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A fire and a firing: Double whammy for Madagascar environmental regulator

  • Madagascar’s top environmental regulator has been hit by a one-two punch of its headquarters going up in flames and its director-general being fired, all within the space of just two days this past week.
  • An inquiry has been ordered into the cause of the fire on July 15 at the National Office for the Environment (ONE), which houses important documentation relating to environmental permits and impact assessments
  • ONE also hosts an environmental information system on its office server, which environment ministry officials say escaped the flames; its website remained inaccessible as of July 17.
  • Complicating efforts to deal with the fallout of the fire, and fanning speculation on social media, is the firing of the ONE director-general on July 16, which an environment ministry official said was unrelated to the fire.

A fire tore through the office of Madagascar’s top environmental agency on the night of July 15, eviscerating documents that lie at the heart of its work as a regulator.

Much of the damage was concentrated on the second floor of the building, where documents relating to financing and administrative matters were stored. The office also holds valuable paperwork going back thirty years related to environmental permit applications and impact assessments. No casualties were reported.

The roof of the ONE building, one of the oldest in Antananarivo with great historical and architectural value, collapsed from the fire damage. Onlookers who thronged the scene — despite the city being under curfew to contain surging COVID-19 infections — told local media that firefighters were not adequately equipped to contain the blaze, prolonging the destruction. Gusty winds appeared to have been a factor.

ONE also hosts an environmental information system on its computer server, used to ensure that large-scale and potentially controversial investments like mining operations and dams abide by national environmental regulations. The environment minister, Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina, to whom ONE reports, said the server had escaped damage from the flames. However, the ONE website remained inaccessible as of the afternoon of July 17.

An inquiry has been ordered into the cause of the fire.

ONE was created in 1990 to implement Madagascar’s National Environmental Action Plan and is a vital arm of the ministry of environment. It issues environmental permits and monitors compliance with environmental standards, with the power to penalize those flouting the norms.

ONE described the damage as “unparalleled” in a statement. The agency’s governing committee plans to hold a virtual “Friends of ONE” conference to discuss ways to rebuild the agency. But complicating efforts to deal with the fallout from the blaze is the firing of the ONE director-general, Laurent Ampilahy, on July 16, the day after the fire. The proposal to dismiss him was put forth by the ministry of environment at a cabinet meeting. A new director-general is yet to be appointed.

An environment ministry official, who was not authorized to speak to the media, told Mongabay that the dismissal was not linked to the fire but to complaints about Ampilahy’s work and possible corruption. A letter shared by the environment minister on Facebook from July 8 requesting his removal from office appeared to back this claim.

“I am a designated official and the state has the right to remove me whenever the authorities want,” Ampilahy said separately. “Only the government knows the real reason why they axed me.” He denied any allegations of corruption.

The unexpected development further fanned speculation about the fire on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Social media was already abuzz with suggestions of foul play behind the fire. But without an official confirmation about the cause, environmentalists have been careful not to read too much into the incident.

“I don’t really know the real cause. But I doubt that the object of the fire is the total destruction of the dubious large files on the environmental impact studies. Maybe the destruction of rosewood files,” said Armand Marozafy, an activist working to combat illegal trafficking of precious timber, especially rosewood from Madagascar.

Others expressed hope that the damage would not cripple the organization’s work. “Fortunately, the first floor where the technical documents were stored was not burnt. They also have cloud backup,” said Ndranto Razakamanarina, president of Alliance Voahary Gasy (AVG), a Malagasy environmental group. “But the administrative and financial documents on the second and third floors were all burnt.”

Fires burning in the Kirindy forest in western Madagascar. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Some were quick to comment on the optics of the incidence in a country where environmental destruction is taking a heavy toll. Not only is the environment on fire, but also the ONE office, Rainer Dolch, a Madagascar-based German conservationist, posted on Facebook in French.

Dolch said in an email to Mongabay that his post was a reference to Madagascar’s fire season that eats away at the country’s precious forests every year. “Fire is one of the biggest problems for Madagascar’s unique habitats, and fire-caused deforestation has been rampant for years,” he said. “This is exacerbated by Madagascar’s appalling poverty, poverty-driven internal migrations, and people desperate to make a living, burning forests and other vegetation to make way for crops and pasture and transforming wood into charcoal.”

Rivonala Razafison contributed reporting from Antananarivo, Madagascar.

Banner Image: A photograph of the ONE office on fire on Wednesday night shared on the Facebook page of Madagascar’s ministry of environment and sustainable development

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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