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March 13th, 2009
02:58 PM ET

“Killing me would not be in your interest”

Protesters rally in Madagascar last month before violence broke out near the presidential palace.
Protesters rally in Madagascar last month before violence broke out near the presidential palace.

Michael Schulder
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.

MAN’S RELATIVES

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.

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Michael

    Well to do and financially secure citizens should spend and help stimulate the econmony. Even though the recession is deep and real .....millions of Americans are still doing very well and could afford it. Paint the house, do some new landscaping, use the caterer, take the entire office for lunch at the neighborhood tavern!!! And you multi, multi, millionaires.... give a grant or a loan to a worthy small business, sometimes as little as $50,000 would help them stay in business and create jobs!!! It is time for us to help each other.

    March 16, 2009 at 2:03 am |
  2. vincent

    I wish everyone would stop compairing there countries money to the dollar. It really doesn't make sense to. If all these "Poor Countries" concentrated on how to .... They would be able know how!

    March 15, 2009 at 11:34 pm |
  3. Sherry D.

    Hopefully, you will have a discussion regarding the payment of bonuses at AIG. Please, enlighten me. I view the argument that AIG is putting forth as justification for their actions as nonsense. If I heard their explanation correctly, they claim that they have to pay the "best and the brightest" or they will leave the company. Well, the best and the brightest do not lead their company into financial ruin. So, let them leave. Am I to believe that if the government had not provided TARP funds that they would have funding to pay these bonuses? This is the strongest argument to support the premise that no company is too big to fail. I subscribe to the thinking that the bigger they are the harder they fall, but fail they must if they do not operate efficiently. This is truly an outrage. Obama's administration should demand that they repay the money owed the government immediately. Let's stop trying to bail out irresponsible CEOs. It does not work. They are not good corporate citizens, they are the worst and their behavior is criminal.

    March 15, 2009 at 4:18 pm |
  4. Stan

    I was just watching the News and find it utterly stuppid for any Country to stop a Girl from going to school. I know it's their belief, but why in the hell would you want to be with a woman, who can't balance a check book or read a book to your children! Third World Countries need to wake up, women are the back bone of the Unites States as well as all the Entire World, without them their would be know world at all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I haven't saw a man yet have a baby. If you allowed women to get Educated, then they could tell you how stuppid it is to be fighting over Religion and killing thousands of people. The same way it's going on in Africa, it's Utterly stupid, wake up people.

    March 15, 2009 at 2:18 pm |
  5. harilala

    anderson, you have always been great at investigative reporting. you should look at the political crisis in madagascar a little more closely because the western world is only hearing a one sided story fueled by french news medias that are biased and with an agenda. i'm not sure if there is another country on earth where the person who is trying to take over the government is actually a citizen of another country. that is the case in madagascar, Andry Rajoelina aka TGV is a malagasy french citizen who is in cahoots with the former president Didier Ratsiraka (who by the way went into hiding in France after losing a presidential election, after committing atrocious crimes in madagascar).
    so another outlet, with unbiased opinions need to really dig deep and share the reality of the madagascar political crisis because the malagasy people is suffering.

    thank you!

    March 15, 2009 at 1:34 pm |
  6. Carl Parisien Natick MA

    Carl Parisien Natick MA – its a shame its come to this. Madagascar has so many things going for it. CNN should move this story to the forefront.

    March 14, 2009 at 10:25 pm |
  7. JOHN

    Quite a pathetic situation for Madgascar,African countries generally are being ripped apart by selfish and ambitious leaders who manipulates the constitution to siut themselves with little regard for common man.
    May God bless Africa with good leaders.
    John

    March 14, 2009 at 8:03 am |
  8. Laura

    Thanks for pointing out that countries that may seem obscure to some are globally significant in other respects, and for the excellent links at the end of the story.

    March 14, 2009 at 5:51 am |
  9. Ricardo (Brasil)

    I agree with the author that it is totally dependent upon a global society to protect and preserve the wonderful resources that can be found in Madagascar, however as equally as important to protect and preserve are the human resources that live there too. There obviously needs to be more discussion about the societal infrastructure of that nation that creates such instability for human life. – And speaking of "human life", I completely disagree with the assumption that our distant "relatives" are primates. No thanks! Save that logic to describe politicians.

    March 14, 2009 at 4:41 am |
  10. Lisa Sullivan

    "Madagascar’s President says “killing me would not be in your interest.” He was addressing the army. He could have been addressing us all."

    Fabulous.

    March 14, 2009 at 1:02 am |
  11. Will Gibson

    So what's your point?

    March 14, 2009 at 12:32 am |
  12. Dave - Columbus

    The people of Madagascar could really care less what we think. They are trying to survive. They are only doing what they believe needs to be done. We live in a country where the poorest of the poor live better than 95% of the rest of the world. And we are lecturing them? We don't understand them! Some people in the US need to go live in a 3rd world country for a month and then try to tell me how horrible things are right now for us.

    Don't get me wrong... what they are doing there (corruption, slash and burn forests, etc.) is not in the best interest of the country or the world. But the citizens of that country could care less what we think.

    Jon – Way to take money from the defense budget. Just let the radicals invade and there will not be a US to help other countries anymore. Good plan. Let's take your $30 billion from the $1.3 trillion they just gave Amtrak (already a failure) or from the $700 billion bank bailout (where some should be allowed to fail).

    March 13, 2009 at 11:54 pm |
  13. Jeff Goldberg

    Unfortunately, politicians (or the countries/multinationals behind them) and scientists do not think alike ...

    My viewpoint: What we currently see in Madagascar is exactly the same scenario that France used in Cote D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). One does not need to go far to see that France is stirring many of its former colonies, especially those that "dared" to turn its back on them, for the last couple of years. Madagascar implemented a promising market economy, which is backed by the US among others (Read the Millenium Challenge program and many more). The results were not that spectacular YET, due to many reasons, but cleaning more than 25 years of mess of Ratsirk and his French acolytes is not easy ... couple that with current corruption within the government. But that's one of many reasons to have a market economy.

    Madagascar is a beautiful country with (finally) a promising economy ... but unfortunately, it may disappear if the media - especially those that do not speak French - keep silent. Come on CNN ... New York Times ... and the others ... you owe it to the world!

    Respectfully yours.

    March 13, 2009 at 8:44 pm |
  14. Don, WA

    Not only that, but I believe madagascar also grows the world's finest vanilla beans.

    March 13, 2009 at 8:34 pm |
  15. Annie Kate

    I've read that scientists making a census of species in Madagascar have not only discovered many new species which we did not know about that are still in existence, but species that are already extinct as well. The biodiversity in this one small island is an example of our planet's biodiversity and how we need to preserve both. The plant or animal may seem insignificant in and of itself but they may be the next cure for cancer or other human maladies and the animals the only way to keep the plants growing as they distribute seeds through the forest.

    Madagascar is a wonderful case study in why we need to treasure and preserve all the species we find here on Earth. I hope that people do not have to go back to agriculture and slash and burn – in trying to feed themselves and their families they could destroy the very species that will one day save people from some terrible plague.

    March 13, 2009 at 6:44 pm |
  16. Jon Lilly

    Global poverty has huge economic and geopolitical ramifications.

    The Borgen Project (www.borgenproject.org) has some interesting insight into addressing the issues of global poverty, something we can remedy easily and sustainably.

    Some interesting figures to ponder:
    $30 billion USD: The annual shortfall to end global poverty.
    $550 billion USD: The annual US defense budget.

    March 13, 2009 at 3:07 pm |