Madagascar’s genetic diversity is indicated by the fact that the 1,600 km long by 400 km wide island has 21 distinct families of flora and fauna compared with the next most diverse regions on earth, which have only seven. For example Madagascar’s rare lemurs, of which there are 60 different species, are found only on this island. The country’s ecology is its second biggest source of income after fishing, and Madagascar has a massive eco-tourism potential.

Recently the World Bank did a study as to the value of having parks versus using land in the country for alternative economic uses and found that the optimum use of land where applicable is for ecological purposes from an economic perspective, as the land is agriculturally poor.

When humans first settled on the island over 2,500 years ago, it was almost completely forested. The country also has a history of conservation measures for its forestland dating back to the beginning of the 19th century under the first ruler of the unified territory and later French colonists. However, during the 1970s the laws on conservation were relaxed and people were encouraged to move into the forests. By 1980 only some 15% of Madagascar’s land area remained as forest. World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) environmentalist Martin Nicoll who is working for the World Bank in Madagascar says that today probably 10-12% of forested land remains. He estimates that at the very most some 9 to 12 million hectares of this island’s land is salvageable.

“Since the 1970s the destruction of these forests has accelerated. Some areas, where donors and NGOs have become involved, have stabilised over the past five to six years,” he says.

Sensitive environment 1

A pair of Madagascar’s famed
ring-tail lemurs that came to watch
resource evaluation drilling at Rio Tint’s
Mandela mineral sands deposit.

The biggest problem is the slash and burn form of agriculture practised. Because of the island’s red lateritic soils and the tropical climate, natural vegetation does not re-establish itself in areas that have been cleared. “The farming methods used have often been unsustainable as these areas are not able to generate crops with the soils being exhausted, and this is followed by strong patterns of human migration,” Nicoll says.

Industrialisation in the south of the country has had an impact on the sub-arid thorn scrub, with people migrating to the southeast. Grassland has replaced the former indigenous vegetation over much of the west of the island where deciduous dry forest was found, and in the central plateau which had rainforest, marshland and wooded savannah. In the wetter, more tropical eastern part of the country there has also has been significant slash and burn activity. Even in supposedly well protected areas there has been degradation of forestland due to road trails and overzealous logging.

Overall Madagascar’s forestland in the south and west of the country has been chronically degraded and pyromania has not helped. In these dry areas the ecosystem is at its most fragile and regrowth rates are slow. In the east where forests don’t burn so easily the problem has been less severe.

Climate change has also had an impact, says Nicoll, as wetter forest areas that never could burn in the past can now be subjected to the burning of them for charcoal. The secondary effect of forest lost is the loss of animals, which have no place to migrate to. In addition sediment in rivers has begun to increase as a result of deforestation, as have flash floods, and this has sped up the cycle of erosion. In turn the deep rivers, which reach the sea, deposit this sediment laden with pollutants and this threatens the coral reefs. “Overall the situation is worsening,” Nicoll says. With the number of species in Madagascar it is estimated that for each 1 square kilometre of forestland destroyed one invertebrate species is lost, and for every 10 to 50 square kilometres lost higher order species are lost.

sensitive environment 2

View of Antananarivo, capital of a
picturesque country, but one that
has seen very little investment recently
resulting in poverty and a
commensurate threat to the
environment.

Enter into this already highly sensitive environmental scenario the mining industry, considered by the more radical environmental fringe as an unmitigated blight. It also turns out that the richest sources of mineral potential coincide quite closely with the areas of forestland. Add to this the decision by the government only in 2003, after mineral concessions had been awarded, to triple the amount of land earmarked for conservation from 1.7 million hectares to 6 million hectares. Mining companies with expenditure on projects now found themselves in areas deemed to be protected. With the environmental interests also well entrenched in Madagascar, thanks to the government having used the plight of the unique environment as a marketing tool to source funds from aid agencies, the mining sector was seemingly placed in a no win situation.

However, Nicoll says a lot of the new land allocated for protection was earmarked on the basis of maps and some areas shown as environmentally sensitive forestland turn out not even to be forestland at all. The WWF was brought in to determine which areas really are sensitive and which are not, and it found it did not always agree with the maps as to the environmental value of some areas.

Another problem that occurred was that some environmental groups wanted the disputed land to be closed for five years so this could be investigated. However, the government agreed only to legislate the suspension of activities for two years at a time. This forced the environmentalists to put their money where their mouths were and commit to action in terms of assessing the areas concerned.

Nicoll says that in comparison with the real problem of increased population pressure and the practise of slash and burn agriculture and the burning of forests for charcoal, mining is not the real problem. “In fact the mining industry can be beneficial to the environmental cause. In order to ensure they retain their claims, mining groups are often willing to contribute to environmental preservation and manage the land which they control using environmentally sound policies. Were they not there no one would manage that land. The environmental NGOs cannot cover all the ground.”

In areas where there has been potential contention environmentalists have found many of the mining groups amenable to discussions and the mining companies have welcomed a reasonable approach and clarity on what areas they can use and which they cannot. An example of this approach in Madagascar is Dynatec’s relationship with the environmentalists. Dynatec has its minerals property at the edge of a proposed conservation area, and agreement was reached that if safeguards are built in, the mining could coincide with certain of these areas. Mining company, QMM, which is working towards a mineral sands project in areas close to sensitive environmental land, has agreed to set up three conservation areas. So while it will take some forest areas for mining, in return it will contribute to conservation initiatives for the remaining areas. Another group, Ticor/Kumba has kept environmental groups informed of its activities and was open to discussions, and what is generally seen as a commitment to environmental issues has created goodwill towards it.

In addition, the central government in Madagascar has a good understanding of the need to balance development and environmental conservation, though Nicoll says regional level government is more focused on economic immediacies and does not always take the best long term decisions.

“There are trade-offs,” Nicoll says. “But overall the mining companies are seen as being able to provide solutions through the development opportunities they present and a means of drawing people away from destructive use of the land.

“However, while there is horse trading, there are clearly some areas where the environmental constraints are non-negotiable,” Nicoll says. “And we will take a stand where we have to.”

Overall the initiatives show that reasonable environmental people and reasonable mining people can prove that even in an extremely sensitive environment such as is clearly the case with Madagascar’s forestlands, the two can work together without either having to make untenable compromises. And if that is the case in Madagascar then there is no reason this model cannot become the standard practise everywhere else on Earth.MRA