Madagascar: Animation Meets Reality -- A Guest Commentary

In early July, as members of the G-8 met in Scotland and singers convened for the Live 8 concerts seeking to make poverty in Africa history, moviegoers were flocking to see DreamWorks SKG's latest cartoon hit, Madagascar.

In early July, as members of the G-8 met in Scotland and singers convenedfor the Live 8 concerts seeking to make poverty in Africa history,moviegoers were flocking to see DreamWorks SKG's latest cartoon hit,Madagascar. In it, a quartet of animals from New York's Central Park Zooin search of adventure end up in Madagascar, an island country off the eastcoast of Africa.

Here, they encounter Nature in all its strange and compelling forms,including lemurs, small, wide-eyed primates found nowhere else on Earth.(Having separated from the African mainland millions of years ago, evolution in Madagascar produced a unique set of animals and plants.)

Despite mixed reviews, the film's U.S. box office is hovering near $200million and overseas audiences are also entranced. Madagascar may wellearn half a billion dollars globally, not counting DVD sales and lucrativeproduct tie-ins. The Lion King, an animated film set in East Africa,earned $750 million from ticket sales alone. Merchandise added millionsmore.

In the context of Africa, these are small fortunes. The irony is that asHollywood makes a mint from cartoons with African landscapes, the real-lifecountries struggle to meet basic human needs and fund conservation programsto protect the endangered animals and habitat the films capitalize on.

Wouldn't it be magnanimous of Hollywood to lend its support to the campaignfor Africa, not by way of a handful of celebrities, but through revenue fromits successful films that trade on exotic African landscapes?


Madagascar is one of the world's poorest countries. Its government is isunable to provide jobs, health care, education and clean water to itsfast-growing population, nearly half of which is under 15. These adolescentswould make a prime audience for Madagascar. But with over 80% ofMadagascar's population surviving on less than $2 a day, a movie ticket andsmall popcorn are largely out of reach.

And poverty is putting pressure on Madagascar's famed "spiny forests," hometo species that "star" in Madagascar. Industrial development, traditionalslash-and-burn agriculture that consumes more and more land as thepopulation grows, and the heavy reliance on wood for fuel are all taking atoll on Madagascar's forests and animals.

And when international lending agencies demand that poor countries tightentheir belts, environment-related budgets are often the first to feel the ax.In this, Madagascar is no exception.

So, while Madagascar has brightened DreamWorks' profit projections,Madagascar is not guaranteed any similar pay-off. News reports variouslysuggest that the country's tourist agency is unsure how to capitalize on itsnew (and perhaps fleeting) fame and lacks funds to do so, or that it isreadying new tourism campaigns. But tourists are fickle. Madagascar may loseout, even as Madagascar cashes in.

Like other African countries, Madagascar is under pressure from donornations to wean itself from aid by developing new enterprises and welcomingprivate investment from overseas. Countries and species cannot (yet)trademark their names or images to harness their profit potential. Theystill have to depend on the goodwill of strangers or responsiblecorporations.

What if DreamWorks bought in and invested a percentage of Madagascar'sfilm and merchandise revenues in ventures to support human development andconservation programs in Madagascar? Given the world's appetite fornature-themed cartoons this could mean millions of dollars for a desperatelypoor country with little dent in DreamWorks' bottom line.

Another bonus: plaudits from anti-poverty and environmental campaigners. Ifthis idea gains traction, it could mean goodwill on a scale akin to themillions raised for African famine relief 20 years ago by Live Aid, Live 8'sprecursor.

In tune with the times, there is a pragmatic element, too, for DreamWorksand other studios to consider. If poor countries with rich biodiversitycontinue to lose the animals and landscapes that so delight the rest of theworld, Hollywood studios could be stumped.

Films like Madagascar would no longer offer audiences a tantalizing worldthat could be visited, but rather a brightly colored version of what alreadyhas become history. If this comes to pass, it won't be only filmgoers whowill feel the loss.

Mia MacDonald is a policy analyst and writer on environment, development,gender and population issues. She is a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy Schoolof Government, has taught in the human rights program at ColumbiaUniversity's School of International and Public Affairs and is a seniorfellow of the Worldwatch Institute.

Source: An ENN Guest Commentary