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Local communities campaign against deforestation

[Madagascar] Antanambe's vigilant natural resource managment committee members. [Date picture taken: 2005/07/28]
Antanambe's vigilant natural resource managment committee members (IRIN)

In the village of Antanambe in northeastern Madagascar seven elders troop into their office, a single-roomed cabin, to decide the fate of a farmer caught carrying two planks he had probably sawn from a tree after illegally cutting it down in the forest.

The farmer could face a fine of more than US $800. "For each wooden plank the person has to pay a fine [equivalent to the penalty for] felling 400 trees, at the rate of 2,000 Ariary (just over US $1) per tree," explained Chief Baodine, the administrative head of the village.

Baodine heads one of the seven natural resource management committees comprised of elders, set up by the global conservation organisation, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), in villages around the Betaolana forest, which lies between the Marojejy and Anjanaharibe-Sud national parks near the town of Andapa.

The committees were established in 2002 under the Betaolana project, which kicked off in 1998.

According to Didier Rabeviavy of the WWF, Betaolana is the only surviving stretch of rainforest in an area where 100,000 people live.

"A high population growth rate of three percent has increased the pressure for tillable land; this promotes the felling of trees and threatens the future of the forest - we wanted the community to take up the initiative to police and protect their forests," he noted.

Local communities were keen on the idea of self-policing. "We know that without forests we will have no rain for our crops," commented Baodine, while the other members nodded in silent agreement.

The villagers are predominantly dependant on agriculture: they grow rice, beans, vegetables, coffee, bananas and vanilla, which is either sold at local markets or transported to the nearest city of Sambava, almost five hours by car from the area. Most of the villages are connected to each other by a network of paths.

"If we had access to water throughout the year our crops would not fail, and there would be less pressure on people to go and fell trees," commented committee member Leva Francois.

The WWF is attempting teach the villagers to breed fish in the rice paddies, "so they can have additional income or food until the crop is ready," said Rabeviavy.

However, the growing demand for agricultural land is not the only threat facing the forest. "All the houses are built of wood - we have just initiated attempts to encourage the villagers to construct houses from home-made bricks," Rabeviavy commented.

Antanambe is one the first villages attempting to rally its residents around the idea of manufacturing their own bricks. "It is difficult - people believe that they need protection from cyclones - but these villages in the interior, which lie in a mountain basin, are protected and they don't really need wooden huts - it has become part of a tradition really," Rabeviavy observed.

Chief Baodine is optimistic. "We just need the skills - we need someone to train us to make the bricks and then it should work."

Illegal mining for gemstones is another real threat to the woodland. The village of Ambodihasina, on the very edge of the forest, has become a popular spot for illegal miners from West Africa, Asia and even the US.

"It is a matter of time and they will start digging up the forest - even the local villagers, when the crops fail, join these miners," said Rabeviavy. Last month, WWF officials held 80 illegal miners, mostly local Malagasy, "but we had to let them go because they had not entered the protected area. We have informed the Ministry of Mining of the activity in the area, but we have yet to hear from them."

Malian Yaffa Dede, who has been digging in the area for the past 12 years, claims he has a legal permit to mine. He has found reserves of quartz, topaz, amethyst and beryl, and often hires local villagers. "I am almost a Malagasy," he joked.

However, local conservationists maintain that no one has a legal permit to mine here, while the WWF says Madagascar has already lost 80 percent of its natural areas and continues to lose an estimated 200,000 ha annually to deforestation.

Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana has placed more than two-thirds of the country's remaining forest under formal protection. "But policing the protected areas remains problematic," a local conservationist observed.

"We know we have to look after our forests for our future generations," said Baodine, who often travels to neighbouring villages to educate them on the need to protect the forests. There is hope yet in community-driven conservation.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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