Deforestation in Madagascar: a threat to its biodiversity

The role of governance and international trade in tackling illegal logging

Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world and – given its isolation and separation from other land masses for about 60-80 million years – it has 3 biosphere reserves listed in the UNESCO and it also presents one of the highest numbers of endemic species, both fauna and flora: Madagascar’s various ecosystems are home to more than 250,000 species of plants and animals most of which do not exist anywhere else (according to this case study).

Therefore, no doubt that it has an extremely rich and unique biodiversity which though – unluckily – is also highly in danger.

The role of mankind is posing serious pressure on its ecosystem and a threat to its biodiversity. Take the Rainforests of Atsinanana, comprising 6 national parks with an endemic rate of species close to 80%: they have been inscribed in the World Heritage List since 2007 “for their importance to both ecological and biological processes as well as their biodiversity and the threatened species they support. Many species are rare and threatened especially primates and lemurs”. (Unesco World Heritage Centre)

Due to deforestation practices, these Rainforests since 2010 have been also inscribed in the (sad) World Heritage list of the threatened species.

The deforestation process in Madagascar has started long ago and even accelerated since the end of the 19th century with the French colonization and conversion to coffee fields. The country has lost about 80% of its original forests and the primary forest now covers only about 12% of the country.

Deforestation is a major threat to Madagascar’s biodiversity as 90% of Madagascar’s endemic species live or heavily rely on the forest (North Carolina State University, 2010).

Deforestation has an impact on both factors of its ecosystem: on the abiotic factor (deforestation accounts for 35% of soil degradation according to UNEP) and on the biotic one (affecting the abundance and also the variation – reducing the biodiversity). Biodiversity is important because it makes the ecosystem more resilient and thus more “elastic” and able to maintain or recover its ecological function.

The biodiversity also provides enormous other benefits to Madagascar because of its ecological services (more than “18 million people are dependent on it for their subsistence needs, with 80% being essentially entirely dependent on natural resources. At least 70% of the population is dependent on resources derived from agriculture and other vegetation.), as a source of medicinal plants (2,300 plants used for medicinal purposes in the country; the export of medicinal plants is based on 50 species, of which 33 are forest-based) and attracting eco-tourism flows (income generated by the tourism industry represents the 3rd source of foreign currency). (Convention on Biological Diversity – Madagascar country profile).

There are various causes of the exploitation of natural resources through the deforestation process, mainly linked “to the economical and subsistence-related benefits the people gain from the ecosystem” (based on this post, 2011): agriculture of subsistence, commercial agriculture, energy, logging.  Some are structural to the country: high population growth rate – implying increasing needs of lands for cultivation – coupled with being one of the poorest countries in the world (with a GDP per income of 447 USD in 2012 according to the World Bank, ranked 6th last) with 92% of Malagasy living on less than $2 per day cause “competition for agricultural land and put pressure on the island’s dwindling forests, home to much of Madagascar’s unique wildlife and key to its emerging tourist industry” (BBC Country profile)

Others reasons are the production of fuelwood and charcoal for cooking fires, slash-and-burn agriculture (called tavy acording to this post: it turns tropical rainforests into rice fields, technique not sustainable beyond a certain population density), over-grazing and ranching, with an increasing international pressure from the so called “land grab” deals (15 deals registered according to

One more reason of the deforestation is illegal logging, deplorable as the largest part of the benefits usually do not go to local communities but to private interests of large corporations (“rainforest destruction goes hand in hand with social conflict around the world as large corporations and other powerful interests expropriate the ancestral lands of forest peoples” as stated by the Rainforest Action Network).

As mentioned above the Rainforests of Atsinanana are part of a World Heritage site therefore Madagascar – as a signatory of the World Heritage Convention – should be formally committed to their protection (UNESCO World Heritage Centre – News, 2009 ) and thus have clear and coordinated management plans in place to control “agricultural encroachment and resource exploitation from logging, hunting, and gem mining”. (UNESCO, Rainforests of Atsinana)

Yet the illegal logging of precious wood species (ebony and rosewood) has increased since 2009 due to the coup d’etat and the following political crisis in Madagascar which also resulted in a halt of the international aid by the EU and the World Bank and a suspension from the African Union. (BBC News, country profile)

A weak or corrupted government and a lack of funds could not guarantee the protection of the forests within the parks as it should have happened and made it difficult to Madagascar to implement its National Strategy for Sustainable Management of Biodiversity (NSSMB) and to respect other international conventions related to biodiversity they had ratified.

International regulations can help stopping illegal international trafficking. As reported by Unesco World Heritage Centre (in its 2013 SOC State of Conservation report on the Rainforests of the Atsinanana) the CITES Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has been changed during the 16th Conference of Parties (COP16) in order to “…ensure that illegal timber from Madagascar is both forbidden and cannot enter their domestic markets”.

Even if UNESCO has confirmed its decision to retain the Atsinanana Forests in the List of World Heritage in Danger (see SOC report 2013) let’s hope that these changes in the CITES and the new Government elected in 2014 in Madagascar (hopefully strong enough to provide protection of the parks, alternatives to local communities – such as eco tourism – and promote new agricultural techniques) will at least stop illegal logging, decrease the deforestation rate and ensure a better preservation of the rich and unique biodiversity of these rainforests in Madagascar.



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