Madagascar feels like a fairy tale. In its varied landscape, around 90% of its 200,000 known species are unique to the island; lemurs, fossas, tenrecs, pygmy chameleons and giant geckos are just some of the wonders. Originally settled by Indonesians, its culture is a strange mix of Indonesia, Africa and France, where people grow rice, worship cattle and drive 1970s Citroens down cobbled streets in the pretty capital, Antananarivo.
It’s well known that despite its biological uniqueness, it also has some of the word’s highest biodiversity loss. For example, more than 90% of lemur species are threatened with extinction. In Madagascar, the native ecosystems, rather than being replaced by productive farmland, as in, for example, New Zealand, have instead been replaced by ecological deserts through the ecological degradation that has followed tree clearing, whether for firewood, commercial export, or (brief) agricultural production.
For much of Madagascar, very little, human or animal, lives there, and you can drive for hours seeing nothing but grass or bare earth to the horizon. In this fairy tale country, it feels like nothing so much as the 1980s children’s movie, The Neverending Story, in which the land of Fantasia, which represents human imagination, is being swallowed up by “the Nothing” caused by adults’ apathy and cynicism.
These ecological deserts have a parallel to the state of Madagascan (and other poor countries’) society, which is perhaps less visible but no less pervasive. We usually think of societies progressing from traditional to modern along a single continuum – we are further ahead, but they are further behind. Instead, while both the West and the Rest started as traditional societies, rich countries’ development came through exploiting the assets of poor countries (think: colonialism).
Both sets of countries changed and developed in parallel – one became rich, but the other became poor, their societies broken down as local institutions were destroyed, replaced with a lawless society in which winners take all, the poor go hungry, and vibrant local cultures die away. Nowadays, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with GDP per capita of US$451, ongoing political crises and corruption, armed gangs on the roads and widespread illegal logging and gemstone mining.
Both the environment and society in Madagascar are not following behind us on the same path to development, they are headed in a different direction; yet while diverging, their journey is intertwined with ours. So how do we reverse “the Nothing” swallowing up the country? Some innovative social enterprises like Blue Ventures are showing us how – through building the social institutions to manage the environment that were destroyed by the process of underdevelopment.
As in The Neverending Story, we need to rescue our imagination from apathy and cynicism.