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Madagascar's Mismanaged Environment

By Bruno Salomon Ramamonjisoa

Madagascar is a landmass with an abundance of biodiversity and a high percentage of endemic plant and animal life. Eighty-five percent of flowers, 39 percent of birds, 91 percent of reptiles, 99 percent of amphibians, and 100 percent of lemurs are native to the island. Despite its richness in natural resources, Madagascar faces many problems with the management of these resources, and with its development more generally. Since the 1960s the gross domestic product per capita has decreased significantly, from $460 to less than $272 in 2014. Despite the establishment of a structural adjustment program in 1988 and an environmental protection program in 1990, basic living conditions have not improved, 76.5 percent of the population is still below the poverty line, and the illegal exploitation of natural resources such as forest and mineral products continues even in protected zones. In spite of the plans implemented by so many different national and international actors, the conditions of the people and the environment in Madagascar have not changed.

There are a variety of political and economic factors that preclude Madagascar from properly managing its natural resources. The country lacks a national elite capable of inventing and implementing a development plan that would address the specific challenges Madagascar faces. This crucial problem has been experienced by many other countries classified as underdeveloped, and they’ve managed to resolve it by forming teams of experts tasked with formulating national development plans. Without this structure in place, states can rationalize their inability to accumulate financial resources and to distribute them. In Madagascar, the state has been unable to imagine a development model that responds to the daily life of its citizens and connects to their culture and their traditions. This has led to the emergence of various social and corporate groups that, in the absence of official leadership, play a prominent role in decisions pertaining to the utilization of natural resources. 

Therefore, natural resources, and in particular forests, have become spaces for Mafia-like exploitations with environmentally damaging effects. An informal government consisting of a variety of actors at different levels (local, regional, and national) has taken the place of the formal government. From forest conversion to the illegal exploitation of valuable wood, as well as the undertaking of mining activities in protected areas, these intermediary traders receive the most profit, even though the monetary redistribution of more than $73 million per year goes solely to farmers.  

Yet the formal government also lacks organization. The forest administration, for example, has grown weaker year after year, leading international nongovernmental organizations and individual conservationists to assume the management of more than two-thirds of Madagascar’s forests. The inequality in the distribution of $20 million since 1990, supposedly for the implementation of an environmental action plan, can be explained by the fact that government institutions care more about their own well-being than the sustainable management of natural resources. Madagascar has made the decision, based on an erroneous (and manipulated, according to economic actors) profitability study, to increase the size of its protected areas, without regard for the opportunity costs of the forests themselves. Multilateral institution experts figured out a way for the Malagasy state to obtain a loan of $50 million during the period of recent political crisis, despite the fact that the country was considered ineligible for multilateral aid, solely for those national institutions tasked with managing the country’s protected areas. Yet an issue like deforestation is also a concern outside the areas officially acknowledged as protected, and these funds have not been used to make much headway in the effective utilization of resources. According to the proponents of sustainable forestry this kind of financial operation is no different than the trafficking of rosewood and other exploitations conducted by the so-called “conservation mafia.”

Given this situation, the continued existence (or not) of natural resources, and of forests in particular, depends on the battle waged between these two major “mafias,” both official and unofficial. A consensus doesn’t seem likely in the near future, as both groups derive their power from the distribution of funds from outside the country. Only the rapid development and implementation of an effective public policy will succeed in defining new and coherent rules for the management of Madagascar’s natural resources. The problem of the degradation and mismanagement of natural resources is first and foremost a problem of education. The country must tap into its pool of human capital to form a team capable of conceptualizing a better resource management plan, one that will benefit the entire population rather than just a select few. 

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Bruno Salomon Ramamonjisoa is a forest economist and researcher. He is a political economy instructor and dean of the School of Agronomy at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.

[Photo courtesy of Frank Vassen]

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