CNN Senior Executive Producer
“Killing me would not be in your interest.” So said the President of one of the most important countries on earth today. The quote is from the President of Madagascar. It was directed at members of an army faction that says it will no longer obey Madagascar’s civilian leadership. How can such a poor country, where more than half the population of 20 million people makes less than a dollar a day, be considered one of the most important nations in the world? Because this poor country has the richest diversity of plant and animal species of anywhere else on earth. Political instability in Madagascar could make life on earth less sustainable.
80 MILLION YEARS AT STAKE
One of the best guides to Madagascar is Frank Hawkins who lived there for 17 years. He is in charge of Conservation International’s Madagascar program, which makes up one of that environmental organization’s largest investments. Over the past two thousand years, Hawkins explains, since humans first arrived on this African island about the size of California, 90 percent of the forest has been slashed and burned for agriculture. (I never understood why people would burn a forest for agricultural land rather than sell the wood. The answer is below.)
The good news is that 10 percent of Madagascar’s forest survived. And within that ten percent lies the richest diversity of species anywhere. No place else, no place, has so many species, in such a concentrated area, that have existed for so long. Some of the species on Madagascar have been around for 80 MILLION YEARS.
THE MADAGASCAR LEUKEMIA CURE
Hawkins says 12 thousand plants species are endemic to Madagascar. One of them, the Rosy Periwinkle, is the source of one drug that is the sole method of treating a form of childhood leukemia, and another drug used in the treatment of Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Thanks to that discovery in Madagascar, the Rosy Periwinkle is now cultivated extensively in Texas for the pharmaceutical industry to provide that key leukemia medicine. How many other of those 12-thousand plant species have medicinal value is anyone’s guess.
Several thousand species of animal species also exist only on Madagascar. Consider just one. The lemur. Why should we care about lemurs? Conservation International’s Hawkins: “It’s the lemur that distributes fruits through the forest – enabling the forest to survive. The seeds are in the fruits. That’s how the forest regenerates.” There’s a broader value the Lemur provides, as Hawkins explains. “Lemurs are part of an enormous branch of the family of primates, the group to which humans belong, which are only found on Madagascar.” In other words, they are a key to understanding our own species’ past, and how we can survive in the future. As Hawkins puts it: “The more we understand about our extended family, the better we can take care of ourselves.”
ECONOMIC GROWTH = FOREST PROTECTION
There are thousands of birds, reptiles and amphibians – around 90 percent of which exist only on Madagascar. “They represent a disproportionately large chunk of what goes on in the world. The fraction of all the species that live only in Madagascar is extremely large compared the size of the island.”
During the past six or seven years, economic prospects on this poor island nation were getting brighter. Foreign companies were opening clothing factories. Ecotourism was on the rise. People were leaving the forest’s borders for more lucrative jobs in the city, which, in turn, put less stress on the forest. The big concern now is that, if this dispute within Madagascar’s military does not end soon, the business climate will deteriorate, city jobs will disappear, more people will return to agriculture and be tempted to begin slashing and burning once again to make a living off the land. October has, in past years, been the traditional slash and burn season. October is seven months away. There’s not much time.
Madagascar’s President says “killing me would not be in your interest.” He was addressing the army. He could have been addressing us all. ________________________________________________________________________________________ Take a look at this visual tour of Madagascar and get more details about what Madagascar’s government and Conservation International have been doing to protect this critical habitat.
As for the question raised above about why anyone would slash and burn a forest to clear the land for agriculture, rather than harvest the trees for wood, the answer from Frank Hawkins. When the trees are burned they release huge amounts of nitrogen and other fertilizers. Bottom line, it’s a cheap way to get nutrients into the soil. It’s why forest protection is so important in the battle against climate change. Burning trees releases nutrients into the soil, and, of course, also releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, which is a major contributor to global warming.
Finally, for a fuller “connect the dots” explanation of why protecting the diversity of species on earth is critical to sustaining human life, listen to this interview with the father of biodiversity protection, biologist E.O. Wilson.
And a new book called “Sustaining Life” by Nobel Prize prize winning M.D. Eric Chivian, who’s the Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard, and his co-author and editor Dr. Aaron Bernstein, is one of the clearest, most visually compelling, works you’ll find explaining how human health depends on biodiversity. More coverage of “Sustaining Life” in future blogs here on AC 360°’s Planet in Peril.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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