- The Vohibola forest is one of the last remaining primary forests along Madagascar’s eastern coast, supporting a large variety of endemic species found nowhere else on Earth.
- Under a renewed contract finalized this week the responsibility for its management was delegated to Razan’ny Vohibola, an association of volunteers from four surrounding villages.
- The task of protecting the forest, which is rapidly disappearing because of illegal logging, pits the local protectors against not just the timber mafia but also officials whom the villagers allege are complicit.
- Members of Razan’ny Vohibola were arrested in April on charges of aiding the illegal logging allegedly at the behest of corrupt officials, but released after the central environment ministry intervened.
Vohibola Forest is home to several species of microfauna: from tiny frogs that fit on a fingertip, to Lilliputian chameleons of all shades. It is also one of the last remaining primary forests along Madagascar’s eastern coast and it could disappear in a matter of years, conservationists fear. The forest has shrunk to less than half of its former size in 15 years. It now measures 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres), an area one-tenth the size of Disney World in Florida.
“A long time ago I went to war in Algeria, fighting to protect a country that is not mine, so how can I not protect my own country?” Joël Talata, 84, said during an interaction with Madagascar’s environment minister that was captured on video. Talata is president of Razan’ny Vohibola, a local association formed by volunteers from four villages that surround the forest and charged with safeguarding the forest. “The time that I have left, I give it to God and protecting my forest,” the octogenarian said.
This resolve will soon be put to the test. On May 9, Madagascar’s environment ministry renewed a contract with Razan’ny Vohibola for one year to assess the group’s ability to protect the forest, which is fast being depleted by illegal logging for precious wood and charcoal.
Wedged between Madagascar’s eastern coast and the Pangalanes canal, a system of inter-connected waterways along the coast, Vohibola is a littoral forest. These types of forests are found close to the coastline in shallow sandy soils, with canopy height of 6 to 20 meters (20 to 66 feet) on average.
“The littoral forests of Vohibola are amongst the last remnants of primary vegetation in some of the most disturbed and anthropogenically influenced areas of Madagascar,” said Philip-Sebastian Gehring, a herpetologist at the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany. “This forest type harbors microendemic flora and fauna, which is found nowhere else on this planet.”
In 2012, nine forested areas along Madagascar’s southern coast were identified by the U.S.-based Missouri Botanical Garden as biodiversity hotspots with high levels of endemism. Eight of these forests no longer stand today, said Alexandre Poussin, a French filmmaker and adventurer who co-founded Razan’ny Vohibola in 2016.
According to local media reports, 1.8 million trees have been chopped from Vohibola to feed the illegal trade. Recent years have brought an increase in the rate of deforestation here, Rivonala Razafison, a journalist based in the capital, Antananarivo, who has covered the area for years, told Mongabay.
Between 2003 and 2016, the protected area network in Madagascar expanded dramatically from 1.7 million hectares to 7.1 million hectares (4.2 million acres to 17.5 million acres). Despite this, since 2012 the rate of tree cover loss, an indicator of deforestation, has increased in Madagascar, peaking in 2017. In 2018, Madagascar lost the highest proportion of primary tropical forest in the world, according to data from the University of Maryland, accessed through the Global Forest Watch platform.
Forests like Vohibola are especially vulnerable because they do not enjoy the status of a protected area, which translates into a lack of resources and funding. The government retains no direct responsibility for managing the forest, having delegated that job to Razan’ny Vohibola in 2016 when Vohibola was designated a community forest to be managed by local people.
The renewed contract between the government and Razan’ny Vohibola could be the first step toward the forest gaining recognition as a protected area. Even so, whether community protection can work remains an open question. The handing over of the forest to the community hasn’t stemmed the rate of forest loss, and conservationists like Poussin fear that by the time Vohibola is declared a protected area there will be nothing left to protect.
The endemic species will be lost with the forests, Gehring said.
The recently released summary of a U.N. report on biodiversity said that about three-fourths of the terrestrial environment worldwide and a third of the marine environment have been “significantly altered by human actions.” The summary went on to highlight that ecosystems in areas managed by indigenous peoples and local communities fare much better.
However, as the history of Vohibola shows, in the absence of strong support from the government and adequate resources, communities are faced with an almost impossible task. In Madagascar, the rule of law is weak and respect for community rights is tenuous and fraught. Village associations like Razan’ny Vohibola don’t have the resources or the trained manpower to tackle the menacing timber mafia that operates here, according to Jonah Ratsimbazafy, a primatologist at the University of Antananarivo.
The journalist Razafison visited the forest in March this year along with locals from Razan’ny Vohibola and three foreign journalists. He said their party was threatened by a group of illegal loggers who were camped in the forest. “Those people are all volunteers, they are not paid. They have nothing,” Razafison said of the local forest protectors. “That was why they were not able to face the loggers who invaded the forest.”
The situation is complicated by accusations of corruption against local officials. Members of Razan’ny Vohibola say they face not just the threats from illegal loggers but also harassment from officials complicit in the illicit trade. They say this includes the mayor of the commune of Ambinaninony where Vohibola is situated, Cécilien Ranaivo.
“The mayor is part of the wood trafficking,” Poussin said, adding that Ranaivo and Christian Ratsimbazafy (no relation to the primatologist), who directs the environment ministry’s Atsinanana division, orchestrated the arrest of several members of Razan’ny Vohibola in April on charges of illegal logging. Talata was among those arrested. Timber that had been confiscated from illegal loggers was presented as proof of the members’ involvement in the trade, Poussin said.
The mayor and regional director did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for a comment. Ranaivo told AFP that accusations of local officials facilitating the illegal trade through corruption were “politically motivated.”
The villagers were released after two days in custody, after the environment ministry intervened. In a show of support, the environment minister, Alexandre Georget, visited Vohibola on April 27 and spoke to members of Razan’ny Vohibola. It was during this visit that the decision to renew the contract was first announced, and the contract was formalized this week.
“They will not be alone,” Georget said in an interview during the visit. “Our doors will always be open to them … We will also continue to support them technically so they can be more effective. Technicians and forestry agents will also assist them in their work.”
It remains to be seen if that will be enough to preserve Vohibola forest.
Banner Image: Vohibola forest in February 2019. Image Courtesy: Alexandre Poussin
Malavika Vyawahare is the Madagascar staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy
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