by Tobias Thornes
It was nearing summer in the Northern Hemisphere when my boat at long last docked, but somewhere along the way we had slipped imperceptibly into the South, and – for now at least – winter was setting in around me for the second time in six months. I didn’t know it then, but the days of European ships making this long journey home from Asia via Africa were numbered; already the Arctic in September was nearly ice-free, and soon its beleaguered icy canvasses would be gone forever, the grip of its ancient freeze retreating sufficiently all summer long for direct shipments to shave weeks off the voyage from China to northern Europe by crossing its once impassable seas.
For now, though, Madagascar’s major port of Toamasina was still flourishing on the back of imports and exports facilitated by these passing ships. It was there that I abandoned my hitch-hike aboard the freighter, and tasted again the bitter-sweet reality of dry land and human civilisation. This was my first experience of Africa proper, an outpost on the eastern edge of the world’s fourth-largest island, a dissonant mix of beautiful beaches and sparkling shark-infested seas alongside the ugly grey roads and buildings of modernity’s pox. Even in the autumn, late May, it was a not unpleasant twenty five degrees, and as I walked further into the city I was met with more pleasing sights, sounds and scents as an exotic medley of spices exuded from the bustling market stalls. In a town indeed rooted in trade, the air hummed with a lovely language curious to my unaccustomed ear, but quite impossible for my sea-weary cognition to comprehend. Fortunately for me, the more familiar French was spoken alongside the tuneful Malagasy tongue.
Nearly three times the size of Great Britain, Madagascar nonetheless boasted an astounding range of climates and variegated living beings. For eighty-eight million years before the arrival of man, the island existed in complete isolation, and the magic of evolution worked wonders in the form of tens of thousands of plants and animals seen nowhere else in the world. Around ninety per cent of its flora and fauna once were endemic, making this an unparalleled paradise of biodiversity surely deserving of the most reverential and awestruck respect.
By the time I had arrived, ninety per cent of the original forest had been cut down, and nearly all of the remainder would soon be gone, even the protected National Parks struggling to survive as unnaturally secluded pockets of life. The lemur, the most famous Madagascan animal, was already in dire danger then, with many of its hundred or so sub-species already having been driven to extinction by habitat loss. It wasn’t difficult, as in so many such situations I’d seen, for me to guess why.
When the French finally withdrew in 1960, they left a land crippled by colonial exploitation; in spite of the rich natural splendour that surrounded them its people lived in a half-developed limbo that left them struggling to live fulfilling lives by either traditional or modern means. As a weary inland train brought me slowly into the capital, the world I saw around me was one stripped of its ancient African beauty in favour of an alien agricultural desert. Slash-and-burn, which had consumed much of the lost forest over the previous half-century, was going on apace, with some of the impoverished people desperate to cash in their un-costed and invaluable natural ‘assets’ for more profitable cattle and coffee plantations. Could they be blamed?
Perhaps in part, but the lion’s share of the responsibility for this perverse atrocity of destruction – one by no means unique to this uniquely biodiverse land – must surely lie with those great ships such as the one I had arrived on, that greedily swarmed upon the port like wasps to a pot of honey, lapping up the island’s treasures as if the supply would never fail. From vanilla to fish, cloves to coal and precious metals, all were for the taking, ripped unsympathetically from land and sea: a rape of Nature, right before my eyes. And somehow they believed that Nature wouldn’t bite us back!
Antananarivo, like almost every major city in those days, was aspiring to be something that it wasn’t meant to be: high-rising and modern, though the trend towards concrete, tarmac and billboards shouting about shopping was by no means as far advanced as in many other places I’d seen. Long gone, alas, were the traditional structures Madagascans used to build out of wood, reeds and grass – all entirely renewable and potentially sustainable local resources. But many quite charming, well-built French-era structures still adorned the capital, not to mention the splendid palaces that crowned the busy city’s beautiful centre, albeit beautified by tree-lined avenues of a distinctly French feel. Nor, though, had the tradition of painful inequality that once separated noble and common classes disappeared; now it was the monetarily wealthy who occupied the characterful, spacious dwellings of the superior districts, while the poor were crammed into more hastily-erected ever-sprawling suburbs. They remained, both in geographical locality and in political power, very much on the periphery.
The dire state of this precious country, in which both culture and nature were severely under strain, became less of a surprise to me the more I learned of its rocky post-colonial road. The first president of an independent Madagascar was deposed after a decade or so for being too close to the French; his immediate successors lasted days, weeks or months before suffering death or deposition at the hands of rival powers. The country became painfully dependent upon unsustainable and unreliable sources of economic growth, and the 1970s oil crisis pushed it further into poverty. But it was the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, big bullies that used to go about in those days holding countries to ransom over money, that insisted on liberalisation of the marketplace and privatisation of industries and services, increasing foreign trade and at the same time slashing state subsidies and pushing the poorest into greater desperation.
Material poverty is a great misery for those who struggle to survive, but at least for those lucky enough to have a meaningful job I found that a healthy and happy life was being lived amidst the poor. Many were free from the mixed blessing of electricity and the curse of private motor vehicles, neither of which presented much of a problem for the welcoming and hospitable people I met. Finding vegetarian food was no difficulty in a land where most people ate meat only on special occasions, to the benefit of their own health and the environment but primarily because of its expense. The rice paddies that surrounded the city must have brought their own greenhouse gas emissions, but three million people must needs be fed.
Perhaps it was feeding our growing population that doomed us in the end – perhaps the famous Malthus was right. Yet that’s not how it seemed to me, looking down over the rambling rooftops from the great hill atop the city. It wasn’t the vegetarian, electricity-deprived multitudes eking out a living in suburban shanty-towns that were destroying the future viability of our planet. Rather, it was amidst the sprinkling of supermarkets and bright, glitzy shops on the wealthier side of town that the real problem lay.