Madagascar is Burning

In this article, Reef Doctor Honko Manager Antoine Lechevalier discusses the issues of drought, fire and charcoal production that are plaguing the Atsimo-Andrefana (southwest) region of Madagascar.

“These days Madagascar is on fire. When taking the RN7 from Antananarivo to Toliara, hundreds of fires burning in the savanna that replaced the original forest can be seen.

The situation on the coast is not better. On the 10th of March 2018, 8.5 Ha of mangrove and 14 Ha of saltwater marsh including reeds, grasses, and shrubs (rushes) of Belalanda, in SW Madagascar, were destroyed by fire. This event highlights the fire problem in Madagascar. Despite anti-fire precautions and awareness programmes, people are pushed by poverty, having little or no alternative livelihood strategies, continue burning the forest and producing charcoal for their survival.

The island nation of Madagascar is famous for its endemic biodiversity. Since it split from the African continent an estimated 160 million years ago, it has developed its own distinct ecosystems and extraordinary wildlife. An approximate of 89% of its plant life 95% of its reptiles, and 92% of its mammals exist nowhere else on Earth. Madagascar’s more than 4,800 km of coastline and over 250 islands are home to some of the world’s largest coral reef systems and most the extensive mangrove areas in the Western Indian Ocean.

The small-scale but widespread clearances of the forests have already had a profound effect on the island. 90% of Madagascar’s original forests have been lost due to human activity since their arrival a mere 2000 years ago. Aerial photographs and remote sensing images indicate that almost 40% of Madagascar’s forest cover disappeared from the 1950s to 2000 (Harper et al. 2007). It is no wonder then, that most of Madagascar’s unique and endemic flora and fauna face extinction. Annually enormous forest areas of Madagascar are threatened by flames, from uncontrolled wildfires and lands burned for grazing. This problem concerns the entire island. Lush rainforests, tropical dry forest, grassland and even mangrove are impacted. Each year, an estimate of half of the island’s grasslands and woodlands burn. It is the results of three activities; slash and burn agriculture, logging for timber and charcoal production. These practices are jeopardising the island’s habitats. As a result, several charismatic species such as many species of lemurs and chameleons that evolved here over millions of years may become extinct before the end of the century.

Isalo lemur

One of the reasons for this extensive deforestation is that Madagascar is amongst the world’s poorest countries and people’s day-to-day income generation is focused on the exploitation of natural resources. Rural populations of which over 70% have less than 4 years of education live off the land developing ways to exploit an already stressed ecosystem (STRAT 2018). Deforestation has long been an issue for Madagascar and, to support the population increase of 4.6% per year (STRAT 2018) people must seek new land to cultivate, notably in the forests.


The Atsimo Andrefana region is located in South-West Madagascar. It is the biggest and, with a population density of 31 inhab/km², one of the least densely populated regions of Madagascar. The region is struck by long-term drought. Since May 2015, there has been 50% less rain than normal levels. The lack of rain impoverishes crops and seeds stocks, leading to poorer harvests and increasing poverty and malnutrition. According to the Plan de réponse stratégique à la sécheresse dans le grand-sud (Strategic response plan for the drought in the south), 49% of the population suffers from alarming hunger level in the Ampanihy district and thousands of people are malnourished. Hoping to find work, people move to the mines or the cities. The coastal areas are also refugee for poverty-stricken communities that increase pressure on the fish resources and threaten the remaining mangrove forests located in the north. Furthermore, droughts have forced hundreds of farmers into charcoal production. The lack of control makes it an easy but unsustainable source of income. Consequently, the endemic spiny forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

In 17 years, the Atsimo Andrefana region has lost 60% of its intact forests and 66% of its degraded forests. While drought forces people to look for alternative livelihoods, commercial interests in charcoal increases. Considering the fact that a bag of charcoal is worth much more in the highlands than on the coast, illegal charcoal exportation is often a tempting source of incomes for the rural, poverty-stroked, population of the South-West. The number of charcoal producers increases every year and so does the uncontrolled wildfires initiating from charcoal farms.


