Wind of change brings bad odour : Madagascar days

From a distance it looks like Paradise - a perfect crescent bay of bright blue and turquoise, rimmed by surf breaking on a white beach. Behind, stupendous craggy mountains, dark with forest, soar up into the clouds. Morning and evening, bare-backed fishermen set out in dugout canoes from the harbour under the old white Portuguese fort as they have done for centuries. But closer inspection reveals a world far from paradise. The main street of Tolanaro, which ought to be the promenade, is a half mile of potholes lined with shacks. There is a warehouse at one end and a whorehouse at the other. And if you prefer to walk along the beach you get a whiff of something nasty. At your feet lies a pat of excrement, then you see another and another. You pick your way through them but you can no longer afford to look at the view. This is the Third World without the H.

The guide book says it is taboo for Malagasy people to bury their faeces because the ancestors are interred in the earth. In villages the public loo areas are carefully defined. In Tolanaro it seems to be the beach.

But the locals are not the only ones who have been dropping things here and the other items are not so biodegradable. In the middle of the bay lies a half submerged bulk carrier with its back broken. The Wellborn was carrying manganese from Gabon to the Far East and was abandoned by her crew last July after she began to leak. Responsibility for salvage is disputed - so she lies there, oil seeping steadily out and forming a slimy black film around the other deposits on the beach.

Farther round the bay another coaster lies beached. No one can remember how long it has been there. Nearer the town are three huge oil tanks, now empty and rusting. Barefoot children play among the tangle of broken pipes at their base. This is not, it seems, a part of the world anyone cares very much about.

Except for the mining company that plans to extract millions of tons of titanium ore from the sands along the bay. There has already been much argument about whether this will be a good thing or a bad thing for the local environment and the local people but no one should assume that this is a Garden of Eden in which local people live happily in harmony with their local ecology. The World-wide Fund for Nature has written bluntly that many of the traditional practices of the people are endangering themselves as well as the environment.

Some 85 per cent of Madagascar's forest has already been destroyed, not by outsiders or logging companies but by the local people. Up in the hills a favourite method of farming is tavy, slash and burn.

Malagasy live on rice but they invest their lives in cattle, not as a means of exchange but for status. For cattle they need more and more grassland and to clear grassland they burn off the bush and old grass from existing pasture and cut down more forest every year. The soil is soon exhausted and the grassland begins to erode.

It is not only the farming practices which prevent economic development. The Malagasy are deeply spiritual people whose lives are ruled by ritual, tradition and spirit mediums. Continuing the ancestral line and keeping in touch with your forebears is themeaning of life.

You get pulled around by Madagascar. Suddenly the harmonised values of civilisation we accept as norms appear in total contradiction. "Save the Rainforest" collides head on with "Respect their Culture". Something will have to give. An aid programme involving a few thousand poopa-scoopas might be a start.

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