JOHANNESBURG, 28 July 2010 (IRIN) - Vast portions of Madagascar's unique biodiversity could be lost - possibly forever, and at incalculable cost to ordinary Malagasy and the world - by the continued suspension of environmental funding in response to an ongoing political crisis, says a new report by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the main environmental donor.
"In spite of numerous project successes, Madagascar's environment is in significantly worse shape now than it was 25 years ago," warned Paradise Lost?, an International Resources Group (IRG) report commissioned by the USAID.
The report takes stock of 25 years of USAID intervention as a principal actor in developing and implementing the huge Indian Ocean Island's National Environmental Action Plan, suspended "due to the 2009 coup d'état".
Madagascar is renowned for its extraordinary flora and fauna, 80 percent of which are found nowhere else on earth, but conservationists note that Madagascar stands to lose its status as one of the world's biological hotspots.
Groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Conservation International (CI) said illegal logging and wildlife trade exploded in the aftermath of the political crisis that replaced President Marc Ravalomanana with Andre Rajoelina, current leader of the Transitional Authority.
"Since the coup d'état in March 2009, biodiversity-rich sites, and the local communities that are dependent on them, have been under attack by unscrupulous profiteers ... this illegal logging has now reached unprecedented levels ... approximately 400 trees per day are being cut in some regions," US Ambassador to Madagascar Niels Marquardt noted in the foreword to the report.
"Threatened animals, including several particularly endangered species of rare lemurs and tortoises, are being captured for export and for food at rates that ensure their extinction in the wild unless this trend can be reversed."
An investigation by EIA and Global Witness (GW), which monitor the illegal exploitation and trade of natural resources, found that in the months following the coup, exotic tropical hardwoods like rosewood, palissander and ebony worth between US$88,000 and $460,000 were being harvested daily from national parks and protected areas.
Their report, published at the end of 2009, noted a "serious breakdown in the rule of law - if not the active collusion of law enforcement authorities with illegal timber traffickers".
Not good enough
The USAID report named slash-and-burn agriculture by "very poor farmers" as the primary threat to Madagascar's forests, but said there was little hope of protecting forests without addressing "fundamental economic issues that maintain rural people in abject poverty".
The roughly 25 years covered by the study have seen population growth of 3 percent per year. In 1990 Madagascar had 11 million hectares of forest and 11 million people; today, the forests have dwindled to 9 million hectares and the population has grown to 20 million. USAID estimated that least 2 million hectares of forest were required to satisfy domestic demand for fuel and building wood.
Environmental projects have contributed to a slowdown in forest clearing – from around 0.83 percent annually between 1990 and 2000, to 0.53 percent after 2000 - but over a million hectares were lost between 1990 and 2005. "Not-good-enough" governance and chronic political instability lie at the heart of the problem, the report said.
"Systemic corruption, crises that have become a normal part of the political landscape, and short-term resource management strategies that benefit transient leaders, but not the population at large ... make it difficult, if not impossible, to create the economic conditions necessary to scale up promising environmental interventions."
The report concluded that "Environmental preservation is hostage to economic development, and economic development is hostage to good governance."
John Uniack Davis, Madagascar country director of CARE International, a development NGO, noted that "There is an urgent need for restored investment in environmental programmes, but this cannot happen in isolation – it needs to be accompanied by continued attention to good governance and civil society capacity building to ensure a positive enabling environment," if the destruction of biodiversity is to be halted.
"The uncertain environment created by the ongoing political crisis, combined with suspended environment programmes, jeopardizes significant progress that had been made," he told IRIN.
International community to choose
The USAID report proposed three scenarios: the first would be to completely give up on Madagascar's remaining forest resources and channel limited financial resources elsewhere; the second would be to continue building on existing programmes, learning from 25 years of experience, and pushing for more and sustained funding.
The third scenario "essentially recognizes that the international community values Madagascar's biodiversity far more highly than do its government and its people", and "must therefore be prepared to pay for its protection". This approach would require funding that "would far surpass USAID's capacity" and opt for paying local communities directly to forgo activities harmful to the environment.
"USAID, together with the World Bank, has been the leader of biodiversity conservation efforts [in Madagascar] over the past 25 years ... Now is not the time to withdraw," urged Russ Mittermeier, president of CI.
"[USAID] continues to provide substantial humanitarian assistance to Madagascar, but it is now imperative to recognize that the environment must be considered part of any humanitarian package."
CARE's Davis agreed. "There is a clear link between environmental degradation and disastrous humanitarian consequences - destruction of forests leads to increased erosion in the short term, climate change in the longer term, and ultimately, greater vulnerability to natural disasters such as cyclones and droughts," he told IRIN.
"A visionary approach to disaster risk reduction and increased resilience of human populations must therefore necessarily have a significant environmental component, so it would not be a stretch at all to classify environment programmes as 'humanitarian'."
But simply re-labelling environmental aid as "humanitarian" to circumvent current sanctions would, in all likelihood, not be enough, and donors would still demand serious improvements to governance.
Rudolph Thomas, Chargé d'affaires at the US Embassy in Madagascar, told IRIN: "The United States has worked hard over several decades to protect and promote the environment in Madagascar. We remain committed to this important cause and stand ready to continue this critical work when political conditions permit."