The fire that destroyed 8.5 Ha of the mangrove of Belalanda may not be intentional but it is likely that it started from a site that produces charcoal and then spread to the reeds and forest. It shows how the mangroves and forests of Atsimo Andrefana are vulnerable to fires. Especially with drought increasing human pressure and making the forest more prone to catching fire.

Forests, and especially mangroves, are extremely valuable. They reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations, provide shelter for Madagascar’s unique biodiversity and help to produce rain. These environments are even more valuable in a country threatened by desertification and lack of resources.

In light of these increasing problems, it appears that policy, strategy and clear regulation need to be developed and implemented to stop the fires that destroy Madagascar. Organisations such as Reef Doctor are working really hard in the field to tackle these massive problems. Mangrove cover at the Reef Doctor Honko (mangrove) project site is increasing thanks to replanting efforts and community-led management initiatives, and a dynamic agroforestry project aimed to improving livelihoods and restoring natural forest has recently started. However encouraging the results may be, it is more than necessary for national authorities to take a strong hold on the issues.

mangrove replanting

Farmers need to be trained in new ways to produce drought-resistant crops and use the same plot of land instead of cutting forests down to cultivate new fields (tavy or slash and burn agriculture). The local community needs to better control and manage local natural resources. Forests should be planted and managed in a sustainable way in order to be used as sources of charcoal in the mid and long terms.

Written by Antoine Lechevalier
Article originally featured on the blog site created by Sasa Danon

Local children carrying water

Dying for the Toilet

Since 2001 the 19th of November has been World Toilet Day. Not the most glamorous of days, admittedly but one that is an essential reminder that billions of people worldwide suffer disease, indignity and exposure to threat daily because of the lack of access to safe clean water, sanitation infrastructure and proper hygiene practices (WASH).  Around the world, 2.4 billion people lack access to improved sanitation (a connection to a sewer, septic tank, ventilated pit latrine or some simple latrines –ref WHO/UNICEF. Meeting the MDG WHO: Geneva, 2004) and one third of the global population has no access to any kind of toilet at all.

When you list the luxuries you are lucky enough to have in your life is your toilet one of them? No, probably not. That might be because you see your toilet as a necessity rather than a luxury, and it is. Toilets are vital because 88% of diarrheal disease globally is attributed to lack of access to WASH ( and diarrheal disease is the second biggest cause of death in children under the age of five worldwide. They are necessary to preserve dignity and to prevent people having to defecate openly and in public. Toilets are crucial and they are a human right.  Article 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states that ‘Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,’ In the 200 years since the toilet was invented it has increased the human lifespan by 20 years. But not necessarily for those who don’t have access to one. Some of the people living in the Bay of Ranobe and all over Madagascar are among the third of the world that have no access to any kind of toilet at all.

Can you imagine suffering the indignity of having to defecate in public every day with nothing but a sarong to protect your modesty? It is a daily reality for many people in the Bay of Ranobe. Dina (local laws) are in place in most villages prohibiting public defecation on the beach and heavy fines are imposed but with the only other option being burying your waste in a sand dune, the problem can only be addressed to a certain point. It’s true that the beaches are kept cleaner and human waste is not as commonly encountered in the sea but WASH is desperately needed.

With limited resources ReefDoctor and the community are doing what we can to help. Our education department is rolling out new Health and Hygiene classes for adults and children in January. The classes are free and anyone who wishes to can join. In rural areas around the country Unicef and other organisations are working to provide WASH. In the capital Tana UK based company Loowatt began implementing waterless toilets in late 2012 with their waste to value urban pilot sanitation system that converts waste to energy and fertiliser. These initiatives are fantastic and are sorely needed but they are not reaching enough people. In a country where more people live below the poverty line in 2010 than in 2005 ( the threat of malnutrition and disease is increasing and lack of access to proper sanitation serves only to further increase this risk, especially in women and children (


Access to toilets for everyone by 2030 is listed as one of the Sustainable Development Goals launched in 2015.  But over 13 more years is a very long time to wait to have something as vital as a toilet. Every day people die for the want of a proper sanitation, many of them very young children. Many of these deaths are avoidable. Why wait? Today is a good day to consider contributing to a WASH project that will make peoples lives better and give them a better chance at avoiding disease and indignity in their everyday lives.

