It is a pet irritation of mine that so many people with an interest in conservation in developing countries do not know the slightest thing about the people who live with the animals and the environment they wish to protect, their history, or how they see the world and the current situation. In Madagascar that is a particular problem, because the human history of Madagascar is in many ways as unique as its wildlife.
The Malagasy language is the first sign that the history of this island close to Africa is very different from the mainland – it is actually most closely related to the languages spoken in Western Borneo in Indonesia, from where the ancestors of the Malagasy people sailed across the Indian Ocean to their new home sometime before 200AD. Whether there were any people on the island before then is unclear – according to Malagasy legend the original inhabitants were a people called the Vazimba, who were eventually conquered by one of the Malagasy tribes in the 16th Century. Later African and Arab traders established settlements on the coast, and finally Europeans arrived around 1500. The settlers brought with them outrigger canoes, rice cultivation, and a world view centred on the veneration of the ancestors.
From about 1000 onwards, various chiefdoms gradually grew and competed against each other for control, eventually resulting in the rise of the Merina kingdom which united Madagascar for the first time under King King Andrianampoinimerina (1785–1810) and his son, Radama I (1810–1828). At the same time, European influence grew, first in the guise of pirates based in the north and later competing French and British influence, which eventually resulted in the French annexation of Madagascar in 1890. The members of the Madagascan royal family went into exile in Algeria. The island remained a French protectorate until eventually getting independence in 1956, not before a bloody nationalist uprising in 1947 which the French government suppressed at the cost of perhaps 90,000 lives.
The ‘independence’ gained however proved mostly illusory. The successive presidents, prime ministers etc have almost invariably been in the pocket of French politicians, and the multiple coups, uprisings and so on since then have often furthered the interests of those politicians rather than the Malagasy people. Most recently, President Ravalomanana was ousted in 2009 by an uprising led by the mayor of the capital city Antananarivo. There has still not been elections that were promised, and as a result all foreign aid other than humanitarian aid has been suspended. As Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world (although the politicians are suspiciously well off) and 75% of the government budget was foreign aid, this has resulted in a disastrous situation. In effect, Madagascar is a failing, if not quite a failed state, and if it was an Islamic country, the situation there would be the cause of much late night deliberations in the worlds’ foreign ministries and intelligence services. Since it is not, no one really notices.
Bristol Zoos’ own involvement comes about through our membership of AEECL. Although the area we work in is away from the major deforestation and illegal logging now going on following the breakdown of the parks service through lack of funds, the loss of central control means that we have very few points where we can exercise any influence. We had been combining research work on the local endemic lemurs with some health and other provision to local villages in an attempt to get local support, but without the government to back up the programmes are mostly failing to get anywhere, and local logging, lemur poaching, and even deliberate fire-setting are increasing.
It seems to me that the situation we face in Sahamalaza is a microcosm of the kind of problems faced by many conservation bodies in remote areas of the world. Basically, why should the locals pay any attention to us? It is the very nature of things that people who are one bad harvest away from watching their children starve are very unwilling to take risks with new ideas, even if they are improved agricultural methods that will enable them to produce more food without destroying their environment. This is particularly a problem in Madagascar, where the customary veneration of ones ancestors means that not doing things the same way as ones’ forebears is a kind of blasphemy. In addition, researchers, mostly young university-educated foreigners who do not speak much of the local language (if any) are not the best people to persuade people three times their age to do anything. How this situation will play out I do not know – but we can only hope the elections happen soon. How we fix the mess afterwards is another problem.