Our four-wheel drive slides to a halt, throwing up clouds of dust as we pile out into the rising heat of the day, Zoemana and his fellow rangers taking off at full-speed towards a column of smoke in the distance.
We scramble for our cameras and trot after them, but before we’ve managed a hundred metres, they’re back, breathless, but undaunted, plumes of ash rising at every step.
“Four men,” Zoemana spits out. “Gone.”
Secrets of the baobabs: lifeline for a forest on the edge
The noise of the cars has given us away. But while the rangers’ quarry might have escaped—at least for now—the evidence of their work is unmistakable, a vast swathe of scorched earth, punctuated only by charred stumps and smouldering logs, the shells of giant snails, baked white in the ashes, the only sign of the life this patch of forest harboured just days ago.
Just 20 kilometres north of Madagascar’s iconic Avenue des Baobabs, this is the frontline of the battle against deforestation in western Madagascar—a daily, and sometimes deadly, game of tag between Menabe’s forest rangers and the slash-and-burn cultivators who are eating away at western Madgascar’s largest remaining dry forest.
“As rangers, we sometimes feel scared of being killed,” Zoemana says. “We’re trying to protect the forest, but other people want things from the forest. We worry about our own lives because of the insecurity. It’s not easy for us to do our jobs.”
The secret of the baobabs
Back on the road, Steeves Buckland gazes grimly out the window as kilometre after kilometre of wasteland slips past. Here, as in much of the 210,000-hectare Menabe Antimena protected area, the baobabs are the only trees left standing, their swollen trunks and skeletal crowns in stark relief against the dry red earth and desiccated scrub.
“People see the baobabs and think it’s beautiful, but for me… I think: ‘if you could only see that it means everything around them is gone’,” he says. “This land has literally been farmed to death.”
Buckland is Head of Species Conservation and Research at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Madagascar, an organization with a 30-year history working to conserve Menabe’s endangered and endemic species, and a partner with UN Environment and the World Resources Institute on the Global Environment Facility-backed Global Forest Watch project.
But despite years of work by Durrell and their partners, time could be running out for the forests of Menabe. Buckland and his team estimate that in 2018, as much as 50 hectares of the forest is being lost to logging and slash-and-burn agriculture every day. Projections vary, but if deforestation continues to accelerate at current rates, Buckland fears the entire forest could be gone in as little as six years.
“That would be tragic,” Buckland says. “This is one of the last remnants of dry forest in the west of Madagascar. There are two Ramsar sites here, it’s home to 128 bird species, 49 reptiles, 16 amphibians, eight species of lemurs, more than 200 tree species plus three species [the Flat-tailed Tortoise, Madam Berthe’s Mouse Lemur, and the Malagasy Giant Jumping Rat] that are only present here in Menabe Antimena.”
Facing down a perfect storm
In many ways, Menabe Antimena faces a perfect storm, with poverty, migration, climate change and a fragile political situation all combining to push the forest to the edge of destruction.
Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest nations 161st on the UN Human Development Index, with over 75 per cent of its 26 million people living under the poverty line. It’s also one of the countries most at threat from climate change, ranking third on the World Bank’s list of nations most vulnerable to increased frequency and intensity of storms as a result of global warming, and with erratic precipitation and increasing periods of drought already taking a heavy toll on the more than 80 per cent of the population who directly depend on agriculture to survive.
While Menabe Antimena has been a protected area since 2007, as many as 50,000 people live in settlements surrounding the reserve a population that continues to swell as ever more migrants move north, driven by environmental degradation, drought and the risk of famine in the nation’s south.
Rice was once the staple crop in Menabe, supplemented by tubers, wild honey and other forest products, but a drying climate and degraded water sources have pushed farmers to take up alternative, dryland crops like cassava, maize and peanuts and migrants and others without land of their own too often turn to the forest to feed themselves and their families.
