By Eric Rahman, Guest Columnist
A visitor to Madagascar experiences an inescapable immersion in the country’s multitude of diverse ecological systems, home to an array of flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth. While a visitor to Madagascar can still experience the staggering natural beauty this island has to offer, they may not realize that what they’re seeing is a skeleton of what used to be. This is primarily due to a scorched-earth policy some Malagasy individuals perpetuate when they “mandoro tanety.”
Mandoro is the Malagasy word for ‘to burn,’ and tanety is one of the many words that Malagasy people use for grass, or land. Driving through sections of the country, one will often see vast expanses of land and hillsides covered in short grass and dotted with trees. Some of this is natural grassland, but much of it is land that has been deforested and then burned, frequently for timber use and then preparation for eventual use as farmland. This practice has left large swaths of Madagascar’s once densely forested areas execrably barren. The nation’s rivers now run red with the soil refuse bleeding into them, a product of erosion precipitated by deforestation.
One rationale for the burning posited by those with a more academic inclination: the persistence of a “short-term gain” fixation, born of a lack of education and exacerbated by the desperation a subsistence existence can engender. Supposedly, the burning of a stretch of land produces a good deal of nitrogen, which subsequently seeps into the soil and produces a fertile patch of land for the following year’s harvest. Following that harvest however, the land is ruined for years.
It has also been suggested that mandoro tanety is a form of political protest. As far as I can tell, it makes about as much of an impact on the government as screaming underwater would on anyone floating up above. Consequently, Madagascar burns and any political statement that intends falls on deaf ears.
Concurrent to the environmental degradation is the economic toll the fires exact on the livelihoods of a population heavily dependent upon the byproducts of that environment. The famed Tapia forests, home to a type of silk worm found only here in Madagascar, are being consumed by the fires. Silk weavers with whom I work have expressed concern that the price of their raw materials are rising as a result of a decreased supply of silk cocoons. The primary cause of this contraction in supply: the burning of the forests.
I’ve also witnessed the expanses of freshly blackened land on my 14-kilometer bike ride to the village of Ambohitrambo. On one of these journeys, I was with my friend Jean Claude. I posed the question to him, why on earth would the Malagasy people do such a thing? The answer: “Tsy misy ampy saina,” which means, “There aren’t enough brains.” Or in blunt terms, the people who burn the land are a bunch of idiots.
I’ve mentioned how deforestation and the burning of land are contributing to erosion that is turning the rivers red. I was talking about the issue with the Malagasy woman who heads Peace Corps’ economic development program, and our conversation drifted towards talk of airplanes and flying. She told me that she’ll always remember looking down at the land below as she flew over Madagascar for the first time. Observing all the trees, the mountains, the stretches of barren landscape and the rivers, and all the while she told me she thought to herself, “My god, my country is bleeding.”
Until next time, veloma.
St. Louis Park native Eric Rahman is a community economic development Peace Corps volunteer in Arivonimamo, Malaysia. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org