Report by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino 


Exploring the magical world of underwater caverns

The Madagascar Cave Diving Association (MCDA) founded in 2014 is an association of cave divers who are, perhaps, the closest thing to real life explorers you can find in this day and age. The association consists of Ryan Dart, Phillip Lehman, Patrick Widmann and Hans Kasperetz, who are currently undertaking the mammoth task of exploring, surveying and mapping the underwater cave systems of Madagascar for the first time. To dive in caves you must have a cave diving certification, and it is not for the feint hearted. The training is intensive and divers have to learn to use side mount tanks as well as learning all of the other diving and safety procedures associated with cave diving. It is a dangerous yet thrilling activity.

But you can dive in a cavern without special training. A cavern dive is defined as one where there is natural light and maximum penetration is 60 meters. And this is how Andre, one of our recent volunteers and I got to have a little taste of the amazing underwater world contained inside the limestone passages of the Aven cave system near Tsimanampetsotse National Park in south west Madagascar. Aven was the first cave discovered and explored by Ryan Dart and the former team of Atlantis Madagascar. Word spread about the cave system and MCDA was born. The association gets to explore amazing sites and carry out very technical, often dangerous dives. They also get called on when anyone wants to access the system. On this occasion MCDA was contacted by a Japanese documentary film crew who needed some footage of water flow in the cavern at the entrance to the cave system and some divers to film it, and Andre and I got to help out with filming. Both of us had dived in caverns before but that didn’t make the prospect of this dive any less exciting as we were diving a cavern that very few other people have seen, and with one of the people who discovered and explored it for the first time.

Last Thursday we made our way to Anakao where we were met by Ryan of MCDA and the film crew. We set off on Friday in 4 x 4s to load up the tanks and make the 50 km journey to the cavern, stopping off to pick up some porters at the entrance to the park to help with the gear. The opening of the cavern is a huge sinkhole surrounded by trees, the roots of which stretch from the edge 10 meters down and into the water. Tanks and gear were lowered down and we started kitting up on the small mound in the middle of the sinkhole. We lowered ourselves slowly into the water so as to disturb the silt as little as possible and finned our way into a beautiful scene that was out of this world.

Smooth limestone walls loomed above us and stretched out from the opening creating a massive circular cavern with the mound we had been standing on a few minutes earlier rising up in the middle and creating a gentle slope to follow into deeper water. Without any wind or current to affect the visibility in the fresh water cavern, the water was crystal clear. It felt like there was no water at all and at about 27 degrees it was the warmest water either of us had dived in in a while. I looked behind me as we swam away from the center and was blown away by the view. The tree roots dipped into the water like something from a fantasy novel. Shafts of light cut through the water and danced on rock formations like the opening scene of a science fiction film, like we were on another planet. One wrong move and silt would be finned up plunging our newly discovered planet into a silt storm. We gaped open mouthed at stalactites (I’m glad I have a good mouthpiece that stays in even when I’m in awe), gawked intently at blindfish navigating without sight, looked at fossils of lemurs and crocodiles, and explored as much of the cavern as we had time to. I could have stared at the trees through the water for days and spent ages admiring the beautiful rainbow reflections made by the sun on the silt. We couldn’t enter the cave properly as neither of us is a certified cave diver but diving the cavern was spectacular and there was so much to see that once we had finished the filming we were very happy to keep swimming until we had used up all our air. My request for five more minutes at the end of the second dive turned into 11 minutes and I still left reluctantly. I’ve been lucky enough to do some really amazing dives and this one is definitely in my top 10. I don’t think I’m going to become a world famous videographer or lighting technician anytime soon but this dive and experience will stay with me for the rest of my days. And I think it will take a long time to shake the desire to get cave certified.

