Rowan Moore Gerety on 13 July 2018
- Large swaths of forest inside northwestern Madagascar’s Bongolava Forest Corridor, a protected area, have been burned to make way for commercial corn farming, raising the fortunes of many residents accustomed to living on the edge of subsistence.
- Last month, angry farmers armed with sticks and machetes stormed into the northwestern city of Boriziny, also known as Port–Bergé, to demand the release of people arrested for illegally clearing farmland inside the protected area.
- The group destroyed the offices of the local nonprofit that manages the protected area and set fire to the building it shares with an outpost of the environment ministry, as well as to the homes of the group’s coordinator and the government administrator for the area.
- The episode highlights the difficulty of achieving meaningful conservation in an area where the populace largely views ecological goals as conflicting with an important source of income.
What began with a rare instance of aggressive enforcement of Madagascar’s environmental laws last month culminated in violent destruction. Angry farmers armed with sticks and machetes stormed into the northwestern city of Boriziny, also known as Port–Bergé, to demand the release of people arrested for illegally clearing farmland inside a protected area.
On June 22, hundreds of barefoot men from Tsiningia, a municipality on the fringe of the Bongolava Forest Corridor, ransacked the Boriziny offices of the local nonprofit that manages the protected area. They smashed the group’s motorcycles, computers and other equipment, and set fire to the building the group shares with an outpost of the Ministry of the Environment, Ecology and Forests, along with a stockpile of seized precious timber. Over the course of the day, the crowd also attempted to break into the police barracks and set fire to the home of the nonprofit’s coordinator and that of the chef de district, the government administrator for the area, rendering it “entirely reduced to ashes,” according to a local news report.
The attack came as tensions mounted over attempts by the nonprofit, called Fikambanana Bongolava Maitso (FBM), which means Association for a Green Bongolava in Malagasy, to crack down on illegal planting in the protected area. As Mongabay reported in detail last year, large swaths of forest there have been cleared to make way for commercial corn farming, bringing a wave of prosperity to many farmers accustomed to living on the edge of subsistence.
“In a word, we have nothing left in our office,” FBM coordinator Cyprien Miandrimanana wrote in a note to colleagues, who posted his account on Facebook. Miandrimanana and his staff have scattered and taken refuge outside the area.
“Unfortunately, all our local staff and collaborators received direct threats,” he told Mongabay by email. “I’ve lost everything I had in my house without exception, even the mango trees and the garden in the yard.”
A tenuous protected area
Bongolava was created in 2006 as one of dozens of new protected areas instituted throughout Madagascar following a 2003 government pledge, known as the Durban Vision, to triple the extent of protected areas on the island within five years. Bongolava, which abuts Ankarafantsika National Park to the south, is a 606-square-kilometer (234-square-mile) mosaic of grassy savannahs, shallow lakes, and remnants of dry decidious forest that are considered one of the most endangered ecosystems in Madagascar. The area is home to a host of endemic plants and to Microcebus bongolavensis, a nocturnal mouse lemur found nowhere else.
The U.S.-based NGO Conservation International (CI) spearheaded the creation of Bongolava, obtaining temporary protected status for the area and drawing up maps and management plans. But CI lost important funding in the fallout from Madagascar’s 2009 coup d’état and dramatically reduced its footprint in the country.
Bongolava was left without active management for a period of about five years, one of a dozen so-called orphan protected areas abandoned by their largely foreign sponsors after the coup. During that time, there was effectively no enforcement or community outreach within the protected area.
What followed was a land rush within Bongolava. In 2012, high corn prices spurred buyers in the area to seek new growers. The influx into the protected area began with young men from a community whose rice paddies had been destroyed in a recent cyclone, and gradually expanded as local farmers saw the prospect of a quick profit from burning forest to plant corn on virgin soil. In many cases, the destruction was accelerated by elites from nearby Boriziny, as shopkeepers, public servants and major landholders took advantage of the lack of enforcement and hired migrant day laborers to clear large tracts of woodland.
Thousands of hectares of forest were cleared for corn, including one of the largest remaining blocks in Bongolava’s ecologically valuable “core” and many smaller forest fragments throughout the protected area’s northern half.
About two years ago, FBM, with new staff led by Miandrimanana, stepped in to manage Bongolava. In 2017, the group received its first major funding, a three-year grant totaling $185,000 from the U.S.-based Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF).
Conservation vs. income
The attacks in June followed a joint outing on June 18 by officers from the Ministry of the Environment, Ecology and Forests (MEEF) and the national police, guided by information from FBM. The day after the outing, MEEF officers arrested seven people believed to be involved in clearing forest inside the protected area’s core. Two were released on bail and two were ordered detained at a later date, while three remained in police custody.
Before hearings for the remaining three could take place, the crowd from Tsiningia marched on the city demanding their release. By the afternoon of June 22, the destruction had reached the gates of the local police barracks and the small prison inside, prompting the prosecutor to set the suspects free.
As they returned to Tsiningia, Miandrimanana reported, “They set fires everywhere in the protected area.”
The episode highlights the difficulty of achieving meaningful conservation in an area where the populace largely views ecological goals as being in direct conflict with an important source of income. When Mongabay visited villages in Tsiningia in July 2017, farmers were eager to show off their harvest from fields inside the protected area, ecstatic about the prospects for continued cultivation there. Local agriculture officials and even commercial corn buyers cautioned that yields were bound to fall as topsoil washed away with each year of fires, but many people had already seen their neighbors put up handsome brick homes with metal roofs in villages that were otherwise covered in thatch. To a person, they were unerringly optimistic.
“The destruction of the forest is bad, but there are no other lands to live off of,” Tsiningia’s mayor, Soamanesy, who goes by a single name, told Mongabay at the time. “There’s too much population growth.”
Soamanesy was reluctant to try and convince his constituents not to plant within the protected area, and, it seemed, skeptical of the FBM’s arguments that conserving forests would protect the region’s watershed against drought. “When FBM came, they told people about [forests providing water] but now, people have seen the contrary is true,” he said, pointing to a creek in the nearby village of Andranomena. “Once we cut down the trees, there was more water flowing, so you can tell that big trees consume the water,” he said.
FBM, meanwhile, has faced a challenge on three fronts: not simply changing attitudes about conservation among the rural poor, but negotiating rigorous enforcement of environmental laws that are openly flouted by powerful local interests, and doing it all on a shoestring. FBM has an annual operating budget of roughly $60,000 to patrol and manage a wilderness that sprawls across an area 10 times the size of Manhattan — with no good roads.
In a statement to Mongabay, CEPF executive director Olivier Langrand said the organization, which provides the lion’s share of FBM’s funding, had no plans to withdraw support. “We are grateful that no one was injured, and CEPF is committed to assisting the grantee Fikambanana Bongolava Maitso (FBM) at this difficult time,” Langrand said. “The long-term survival of the people and nature of this region is at stake.”
Miandrimanana has been meeting with government officials in Antananarivo, the capital, pressing his case for a full-throated response. “If the state is able, on the one hand, to protect our staff and the protected area, and punish the perpetrators on the other, we hope that FBM will be able to prevent further damage and continue to conserve the Bongolava corridor,” he wrote in an email.
That’s a big if. Last week, 32 of those accused of taking part in the destruction in Boriziny were arrested and transferred, under heavy guard, to a prison in the provincial capital of Mahajanga. Holding the prisoners far from home may lessen the chances of a crowd rising up to push for their release, but the real challenge is local and long-term: there’s no moving Bongolava.
Rowan Moore Gerety is a reporter and radio producer based in New York City. Read more of his work at http://www.rowanmg.com.