In the rolling hills of the southeastern highlands of Madagascar there lives a group of people known as the Zafimaniry, or the "the people of the forest." The Zafimaniry are renowned sculptors of wood and traditionally, virtually every member of the community was involved in some aspect of woodworking and cabinetmaking. Their pictureque homes are assembled completely without nails and, along with their tombs, furniture, tools and everyday objects, are carved with attractive geometric patterns that "are highly codified, reflecting both the Polynesian origins of the community and the Arab influences in Malagasy culture" (UNSECO description).
However, these are not good times for many Zafimaniry. Severe deforestation for slash-and-burn cultivation ("tavy") has left their surroundings nearly completely devoid of trees. Once encircled by vigorous forests, some Zafimaniry villages are more than a day's trek from the nearest natural wood source. As a result, over the past decade, the Zafimaniry have increasingly looked toward tourism as an answer to their the economic plight. The unmoderated flow of tourists into these remote and delicate communities has denigrated their culture and left some Zafimaniry further entrenched in poverty.
For these reasons, visiting a Zafimaniry village today can be an uncomfortable experience. Typically you reach outer villages with the help of a local guide who can be hired from the town of Ambositra which lies along the national road (RN7) from the capital city of Antananarivo (better known as "Tana"). Ambositra is the destination for many of the wood carvings so carefully crafted by woodworking experts in the outlying communities.
The main Zafimaniry village is Antoetra, which probably has around 1000 inhabitats. Here the impact of uncontrolled tourism is evident by the swarms of children who attempt to sell tourists various carved objects. They aggressively underbid eachother in an efforts to sell whatever they can to visiting "vazaha," as white foreigners are called. Visitors are expected to make a 2000 Ariary payment (around $1) to the town before heading out to the smaller communties.
We spend only moments in Antoetra. Roger, my guide is anxious to get hiking before if gets too hot; there no tree cover to protect us from the sun. Despite appearing to be a fit thirty year old man, Roger is struggling with some chronic health condition. He breaks frequently to catch his breath and massage his leg. Apparently he has just received another round of injections as treatment for his malady. These seem to do him little good. He's a lucky one though. Relative to the people of the communities we are about to visit, Roger is an affluent man. Paid in foregin currency and living in a sizeable town, Roger has access to services and medications that many of the Zafimaniry can barely fathom.
As we hike through the grassy savanna we pass a number of Zafimaniry women awkwardly balancing giant wood planks on their heads. We see groups of men carrying heavily worn shovels to work in the fields. Unlike in most of Madagascar, maize and beans are grown in this area. Due to the soil composition, effective rice cultivation -- rice is the staple food of Madagascar -- is a relaitvely new development here. With the help of some agronomists, the productivity of rice cultivation in the immediate area has increased significantly. However, it is a little too late for increased crop productivity to save the region's forests. The Zafimaniry's traditional reliance on tavy has left them in a denuded landscape with scattered patches of eucalyptus groves and fern cover. The forests that once afforded them with hardwoods for their carvings are now but a memory.
We approach Ifasina, a small village known for its intricately carved homes. Before entering the village we pass by a traditional tomb where we are met by dozens of children, virtually all of whom appear to be under the age of 12. Something is very different about the children of Ifasina -- they are much less carefree than others I've encountered in Madagascar. Many of the kids have runny noses and look malnourished, while several have obvious eye problems. Despite its woven wood doors, carved window frames, and photographic homes, the village itself seems destitute. Some of the ornate woodworkings have been scrawled over with chalk markings.
George, a village elder, invites us into his house. As a number of kids join us we talk about the village and how times have changed since he was young. He remembers a time before the forests disappeared over the ridgeline when the village was a happier and healthier place. Digging through a wooden box he pulls out a black and white photograph that shows a line of robust Malagasy standing in front a formidable forest and laments, "In the old days, when there was forest, the men were strong. Now the forest is gone and the men are weak" (Note: this is a loose translation from Malagasy; George does not speak a word of English).
George's sentiments are not unusual or out of place. The average Malagasy is poorer now than he was a generation ago. Most Malagasy live on less than a dollar per day and nearly half of the country's children under five years of age are malnourished. Rural dwellers in particular have seen their quality of life erode as environmental degradation has taken its toll. Today many rural Malagasy, especially young women, head to cities like Tana with grand illusions. They believe by simply reaching the city all their problems will be solved. Once they discover the reality that is living on the street without money or transferable work skills, they often no longer have the means or will to return home. Tana streets are filled with thousands of such hopefuls and it is often only with the assistance of aid organizations that they can return to their villages of origin with a sense of dignity and purpose.
While Madagascar's environmental degradation has left it a poorer place, today there is a great deal of hope for the country and its people. The country now has a relatively stable and progressive government, one that has recently signed an aid package that will enable poor farmers to get small loans to help them gain title to land. Gaining land title will give rural Malagasy a larger stake in their agricultural practices and a greater interest in maintaing soil productivity. The government has also clamped down on deforestation by restricting slash-and-burn agriculture in pristine forests while setting aside large areas for permanent preservation.
The government expects these protected areas to play an important role not only in ensuring critical ecological services like watershed protection and erosion prevention but also as the basis for a budding ecotourism industry which stands to benefit from the launch of a new blockbuster movie in May 2005. The film, entitled Madagascar, is expected to signifcantly increase the number of Western visitors to the island, particuarly those interested in its unparalleled wildlife. It is just these visitors who hold the key to Madagascar's economic future. This time around, lessons have been learned and every effort will be made to minimize the negative impact and maximize the benefits of a new generation of visitors who will come to see Madagascar for its astonishing uniqueness and not merely as a place for a cheap holiday.