Madagascar, an Eco Friendly Destination Off the Beaten Path

Despite biodiversity and scenic beauty, Madagascar  is only just beginning to embrace its potential as an eco friendly destination; the country still has relatively little tourism. Neighboring countries, including the Seychelles and Mauritius islands, receive more visitors than Madagascar; in fact, Madagascar has the smallest tourism industry of all the islands in the Indian Ocean.

Why? Well, it's a long haul, for one thing. And it's not cheap. Air Madagascar and Air France are the main airlines, so it's expensive to fly to the island. Also, although the government has sought to promote Madagascar's status as an eco friendly destination and boost tourism, the infrastructure of the country is poor. Roads are not well-paved. Only 100 or so of the hotels meet international standards. Sadly, 70% of the country lives in poverty, and eco tourism could greatly improve the current  economic situation.

Furthermore, turning Madagascar into a popular eco friendly destination could help protect the local habitat, which is threatened, in part, by "slash and burn" techniques. It's illegal to burn the grass and trees, nowadays, but some Madagascans still do it secretively; their livelihood sometimes depends on rice and cattle. Deforestation causes erosion, though, and threatens the ecosystem. In recent years, authorities tried to plant trees, but they were burned down by locals. The new trees were considered a violation of the communal space.

Professor Mary Edwards, who is in charge of a geographical research group for NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), said that her group discovered the following: "Authorities had not consulted or talked to any of the locals before they started planting the forests. The authorities, represented by urban, well-educated Madagascans...did not know who to approach.... The tribes have a traditional, hierarchical structure: all strangers have to contact the chief first. On the rare occasions when the authorities do make contact – and then with the wrong person in the tribe – it is looked upon as insulting and failing to show due respect.”

Gunilla Almered Olsson, associate professor in plant ecology at NTNU, added her thoughts about the locals resistance to turning Madagascar into an eco friendly destination: "Madagascar is a developing country with one of the least developed economies in the world. People are poor, and they are sceptical about anything new." Unfortunately, illegal logging and poaching are also a concern for Madagascar, and the island made Frommer's list of "500 Places to Visit Before They Disappear". One third of the native vegetation has disappeared since the 1970s, and only 18% remains intact. The wildlife, obviously, is disappearing, too. In May of this year, the red-eyed alaotra grebe bird was declared extinct.

There's still hope, of course. Ecologists like Olsson and Edwards are working to restore and protect the tropical ecosystem, and hoping to find simple methods that will be enforced by the local population. Madagascar has almost 3,100 miles of  beautiful coastline, and it's one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. Around 70% of Madagascar's animals are found only on the island. More than half of the birds on the island are endemic, along with a number of lemurs.  Most of the lemurs are endangered, though, and counting on Madagascar's potential future as an eco friendly tourism destination.

Photo credit: Charles Cantin