ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar – I’ve been arguing that the big divide in the world these days is between the world of order and a growing world of disorder. If you’re keeping score at home, the world of disorder just added another country: Libya. America quietly folded up its embassy in Libya last week and left, leaving behind a tribal/militia war of all against all. Not good.
There will be more of this. It’s not easy being a country anymore. There is no more Cold War to prop up, arm and finance frail states. More important, the combined pressures of the market (globalization and the speed with which investment can flow into countries doing the right things and out of those doing bad things), Moore’s Law (the steady rise in computing power that makes every good job today require more education) and Mother Nature (climate change, biodiversity loss, erosion and population growth) have all passed certain tipping points. Together, the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law are stressing out developed countries and helping to blow up weak ones.
For me, the movie line that perfectly captures this moment was uttered by the leader of the Somali pirates who hijacked a cargo ship in “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks. The pirate nicknames the Boston-bred Phillips “Irish.” In a critical scene, Hanks tries to reason with the Somali hijacker, saying to him: “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.”
To which the hijacker replies, “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”
It has been instructive to see all these pressures up close here in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world. The globalization of illicit trade has left Madagascar exposed to Chinese merchants working with corrupt officials here to illegally import everything from valuable rosewood timber to rare tortoises. Some global textile manufacturers set up factories then quit when the politics turned too unstable. Mandatory education here is only through age 15, and it’s in the local Malagasy language. That makes it hard to compete in a world where some developed countries are teaching computer coding in first grade.
And then there’s Mother Nature: the population of Madagascar is exploding, and the forests and soils are eroding. The soil for agriculture here is iron rich, nutrient poor and often very soft. Because 90 percent of Madagascar’s forests have been chopped down for slash-and-burn agriculture, timber, firewood and charcoal over the past century, most hillsides have no trees to hold the soil when it rains. Flying along the northwest coast, you can’t miss the scale of the problem. You see a giant red plume of eroded red soil bleeding into the Betsiboka River, bleeding into Mahajanga Bay, bleeding into the Indian Ocean. The mess is so big that astronauts take pictures of it from space.
“The more you erode, the more people you have with less soil under their feet to grow things,” said Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International, who’s been working in Madagascar to help preserve its environment since 1984 and has been showing me around. “When I first came here in 1984, the population was 9 or 10 million. It is now approaching 23 million.”
When countries have rapidly growing populations and rapidly diminishing natural capital, the leadership required to match the scale of the problems they face is nothing less than herculean. After 50 years of mostly bad leadership, Madagascar has democratically elected a new, post-coup president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina. He seems to want to do the right things. We can only hope he has some Hercules in him.
Nothing he does will be more important than preserving what is left of Madagascar’s pristine beaches, forests and plant and animal species (particularly its lemurs), among the most rare and diverse in the world. Parks and reserves have been set aside by the government - and even with the destruction there’s still a ton to see - but they will only be sustainable if they are supported by ecotourist lodges and guides who are drawn from local communities and incentivized to protect their natural capital. But that takes a government able to expand protected areas, build proper roads (rural roads here have more potholes than pavement), crack down on illegal logging and provide credit to rural communities.
Serge Rajaobelina is the founder of Fanamby, a local nonprofit that supports villagers starting ecotourist sites, like Camp Amoureux, situated in western Madagascar amid spectacular giant baobab trees. We stayed there. Of the 25 locals working there, 22 were women.
“Involving communities in ecotourism is the key,” Rajaobelina said. “The people who are always in the field are the communities, and they are the best conservationists and guides.” But, he added, they need help with capacity building: training, access to credit and infrastructure.
There are already too many people walking around the world saying, “Maybe in America, but not here.” We don’t need more. Keeping Madagascar out of the world of disorder has to start by preserving its ecosystems, which are vital for sustaining its people and attracting tourism. But that requires good leadership, and good leaders today - anywhere - are the rarest species of all.