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How Protecting the Environment and Fighting Poverty Are Linked in Madagascar

With a new president in Madagascar, the country is finally taking steps towards exiting the four-year-long political crisis since a military-backed coup toppled the last democratically elected leader in 2009. It is now time for the new administration to tackle the more pressing issues plaguing the island, such as the alarming poverty rate among the most disenfranchised citizens [fr] and the rapidly deteriorating ecological system. 

Let's examine how those two issues, although seemingly unrelated at first, are closely interconnected in Madagascar. 

The exploitation of mineral resources in the southern region

A legal conflict involving mining giant Rio Tinto Group and an environmental group in southern Madagascar illustrates how poverty and environmental issues are closely linked.

Lavaka (erosion gully) in Madagascar caused by deforestation via wikipedia CC-BY-2.0

Lavaka (erosion gully) in Madagascar caused by deforestation via wikipedia CC-BY-2.0

QIT Madagascar Minerals, owned by a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, has been involved in the exploitation of several mining resources in the south of the country. The project website states the following about its activities there:

QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), which is 80% owned by Rio Tinto and 20% owned by the Government of Madagascar, has built a mineral sands mining operation near Fort-Dauphin at the south-east tip of Madagascar. QMM intends to extract ilmenite and zircon from heavy mineral sands over an area of about 6,000 hectares along the coast over the next 40 years. [...] Current mining activity is at the 2000 ha Mandena site, to the north of Fort-Dauphin. Production on this site will eventually ramp up to 750,000 tonnes a year. Later phases will be at Ste-Luce and Petriky and there is potential to expand production to 2.2 million tonnes a year.

Website Malagasyfordevelopment.kazeo.com adds that [fr] the project was projected to create 2,000 new jobs over three years: 600 would be directly related to the project, while between 1,000 and 2,000 would be indirectly created during the production phase.

This is the sunny side of the story. The other is much darker, as described by Libération afrique [fr]:

 75% de la population malgache vivent avec moins de US$ 1 par jour. Le gouvernement malgache se résigne à se faire piller son sous-sol pendant 40 ans par Rio Tinto avec ses conséquences : dette, salaires de misère et environnement unique au monde détruit. Pour les trois années de construction, Rio Tinto ferait appel à des sous-traitants, dont plus de 500 ouvriers spécialisés venant d’Afrique du Sud et d’Asie alors que le chômage à Madagascar est parmi les plus importants en Afrique.

About 75% of the Malagasy population live with less than 1 US dollar/day. Yet, the Malagasy government is resigned to let Rio Tinto exploit its mineral resources for the next 40 years with the following consequences: increased national debt, very low salaries and the destruction of a unique mineral ecosystem. During the three-year construction phase, Rio Tinto has summoned at least 500 workers from South Africa and Asia, while unemployment in Madagascar is one of the highest in Africa.

Several environmental groups have denounced the impact of the project on the local population and their environment. Some of these allegations against the project are described in the following post by Sarah-Jayne Clifton for Friends of the Earth:

Customary land rights have not been respected, with families without formal land title being persistently disadvantaged in the compensation process despite Rio Tinto’s commitment to respecting traditional land tenure . Some families were excluded from the compensation process altogether because they were not present when the register of families requiring compensation was drawn up [...]

QMM has said it will replant the mine site once the ilmenite has been removed and has collected seeds from the forest for this. But 70 per cent of the area will be planted with exotic species because QMM’s specialists claim that the soil in these areas is too degraded to support the reintroduction of native species. There are concerns that this could have devastating impacts. Exotic species such as eucalyptus could over-run native trees on the island, take valuable water resources, and fundamentally change the biodiversity of the forest floor.

When asked about these allegations, QMM was at first not exactly forthcoming, as their response to pointed questions regarding the issue demonstrates:

The tension between Malagasy civil society and Rio Tinto/QMM reached a peak when protests outside QMM factories led to the arrests of 15 environmental and indigenous rights activists from the association Fagnomba in March 2013, who demanded compensation for the land taken by the company. 

Perle Zafinandro Fourquet, a co-founder of the association, was one of those arrested. Her family provided further details about the context of the arrest [fr]:

Depuis janvier, Fagnomba installe des barrages sur l'accès à la mine et les militaires ont été diligentés pour lever ces barrages…Dernièrement, des bureaux et du materiel informatique ont été saccagés et le juge semble mettre tout cela sur le dos de Fagnomba : une affaire montée de toute pièce ! Enfin, pour montrer que l'affaire est scabreuse, la plainte a été déposée par la présidente de la CENIT (qui regroupe l'aide exterieure pour mener à bien les élections à Madagascar) qui est cousine par alliance du chef de Région…

Since January, the association Fagnomba has raised fences in front of the entry of the mines and the army was summoned to remove them. Recently, the offices and the IT system of QMM were looted and the judge seemed to have decided that Fagnomba was to be blamed for that: This was just a trap! To tell you how fishy the whole thing is, the complaint was filed by the president of the National Electoral Commission (the body who is supposed to make sure that the elections will be transparent and free). She is also the cousin of the regional political leader…

Fagnomba argues that a few measures are necessary to make it right in the region via this petition:

Elle réclame également l'embauche de travailleurs locaux au sein de cette société qui fait venir la plupart de ses employés de la capitale. Elle lutte pour la protection de l'environnement malmené durement (les poissons disparaissent depuis l'installation d'un barrage…).

The association asks that local workers be recruited instead of bringing workers from the capital city. They also ask that the environment be better protected (as seen in the vanishing of fish since the dam was built…).

Potential solutions

However solutions do exist that combine providing for the neediest with ensuring that forests are protected.

First, Anup Shah at Global Issues argued that a more comprehensive outlook on the issue of poverty is needed:

Just as doctors highlight the need to prevent illnesses in the first place, and resort to cures when needed, so too do we need to understand these deeper issues in a more holistic manner. The interconnectedness needs more recognition if environmental degradation, poverty and other global problems can begin to be addressed.

In addition to a more holistic approach, the risk assessment of the consequences of poverty has to be broadened as well. Larry West, an editor for environmental issues at About.com, explained:

The lower your income, the higher the likelihood that you will be exposed to toxics at home and on the job. The greater the risk that you will suffer from diseases — ranging from asthma to cancer — caused or exacerbated by environmental factors. The harder it will be for you to find and afford healthy food to put on your table.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) states that an important proportion of people in Madagascar and around the globe rely on forest resources for subsistence, and therefore protection of forests is an integral part of the fight against poverty:

Close to 1.6 billion people depend on forest resources for their survival. Forest resources directly contribute to the livelihoods of 90% of the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty. [..] Damage to the environment, as well as a lack of clean water and land suitable for farming or growing food, leads to more hunger, illness, poverty and reduced opportunities to make a living.

The WWF recommends the following course of action to achieve this goal:

work with local communities across the world to:
-help them to secure their rights to manage the forest resources on which their livelihoods depend
-support them to manage forests sustainably, for their own well-being as well as to protect the environment
-provide opportunities for generating long-term incomes from sustainable forest management, for example by providing business training and linking them to national and international markets
-enable them to gain FSC certification and access markets for sustainably managed timber

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