Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and is sometimes referred to as the 8th continent as most of its biodiversity is endemic to the island.
Nothing can prepare you for Antananarivo (or ‘Tana’ as the locals call it), the capital of Madagascar – it is like no other capital in the world. The Jacaranda trees are in full bloom, the red clay brick houses and medieval churches cover the rolling hills. Coupled with the smog, pollution of traffic and smoky fires of the brick makers - as they fire their bricks amidst the rice paddies in the valleys below. It is almost pretty and peaceful overlooking the valley below from behind the double glazed hotel window.
The reality on the street is quite different; you must watch every step you take so you don’t fall through the man-sized holes in the pavement. Going anywhere requires endless negotiations on every level, from the taxis drivers, the zebu (water buffalo) driven carts, the street sellers, the hustlers, the beggars, the destitute elderly and their ragamuffin children, to the pickpockets and the muggers. The streets are beset with curable diseases. Any kind of town planning seems nonexistent. If you need a doctor, you have to fly to South Africa or Mauritius, as there are no real hospitals even in the capital.
The wretched Victorian state of living on the streets of the capital, shows a country with many problems. Teenagers, young men and young women, with nothing other than their bodies to offer, come to Tana with the dream of breaking free from their rural poverty farming roots and the promise of a more western lifestyle. The most common currency here is cheap labour and prostitution. The sex tourism industry operates openly here and goes largely unchallenged.
Madagascar gained its independence from France on the 26 June 1960, followed by years of dictators, dwindling resources and uncertain rule right up until the present. The bloody military coup d’etat early last year was masterminded by those former dictator generals - using a popular radio disc jockey to front their internationally rebuked ambitions. Accusing the ousted former president Marc Ravalomanana, and business tycoon of corruption and neglecting his presidential duties. The country has been in dangerous limbo since, rife with uncertainty, conflict and corruption. An official election has been promised for October 2010 by the Transitional President Andry Rajoelina, almost 2 years after the initial Coup.
Two thirds of the population live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day. Tourism has come to a complete grinding halt. I saw no tourists for weeks at a time, outside major tourist hot spots, and even in these hotspots most hotels where completely empty.
Coffee, vanilla, sugar cane, cloves, coconuts, cocoa, rice, cassava, beans, bananas and peanuts are the mainstay of the economy, but vanilla was Madagascar’s major export and major money earner – it producers 60% of the world’s vanilla harvest. 80% of that is used in American ice cream, while the rest is used for expensive perfumes. It is most notably used in cakes and confectionery, and was the secret ingredient in Coca Cola until recently, when Coca Cola started using artificial flavourings in 2005.
Of all the 23 000 orchids (and counting) that have been discovered so far, vanilla is the only orchid that produces a fruit or spice – it is quite possibly the most labour intensive crop to grow. The flower has to be fertilized by hand, as there are no native bees to perform this task. The spice then grows behind the flower and this takes up to 9 months to grow and a further 6 months to dry and to cure. Vanilla was second to Saffron as the most expensive spice in the world until recently, when the prices fell from an all time high of $200-$500/ kilogram in 2004, to just $25/ kilogram today. Artificial flavours, competition from other countries, natural disasters, and perhaps greed, has killed the industry, putting an end to a once very lucrative and important crop, which made up a large part of the Madagascar GDP. The industry has now almost completely collapsed along with Madagascar’s economy.
On the 5 hour drive inland from Sambava in the north-east of the island, to the majestic Marojejy National Park, there is no Rainforest at all, just a kind of green anaemic grassland with the occasional burnt-out, or burning, spots on the mountain sides.
Madagascar has a massive energy crisis – most of the burning of trees are for charcoal, not a very efficient way of making charcoal, but it is less labour intensive than physically chopping the trees down and stripping the leaves. The fires burn incessantly all over the island. Less than 8% of Madagascar’s rainforests now exist.
Illegal hunting, miners and loggers have seized the opportunity created by the political crisis to exploit Madagascar’s natural resources. Laws prohibiting the export of rosewood were repealed in January 2009, so that illegally acquired logs can be sold and exported for profit. A documented 45,000 rosewood trees, valued at US $130 million, from the north-eastern coast have already been exported to China in 2009. The logs are felled near rivers and then floated downstream by young men who gondolier the logs with long sticks. The work is treacherous and has a high death toll – rosewood trees grow up to 30 metres in height – falling between the logs is almost certain death. One charity working in the area says at least 2 young men a week loose their lives doing this work.
A national grid is almost out of the question, given the logistics. Most villages are not connected by roads, and if they are - there are better roads on the moon. The massive success of mobile phones and mobile devices is surely the answer to solving Madagascar’s energy crisis – the key being: inexpensive mobile technologies, for these isolated communities.
Solar power cooking technologies to solar powered batteries that can store energy efficiently for electrical appliances, charging mobile phones and operating lights. I saw a man walking with a bull’s head in one hand and a mobile phone in the other - and young people walk out of their tin shacks in the morning looking immaculate, cell phone in hand. From the every growing, Tana to Nairobi to Mumbai - these shanty towns are the cities of the future
Mobile phones are now ubiquitous in Madagascar, and they are cheap. When travelling across the country by taxi, you know you are about to reach a town when mobiles start ringing with messages and calls. Almost everyone I met in Madagascar had a mobile phone and insisted on giving me their mobile number. Mobiles cost as little as €5, and calls are exceptionally cheap. I was able to make calls, and check my email everyday for a month with a top-up of €5.
In the North East of the island I visit a coffee house made from tin and wood a make do till the next hurricane can steaming in and flattened everything in the area as it did almost every year. The mother was in her late teens with 3 children and in the dilapidated tin shack was a shrine of photo clippings and posters - all of the Canadian pop singer Avril Lagvine.
Having visited Indonesia in 1995 - a time before I had even heard of email - now in 2010 Indonesia has the largest number of twitter users - although most people have never used a computer, every able body has a cell phone.
Rice is Madagascar’s staple food product. Communities are locally-resilient, as most grow their own rice in Asian style rice paddies. Rice can be stored in a tropical climate longer than almost all other food surpluses, so if there is a bad year, there is surplus rice in storage. Communities have learnt to be resilient to the frequent hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters.
As I flew home over the barren, red, treeless wasteland from Tana to Kenya (after a 5 weeks stay on the 8th continent), the rivers ran red into the sea, as if they where bleeding, taking with it precious Madagascan topsoil. Madagascar’s real crisis is an immediate environmental one - as they chop down, burn or sell off what few resources they have to China, or give away massive areas of coastline and land to countries like South Korea and other corporations. Unethical big businesses, rouge gangs and corrupt officials, as all rushing in to exploit the political crisis.
Scientists and environmentalists are now urging the international community to step in and help put controls in place, by giving monetary rewards and small grants to these local communities. A reward scheme for long term planning: for protecting and restoring their own environments. A type of: bottom-up approach.
Words, video and images by Jason Gleeson - audiovisualwelding.org
All Copyrights are reserved by the author.