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Saving Madagascar's sacred forests
Posted: 19 Sep 2003

by Richard Hamilton

Madagascar, one of the world's biodiveristy hotspots, has already lost at least 80 per cent of its original forest cover — with over half this loss in the last 100 years. A growing population has put pressure on the country's forests. Illegal felling of trees for firewood, charcoal and rice growing is threatening the country's unique plant and animal species. But the new management of Sakoantovo forest now in the hands of local Mahafaly people could show the way forward, as Richard Hamilton reports.

Madagascar's Sakoantovo forest is extraordinary. Skinny green tubes covered in spines grow alongside tall trees topped with tufts of needle-like leaves. Squat baobabs with swollen trunks stand beside tangled masses of thick, thorny, branches. Above this collection of alien-looking plants is a clear blue sky; below, red sand.

Spiny forest, Madagascar

Spiny forest, southern Madagascar
© WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey

Venture further in, and the dry spiny forest gradually changes to riparian forest, growing along a riverbed. Here the forest looks more familiar. Tamarind trees dominate, but there are also figs and other plant species. There is an incredible feeling of serenity, the stillness only broken by occasional birdsong and the gentle grunting of lemurs.

Madagascar map

Sacred forest

The local Mahafaly people have known for a long time that the forest is special — for them, it is sacred.

“This forest is a burial site for our ancestors,” says Evoriraza, who lives in a nearby village with his wife and two children. "There is a sacred tree in the middle of the forest that cannot be touched, and also sacred animals such as tortoises, lemurs, and birds. It is taboo, or fady as we say, to hunt them. Some animals are like spirits or ghosts, and can harm people if they transgress these prohibitions.”

The sacred tree is an enormous ficus thought to be a thousand years old. Its tangled roots and sturdy trunk are straight out of 'Lord of the Rings'. Not far away are two ancient mounds of rocks and stones — tombs of the Mahafaly royal family.

“A long time ago there was a king who had four children, three boys and a girl,” says Evoriraza. “The king divided up his land between these four children. But the daughter vowed never to leave this place. She said that she would not move away to look for a suitable husband, as is the custom, and that if a man fell in love with her, he would have to come here to live. Eventually she died unmarried, and that is why she is buried here”.

Sakoantovo is also very special from a naturalist’s perspective.

“This area is a striking example of a transition zone," says Mark Fenn, WWF’s representative in southern Madagascar and an expert on the area's ecosystems. "Along the riverbed you find riparian forest, where the vegetation pumps water from the ground. But this riparian forest is adjacent to a dry spiny forest, with succulent plants that store water. So you have a forest which is taking water next to a forest that is storing water."

Unique species

The riparian forest in particular is extremely important for Madagascar's unique wildlife — chameleons, lemurs, and tortoises found nowhere else on earth. "Riparian forests are species-rich," explains Fenn. "The tamarind trees in particular are important for primates, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. So there is quite a high density of wildlife found here.” Now there are very few riparian forests left in Madagascar.

Ring-tailed lemur

Ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) leaping between trees, Madagascar.
© WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey

The main threat to the country's forests is illegal felling of trees for firewood, charcoal, and rice growing. The practise of tavy — a traditional form of slash-and-burn agriculture used to clear forest for rice cultivation — is a particular problem. The Malagasy are the world's greatest per capita consumers of rice, eating on average half a kilo a day. With an expanding population, Madagascar’s forest is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Sacred forests are no exception. “The sacred forests of southern Madagascar are becoming smaller and smaller as people farm around them," says Mark Fenn. "What was once a sacred forest might now just be a small patch of vegetation around a tomb or a tree that has spirits."

Food store

Traditional practises — which in the past have helped protect wildlife — are also eroding. Madagascar is one of the most economically disadvantaged parts of the world, with a climate not always favourable to farming. When people need to eat, taboos on hunting certain species can break down. The forest is already a hardware store and pharmacy for local people; in times of famine it becomes their food store as well.

"Many people do illegal things, but they do so out of necessity," says Avimary, a Mahafaly prince. "They are forced to cut down trees to make charcoal, so that they can make a living and earn enough money to feed their children. Cutting down trees is not something they do willingly."


Avimary, a Mahafaly prince.
© Richard Hamilton

The entry of the modern world into Madagascar is also affecting traditional practises. "Some of the younger generations ignore the law and the word of their elders," says Avimary.

But Sakoantovo forest could show how to turn this depressing picture around. In June this year, the management rights over the forest were legally transferred from the Malagasy government to the local Mahafaly community.

Local knowledge

This transfer is not simply symbolic. The idea is that the people who know best how to look after the land are those who actually live on it. The Mahafaly now have the power to manage the forest — something the government had little success with in the past. Illegal felling and collection of medicinal plants had all been on the increase. But now, through local management committees, the Mahafaly have committed to sustainably manage their sacred forest in co-operation with local authorities.

This represents a significant departure from previous beliefs that the way to protect forests was to set up national parks that excluded local people. In this new approach, modern forest management mechanisms will be implemented alongside traditional practises and beliefs. WWF celebrated this innovative way of thinking as a Gift to the Earth — the organization's highest accolade for a conservation achievement.

So far the concept seems to be going down well. “I think it's an excellent idea,” said Avimary. "If the felling of trees continues, Madagascar’s forests will be entirely destroyed and there will be nothing left for us except bare earth.”

Mark Fenn also believes that traditional ways of protecting the forest may be the solution that environmentalists have been striving to find for decades. “One of our principal conservation strategies is reinforcing social cultural traditions, the social norms as it were, which are favourable to the environment,” he says.

Indeed, this conservation approach is not really new to the Malagasy. They have a phrase, 'tontolo iainana', which means ‘the world about us’ — a concept of man and nature living together in harmony. This bodes well for the continued survival of Madagascar's forests, as well as its local people and their traditions.

Richard Hamilton is a freelance journalist, based in Madagascar.

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