The gangs of Madagascar
Antananarivo, Madagascar - Gangs of armed criminals, exploiting a political crisis, are assaulting the fabled forests of Madagascar, one of the world's most sensitive biological zones.
Organized by foreign businessmen, hundreds of illegal loggers and animal traders have overwhelmed the weak defences of the country's national parks, stripping the forests of precious rosewood and ebony, smuggling out rare animals and destroying the habitat of endangered wildlife.
Madagascar, the world's fourth-biggest island, is a haven to thousands of animal and plant species that are found nowhere else on the planet. It evolved in isolation in the Indian Ocean, spawning its own strange species, like a Noah's Ark of rare wildlife, without any human contact until about 1,500 years ago.
About 90 per cent of its plants and 70 per cent of its animals, including dozens of species of lemurs and chameleons, exist only in Madagascar. Although new animal species are being discovered here every year, many creatures have already gone extinct as a result of massive slash-and-burn agriculture.
The national parks are the last bulwark to protect the unique species, but they were thrown into jeopardy by three months of political violence, which has killed more than 130 people, including 28 protesters who were shot to death in a single day of clashes.
The criminal gangs have taken advantage of the resulting security vacuum. The chaos has paralyzed the police and military, who have been preoccupied with urban protests and have abandoned the parks, allowing the illegal loggers and poachers to run rampant.
The outside world was fascinated by the saga of Andry Rajoelina, a charismatic 34-year-old former disc jockey who overthrew Madagascar's leader, Marc Ravalomanana, to become Africa's youngest president last month. But the consequences for the country have been silently devastating.
The tourism industry has collapsed, throwing thousands into unemployment. Poverty is rising. Protests and strikes are continuing to immobilize the capital, Antananarivo. Much of Madagascar's foreign aid has been cut off, leaving the country nearly bankrupt.
The beleaguered government admits that it is struggling to halt the invasion of illegal loggers and hunters.
"I can't face this problem with my own rangers," says Guy Suzon Ramangason, director of Madagascar's national parks. "I don't have enough rangers and they're not armed and trained. This is a very dangerous time."
The looters are so well organized that they built a road six kilometres into one of the most remote parks in the north, sent a flotilla of ships to smuggle out the logs and recruited workers with radio commercials, environmentalists say.
"They've never done this before - recruiting people so openly on the radio," says Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, conservation director of the local office of the WWF, which administered one of the northern parks until 2005 and still has close links there.
"They have all the means to bribe and influence wherever they have to," she says.
"We have reports of armed militia supervising the transportation of the wood. The park staff tried to enforce the law, but when they saw the armed militia, they just ran away."
The gangs have paid customs officers to turn a blind eye to the large-scale export of illegally cut wood. And they have sent a fleet of small boats to land on the wild coastline, bypassing the ports.
"We have 5,000 kilometres of coastline and very weak control of it," Ms. Ratsifandrihamanana says.
"It's very alarming. We've been working with the local communities for years to better manage the parks, and now they suddenly see that the law is unenforced and you can break the law and even be paid for it."
The government has decided to take urgent measures, including the deployment of 30 police officers to the remote northern parks, where they plan to reinforce themselves with local volunteers. But environmentalists are skeptical that such a small number of police can regain control of the areas.
James MacKinnon, senior technical director at the Madagascar office of Conservation International, says the looting includes illegal mining and poaching of rare animals for the international pet trade. "There's a rush on high-value resources," he says. "They're taking advantage of the situation to make a quick buck."
The first warning came on March 20, when Marojejy National Park, in the northeast, announced its temporary closing because of the plundering.
"With armed militia descending on local villages and death threats being issued, people live in fear," the park's website said. "While old-growth rosewood trees may be the primary objective of the armed gangs, such destructive unregulated use of the forest will certainly have an adverse effect on everything else in the park. Most worrisome is the well-being of the highly endangered Silky Sifaka, a lemur found only in the rain forests of Marojejy and the surrounding area."
Since that warning, many environmental groups have joined the chorus of concern. But the plundering continues, confirms Mr. Ramangason, the parks director. "Behind this traffic is an incredible financial power," he says. "There's a big demand, especially in China, for rosewood and ebony. The foreign prices are very high, and this, along with the local corruption and rural poverty, are the main factors."
The loggers were organized by Chinese businessmen, he says, although he was uncertain whether they are from China or are ethnic Chinese from a country such as Malaysia or Singapore. "We've noticed the presence of many Chinese in the northeast," he says. "They have arrived en masse."
Reports from his office warn that "hundreds" of people are looting Masoala National Park in the northeast. "All the big valleys along the rivers of the eastern coast are involved," one official report says.
At the nearby Marojejy park, at least 50 people in each village are participating in the invasion, the report says. Similar pillaging is happening at several other national parks, suggesting that thousands of people are involved, environmentalists say.
In the capital, supporters of Mr. Ravalomanana are continuing to hold regular protests on Democracy Square, demanding the intervention of foreign military forces to reinstall their man as president. They call on the United Nations to send soldiers to put him back in power. "Our father must return," his supporters scream.
This has prompted the new government to search for foreign mercenaries, even raiding the office of an Australian mining company for fear it was harbouring South African soldiers in the pay of Mr. Ravalomanana.
For decades, political unrest has been so common in Madagascar that a popular restaurant and a coffee shop have both sardonically given themselves the name Kudeta (coup d'tat). But the latest political chaos is a heavy blow to the lives of ordinary people, most of whom earn less than $1 a day.
"This is a power struggle, and it makes the people poor," says Haga Ratahina, a 35-year-old vendor who gave up his market stall for fear of bloodshed in the area.
He estimates that he has lost half of his income because of the political crisis. "The economy is upside-down," he says. "I want to work safely. It's not good for people to see military uniforms in the street every day. You go around town and you can get a bullet in your back."
The new Finance Minister, Benja Razafimahaleo, says the government's revenue has fallen by 15 to 20 per cent. "There are a huge amount of debts and a low amount of income," he says. "We have to cut the government's expenses."
One of his biggest battles is to revive the supply of dairy products - shut down when Mr. Rajoelina's supporters attacked and looted the dairy factories owned by Mr. Ravalomanana.
Mr. Razafimahaleo also faces strikes, wage shortages and a cutoff in aid supplies from many foreign donors. "Our main difficulty is to feed people - that's our main priority," he says.
But his office is so under-equipped that he gives little handwritten bits of paper to his visitors because he has no business cards.
The United Nations is seeking $35-million in emergency aid for Madagascar. It estimates that 3.4 million people - in this country of 20 million - need emergency assistance.
"The political crisis over the past three months has worsened the already poor situation of large segments of the Malagasy population through disruptions in basic social services, a climate of fear and uncertainty, and delays or cessation of services to a number of aid and development projects across the country," the UN said.
The tourism industry, a crucial source of financial support for Madagascar's environment, has fallen into disarray.
When foreign embassies advised their citizens not to visit the country because of the political unrest, most tourist groups were cancelled for the rest of this year. About 70 per cent of hotels in Madagascar are closed because of a lack of business, and revenue has plunged by 70 per cent.
"It's a catastrophe," says Eric Koller, director of one of the biggest hotels in the capital, where the occupancy rate is projected to be 5 per cent by July.
Of his 400 hotel employees, 150 have been temporarily laid off and the working hours and wages of the rest have been cut in half.
The mood was captured by a Madagascar tourism agency that placed a desperate advertisement in a South African newspaper. "Madagascar needs your tourism," the ad said. "Help save it from extinction."