But even this is a short-term solution, and one with diminishing returns. Once the dry forest land is cleared, the trees felled and undergrowth burned off to create space for cultivation, maize is often planted for a year or two, followed by peanuts, as nutrients are leached and the soil quality degrades. Within as few as five years, the land has nothing else to give, farmers move on, and the cycle of destruction continues.
It’s a wicked problem, exemplifying the tensions between conservation and development in Madagascar, but both conservationists and local leaders alike recognize that ongoing enforcement of the laws preventing exploitation of the forest alongside community outreach and education is the only hope for the survival of the protected area.
“Local people have the greatest responsibility for the preservation of the forest,” Frause, the
president of Marofandilia village on the margins of the protected area, says. “But if the preservation of the forest is not enforced by associations and rangers, we might expect its total destruction within a decade.”
Local problems, global solutions
The clock may be ticking for Menabe’s forest, but the fight for its future is far from over.
In a corrugated iron classroom in Beroboka village, 20 rangers from the Protected Areas Protection and Control Committee huddle excitedly around tablets as Durrell technician and local resident Fefe walks them through the process of creating and reacting to alerts on threats to the forest from illegal land clearing to forest fires using an app created by the Global Forest Watch project.
For the rangers, this new technology means decreased response times, and vastly improved chances of catching the perpetrators of illegal logging and land clearing.
“I strongly believe this technological support will help reduce the pressures on the forest,” Fefe says. “Before, the Protected Areas Protection and Control Committee came to check on the protected areas four times a month, but with the information from this system now they come here four times a week.”
The near-real-time data on the forest’s health and emerging threats provided by the system is also being combined with satellite data on deforestation trends through the Global Forest Watch platform.
“The platform allows open access to accurate, up-to-date information on tree coverage and land-use changes for everyone from policymakers to conservation organizations, journalists and the private sector,” UN Environment Biodiversity and Land Degradation Portfolio Manager Johan Robinson says. “Making this information publicly accessible is a big step in improving the effectiveness and transparency of Madagascar’s forest governance.”
World Resources Institute National Coordinator for Madagascar, Lucienne Wilmé, says the main objective of the Global Forest Watch project is to provide the government with tools to better manage the forest.
“The main threat to biodiversity in Madagascar - and around the world - is overpopulation. We can’t stop the population growing here, but we can help provide the data needed to help manage the forest sustainably in the face of this growth,” Wilmé says.
“By combining crowd-sourced information and ‘big data’ in a single, easily accessible and understandable platform, Global Forest Watch is supporting the Government of Madagascar and local conservation organizations to improve land-use management and planning, conserve biodiversity and protect the ecosystem services the forest provides to local people.”
“Madagascar doesn’t expect the world to help them, they want to help themselves,” Lucienne says. “We are just providing the tools.”
Lifeline for a forest on the edge
With Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forests, regional government authorities and local conservation organizations now involved in the project and putting Global Forest Watch data to work in their land-use planning and forest management, a lifeline is emerging for Menabe Antimena and its threatened species.
It is still early days for Global Forest Watch in Menabe, but as we sit in the shade of the rangers’ office on the forest margins, the shadows of the baobabs lengthening in the afternoon sun, Fefe is cautiously positive about the future.
“I can say that I am proud of what I have done up until now, despite the difficulty of our job. Saving the forest is not easy, but everyone here can see the fruits of our achievements,” he says.
“The thing I fear the most is the total loss of the forests of Menabe—simply because forests are the lungs of the earth—and neither animals nor people can breathe without their lungs.”
The Global Forest Watch 2.0 project is a three-year initiative piloting a global near-real-time forest monitoring and deforestation alert system to support forest conservation, law enforcement and policy development. The project is supported by the Global Environment Facility, and implemented by UN Environment with the coordination of the World Resources Institute, Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forests and the Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture of Georgia.
For further information on UN Environment’s work in Biodiversity and Land Degradation, contact johan.robinson[at]unenvironment.org.