When I land in a new country, either a returning veteran or newcomer, smell is always the first to tend me its welcoming hand. Descending the stairs of a plane or stepping on to a platform, it is always nose first, searching, among the uncharacteristic homogenous sterility of most airports and stations, the only immediate sign of any geographical change - the scents wafting in past the runway fences.
When I arrived in Madagascar, during the pitch black night that only Africa and Antarctica know, my curious proboscis was surprised at how easily it pinned down the first sniffs of this marvel island. Clearly and unquestionably, wood smoke. I was instantly reminded of a bucket of sticks and charcoal, layer upon neglected layer of black chips and cinders upon which rests the wood that keeps well fed some households’ blazing heath. I had not expected this somehow. I had expected maybe some lush smell, like the one you might imagine emanating from transpiration covered leaves upon which some luridly colored insect hops. Or maybe what you might expect when looking at a mango tree or a nectar dripping Jacaranda.
This first impression was but an olfactory clue for what was to stampede all our senses during our 1000km trip from Antananarivo to Tulear. A sign that what I had been telling people during 2 months of project campaigning I didn’t really Know.
Soon I would. The vapors of combustion that thickened the air in Tana did not recede as the taxi brousse drove south. Burnt and ravaged land lay aloft the RN7, the only true road that crosses Madagascar. Sentinel trees stand like island relics of some old continent long swallowed and flooded, in this case by a raging ocean of fire. Among the smoke clouds, dry winds carried the orphaned soil, the only link that had kept it bound to the earth now equally volatile cinders. Erosion, merciless and terrible, bleaching the land as irreversibly as any sun.
Everyday Madagascar is burning and this is never news. The island Paradise is fast dwindling as the Malagasy (and others, but that is a story for another time) eat away their natural resources at a startling rate. Slash and burn, fires rage without control through the forests and the thickets… tout brulée!
The spiny forest, with the highest endemism rate in the whole Island, is no exception. Disappearing at 500 sq km per year, it is still one of Madagascar’s most intact ecosystems, yet its surface covers today barely 50% of what it did 50 years ago. The rate of this demise and ruthless acceleration of soil erosion has only increased since Madagascar found itself deep in a economic depression it has little hopes of overcoming. With the massive increase in arable land demand, great expanses are being shaved of their endemism rich marvels to give way to fields of maize and rice. Wood trade and coal production make a good income and permits for felling precious trees are all too easy to get when money is fluid under tables. Which it always is. After felling what useful individuals a plot may harbor, it is common practice burn it, with no plans for converting the then sterile land to agriculture. They call it simply “cleaning”. The relationship of the Malagasy with their forests has long been a matter of ambiguity, lacking the strong history and deep ties of other indigenous peoples that have lived and nurtured in great forests of the world.
But it is hardly our place to judge. As used to as we are to our European rolling green fields and hedges, our French, German or British countryside, with all its Victorian charm, is nothing more than the result of the disappearance of Occident’s primary forests. This loss lies so far back, mingled with the feats and technological conquests that so clutter our western-centered timeline, that we forget the old continent harbors not 1% of its original primary forests. So, before we lift our western noses at the Malagasy, let it be not in condescension, but for sniffing out something new we ALL can learn from.
- by Alicia Donnellan Barraclough
- by Alicia Donnellan Barraclough