silky sifaka: http://erikpatel.com/index.html
Madagascar issues fines for timber stolen from national parks during political crisis
(08/03/2009) Authorities in Madagascar have blocked shipment of 176 containers of rosewood and other valuable timber from Vohémar port, pending payment of 72 million Malagasy ariary ($37,500) in fines reports Noro Niaina of Les Nouvelles. The wood was illegally harvested from Marojejy and Masoala National Parks during the chaos that followed a March military coup on the Indian Ocean island nation.
Conservation success in Madagascar proves illusory in crisis
(06/12/2009) Despite the popularity he enjoyed abroad, domestic support for ousted president Marc Ravalomanana eroded rather quickly last February when he went head to head with Andry Rajoelina, the rookie mayor of Madagascar's capital. Rajoelina rallied disparate opposition groups to the cause and soon toppled the incumbent to become, at his own proclamation, President of the "High Authority of Transition." For the country as a whole, the results have not been encouraging. The tourism industry has shriveled to a shadow of itself, important donors have suspended non-humanitarian aid, and a power vacuum has set in in remote regions of the island, wreaking havoc on some of its most fragile and prized ecosystems.
International community calls for action against gangs’ illegal logging in Madagascar
(06/08/2009) Six nations and three conservation organizations have issued a statement calling for action against illegal logging in Madagascar’s protected areas.
Rainforest pillage continues in Madagascar
(04/16/2009) Gangs of illegal rosewood loggers continue to pillage the wildlife-rich forests of northeastern Madagascar, reports a local source.
Hopeful conservation news emerges out of Madagascar political crisis
(03/31/2009) A bit of hopeful conservation news has finally emerged out of the political crisis in Madagascar, report local sources. Wednesday representatives from several NGOs active in conservation in Madagascar met with a minister from island nation's new government. The minister said his top priority was putting an end to illegal logging that emerged when rangers abandoned their posts and armed gangs moved into protected areas in the wake of the political crisis.
Conservation groups condemn 'open and organized plundering' of Madagascar's natural resources
(03/30/2009) Eleven conservation organizations—including WWF, CI, and WCS—have banded together to condemn logging in Madagascar's world renowned parks during a time of political crisis. Taking advantage of the turmoil after interim president Andry Rajoelina took control of the country in a bloodless coup from former president Marc Ravalomanana on March 17th, pristine forests have been plundered for valuable wood, wildlife trafficking has increased, and illegal mining operations have begun say the conservation organizations.
Scramble to log Madagascar's valuable rainforest trees in midst of crisis
(03/23/2009) Armed gangs are logging rosewood and other valuable hardwoods from Marojejy and Masoala parks in Madagascar following abandonment of posts by rangers in the midst of the island nation's political crisis, reports marojejy.com and local sources.
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