Sunday, January 13, 2008

Back, back, back from Madagascar

So we're back from the honeymoon - 25 days in Madagascar, the first week doing some volunteer work, and the rest checking out the sights. An amazing country, well worth visiting.

The lemurs were the same highlight for us as for everyone else. They seem otherwordly in a way that monkeys don't. Part of the reason is the big eyes on the small face looking at you. The large lemurs in particular seemed strangely even more like us than monkeys, as they move bipedally through trees, leaping 30-feet gaps while standing upright. The ghostly white lemurs (sifakas) in the south, and the tailless, crying indris in the east were the most striking.

Environmentally though, the vast majority of the country is nuked. A naive observer might not notice it, thinking the countryside has always been rice paddies, grasslands, and scrubby forests. What we see is what replaced the original forests, and even the scrubby trees are Australian eucalyptus and Chinese pine with no ecological value. One of our guides said "Madagascar used to be the green island, but now it is the red island from all the erosion."

We volunteered with a Malagasy NGO, Man and the Environment, which is participating in efforts to develop ecological buffer reserves around national parks where resource extraction is compatible with the ecology. We tried to do some GPS mapping of clearings in the reserves - I hope it'll be helpful but I'm not sure it will be. In the middle of nowhere we came across land owned by Genentech. Even more strangely, it was a clearing instead of virgin land that I'd guess would have more biotech prospects. More mysteries.

The good news is that the forest does grow back aggressively if given a chance. We saw lemurs in 20-40 year old secondary forest. All that's needed is the economic opportunity.

One place in particular raised an interesting carbon offset question. We did a five-day trek in the country's largest national park, l'Isalo. In past centuries it had been 80% forested, but now was only 10% forested, a figure that our guide said had not changed since the park was established in 1961. It seems that more manpower to patrol the park to stop illegal burning is all that's needed to help the forest grow back, and manpower is cheap in Madagascar. Arguably they should be doing it anyway, but they're not and haven't for nearly 50 years, so it seems like spending money on better management could meet the "additionality" test of offsets. I'm sure l'Isalo isn't unique in developing countries in this regard.

I'll do another post or two about the people, and on the standard, we-went-there-and-did-that stuff that's all so fascinating.

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