National Geographic : 2010 Sep
• from the vanilla king's head. Today Antalaha is dusty and somnolent, and though its main bou- levard, Rue de Tananarive, was nally paved in 2005 with funding from the European Union, the street's tra c consists largely of a few dinky taxis, rusty bicycles, chickens, goats, and, above all, pedestrians striding barefoot in the rain and holding over their heads the elephantine leaves known as traveler's palms to stay dry. Or such was the traffic until the spring of 2009. During that season the streets of Antalaha suddenly began to roar with motorcycles. e one store on Rue de Tananarive that carried such vehicles promptly sold out. Responding to the demand, a second store opened up down the street and began doing crazy business as well. The buyers were rawboned young men, and everyone in Antalaha knew where their eet- ing cash came from. It wasn't the vanilla elds. e same young men could be seen driving into town in the backs of pickup trucks astraddle great loads of illegally harvested timber, sys- tematically lling their pockets by selectively cutting Madagascar's precious rosewood trees from the forest. Madagascar is an island---the world's fourth largest, at over 225,000 square miles, but an is- land nonetheless. ough all islands are blessed with their own unique biosphere, Madagascar (which was dislocated from Africa some 165 million years ago) is a special case: Roughly 90 percent of its ora and fauna is found nowhere else on the planet. e extraterrestrial spectacle of carrot-shaped baobab trees, ghostly lemurs, and whole "forests" of towering stone spikes is inclined to make the world-weariest of visitors grow wide-eyed with innocent delight. Its rare and haunting beauty coexists with a desperation among its people that de nes every- day life. e Malagasy, the island's major ethnic group, have an expression that is elegant in its fatalism: "Aleo maty rahampitso toy izay maty androany," or "It's better to die tomorrow rather than today." e typical Madagascan lives on about a dollar a day. And considering that Madagascar's population of more than 20 million is growing 3 percent a year---one of the most rapid rates in Africa---the tension between rich land and poor residents on a nite landscape increases by the day. For this reason alarmed ecologists have termed Madagascar a biodiversity hot spot, deploring, in particular, the Malagasy practice of slash-and- burn agriculture, in which swaths of forest are torched and converted to rice elds. Just as the global environmental community rejoiced in 2002 when Marc Ravalomanana assumed the presidency on a green-friendly platform, so did they react with dismay in the spring of 2009 as the military routed Ravalomanana from o ce and installed a constitutionally underage former radio disc jockey in his place. As one veteran aid worker stationed in Madagascar said, "I feel like the past 25 years of work has been undone." In September 2009, a er months during which up to 460,000 dollars' worth of rosewood was being illegally harvested every day, the cash- strapped new government reversed a 2000 ban on the export of rosewood and released a decree legalizing the sale of stockpiled logs. Pressured by an alarmed international community, the government reinstated the ban in April. Yet log- ging continues. e outside world is in no position to lecture, given its own voracious appetite---sometimes benign, sometimes less so---for Madagascar's wondrous resources. e raiding of the forests illustrates how easily the frail balance between hu- man and ecological imperatives can be undone. But that balance has always been wobbly in Mad- agascar. Various foreign-owned holding groups own most of the rights to prospect and mine the country of its gold, nickel, cobalt, ilmenite, and sapphire (which once supplied a third of the world market). ExxonMobil began deep o - shore oil exploration in Madagascar four years ago. Some of the nest American guitar mak- ers have long featured ngerboards constructed of rare Madagascan ebony. In recent years the Writer Robert Draper and photographer Pascal Maitre reported on the failed state of Somalia for the September 2009 issue. e article won the National Magazine Award for photojournalism.