The people of Mahatsara village do not understand why they are forbidden from burning down the wild forests of eastern Madagascar.
MANTADIA, Madagascar The people of Mahatsara village do not understand why they are forbidden from burning down the wild forests of eastern Madagascar.
For centuries, the Mahatsara villagers have followed the traditions of their ancestors, chopping down trees and setting the forests ablaze to clear the land for rice cultivation.
But environmentalists say traditional "slash-and-burn" farming -- where forests are cleared for planting subsistence crops -- has decimated the Indian Ocean island's rainforests, endangering around 200,000 plant and animal species, most of which exist nowhere else in the world.
"Our ancestors have been farming here for generations," said 55-year-old Dimanche Dimasy, the village's chief elder. "Then one day they come and tell us, 'You can't plant there' and, 'You can't cut those trees'."
Since the government created a nearby reserve in 1990, Dimasy says life has been tough for the few hundred villagers of Mahatsara which lies in depths of the 25,000-acre Mantadia forest.
Restrictions on cutting trees for firewood and a ban on burning down forestland for crop cultivation have left the villagers with few options for survival.
"We no longer have the right to burn the forest and plant rice but they never said what else we could do," he said. "The government wants to protect the forest, but nobody cares about protecting the peasants who live here."
Poverty vs. Conservation
Madagascar broke away from East Africa 165 million years ago, leaving it to evolve a rich ecosystem with 10,000 plant species, 316 reptiles and 109 bird species. Its unique wildlife includes dozens of lemurs -- a family of primates older than the monkey and a distant relative of humans.
President Marc Ravalomanana delighted conservationists in September last year when he pledged to boost Madagascar's protected space to 14.83 million acres from the present 4.20 million acres at a World Parks Congress in South Africa.
"He's been likened to (former U.S. President) Teddy Roosevelt at the start of the last century," said Helen Crowley, country representative of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. "Roosevelt saw his country's wilderness getting decimated and said, 'This has to stop'."
Yet Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, has few funds available to address conservation concerns with most of the 17 million population living on less than $1 a day.
Poverty in the island nation has resulted in an increasing demand for land, and competition for fertile ground is encroaching on the remaining rainforests.
In a bid to sensitize the population to the importance of conservation, the government launched a campaign in April. "The challenge is to teach people the value of biodiversity," said Environment Minister Charles Sylvain Rabotoarison. "When people are poor they are only thinking of day-to-day life."
Conservationists say there are long-term benefits to the poor if they conserve the forests, as the land retains water and nutrients.
But they warn any environmental action can only work if it brings immediate benefits to those who live in the forests.
"Government officials believe the country's flourishing eco-tourism sector will soon generate the much-needed income," said Rabotoarison.
"Madagascar's exceptional biodiversity is its main attraction to tourists. As tourism grows in the newly created areas, we hope opportunities for income will also grow."
But Lalao Ravoniharisoa, a subsistence rice farmer who lives near the island's most popular tourist park of Andasibe, is still waiting.
"There are always tourists here but we never see any money. Not everyone can be a guide or work in a resort -- the rest of us live on agriculture," she says. "Now they tell us we can't even do that."