National Geographic : 2010 Sep
island's federal government has attempted to lease arable land to the South Koreans and sell water to the Saudis. In this come-and-get-it climate, much is extracted but little is gained on behalf of the average Malagasy. Small won- der, then, that local miners loot the countryside of precious gemstones to be sold in Asian mar- kets. Or that animals such as the leaf-tailed gecko and the endangered plowshare tortoise are smuggled by small operators o the island to collectors. Or that the rawboned young men of Antalaha would decide it's better to die tomorrow while taking the money of Chinese rosewood buyers today. "It's good for the economy, bad for the ecology," observes one man involved in the illicit rosewood business, smiling and shrugging as he hops on his motorcycle and speeds o . But the boomlet in Antalaha has proved to be a false one. Even leaving aside the devastating, long-term conse- quences of a plundered forest---the disappear- ance of precious wood in as much as 25,000 acres of the country's 11.3 million acres of protected areas, the extinction of lemurs and other endemic species, a plague of soil erosion that silts up riv- ers and wipes out nearby farmland, the loss of tourism revenue---the perverse side e ects of the rosewood raiding are more immediately felt. e residents of Antalaha who suddenly found themselves dodging motorcycle traffic also began to notice the price of sh, rice, and other daily goods begin to climb. e reason was sim- ple: Fewer men were out at sea or in the elds. " ey're in the forest," says Michel Lomone, the vanilla exporter. "Everyone's gone to the forest." to the forest---meaning Masoala National Park, Madagascar's largest--- requires a journey no one would undertake who does not need to do so. It begins with a three- hour drive southwest from the town, along dirt roads so badly mangled from the weight of lumber trucks that vehicles sink into the muddy ditches, and locals must be rounded up to help push them out. en comes the four- hour pirogue trip up the Onive River, followed by a four-hour slog on foot through spongy rice elds, and another two hours along a slip- pery mud trail up and down the granite spine of dense primary forest---all of this under spo- radic rainfall. us does one arrive at the edge of Masoala. But to nd rosewood that has not yet been cut, one must push deeper, for many hours. e park's southwestern border is Antongil Bay, where humpback whales noisily give birth between July and September. Within the wild, green womb of the 580,000-acre tropical rain forest, a stranger's doggedness may be rewarded with cameo appearances by orchids, carnivorous plants, serpent eagles, the dazzling Parson's chameleon, and the red ru ed lemur. Masoala o ers a seeming in nity of medicinal herbs, wild berries, and rewood to villagers, who stride barefoot in and out of the forest daily, singing and chatting. In contrast, the young men who are here from the city on business appear lost in this damp, mysterious thicket. For weeks they camp out in small groups be- side the trees they've singled out for cutting, sub- sisting on rice and co ee, until the boss shows up. He inspects the rosewood, gives the order. ey chop away with axes. Within hours a tree that rst took root perhaps 500 years ago has fallen to the ground. e cutters hack away at its white exterior until all that remains is its telltale violet heart. e rosewood is cut into logs about seven feet long. Another team of two men tie ropes around each log and proceed to drag it out of the forest to the river's edge, a feat that will take them two days and earn them $10 to $20 a log, depending on the distance. While stag- gering through the forest myself, from time to time I come upon the jarring apparition of two A HIGH POPULATION GROWTH RATE MEANS THE TENSION BETWEEN RICH LAND AND POOR RESIDENTS INCREASES BY THE DAY.