The cavern is closed to the public for the foreseeable future. It seems a little unfair that MCDA get to keep this amazing wonderland to themselves for now but this is to allow MCDA to map and survey the area, log anything of archeological and geological interest and to preserve the caves. As MCDA states ‘Flooded caves are fragile geological time capsules holding clues that could one day help solve the many mysteries of earth’s ancient past’. Therefore their conservation is very important. The closure is also to ensure that untrained divers are not brought to the area and put at risk by diving in unknown conditions for which they have not been certified. Just accessing the sinkhole is tricky work and passing down gear and tanks is time consuming and not without risk. I’d like to say that it was not worth it but it really really was. Thank you MCDA for the awesome opportunity!

Report by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino


Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Reef Doctor’s Communications Officer Ivana Rubino reports on her experiences of recycling in Madagascar.

Reduce, reuse and recycle. This concept has always been important to me in every day life. I buy things and keep them until they are falling to pieces. But the idea of reusing and recycling as much as possible makes even more sense to me here in Madagascar, where people have to keep using things long after parts have broken or worn down. Some people have even made a living out of it.

Once or twice a month I go to Toliara to buy essentials that cannot be bought locally. One of the essentials I needed recently was to have some refillable disposable lighters filled. You can buy a cheap lighter in any shop in the area for 400 MGA, that’s less than 10p GB. They work reasonably well apart from the fact that they explode sometimes or the metal cover gets too hot and pings off! Minor issues but what can you expect for 400 MGA? The real problem is they cannot be refilled. Once they are empty they have to be thrown away (I still haven’t come up with a use for an empty unfillable lighter). However, I was given some refillable non-lethal lighters recently by a volunteer who was going back to Europe so I decided to get them filled.

In the market in Toliara, a man called Jean Claude sits in the sun all day at a small table in the median strip of the road. For 500 MGA he will refill your lighter. I was willing to pay the extra 100 MGA to save on the plastic so I went to see him on my last trip. He filled the first lighter but it wouldn’t work. But then he took the lighter apart and replaced tiny springs and shaped thin pieces of wire to insert in the lighter. The work was so tiny he used small pliers to get the ‘spare parts’ he needed from an old reused tin. I really didn’t think it would work but two minutes later he filled the lighter, tested it and handed me a fully working lighter before moving onto the next one.

I doubt he earns very much money (very few people here do) but he is in the market every day fixing disposable lighters.  It is sad that someone has to eek out a living from fixing and filling lighters rather than have a chance to get a good education and well paid job but the idea of earning money from fixing something that was designed to be used temporarily and then thrown away really strikes a cord with me. Of course he doesn’t do it to save waste plastic. He does it because he needs to eat. But he is making something out of rubbish, something that most people would throw away without a second thought.

This is also true for the shop in Toliara that makes flip flops from old tyres. For 5,000 MGA (a little over £1 GB) you can have a pair of sandals custom made from an old tyre. They are very comfy by all accounts (I’m not getting a pair until my flip flops have completely checked out), and they make great souvenirs.

At Reef Doctor, we reuse and re-purpose as much as possible from collecting empty water bottles to make floats for the seaweed farms to composting food waste. Empty jars become powdered milk containers and no one ever throws away a plastic bag (on 1st October 2015 it became illegal for shops in Madagascar to give away plastic bags). Almost everyone on camp has a plastic bag in their back pack to store street food bought in the village so as not to use up the vendors paper cones made for holding food (they have to buy exercise books or use their children’s homework!). A group of the interns and staff are currently working on a project to re-purpose an old solar oven into a dome structure to grow coral on for our latest coral gardening project – more about that at a later date.

When you have very little you are forced to take care of things or use them long after they have become shabby or broken. It is shameful in this century that there are people in the world who have so little but it is so important to look to these people to remind us that everything does not have to be clean and new or pretty to look at, with a reputable name attached. It just needs to work. While having breakfast at a hotely (Gasy restaurant) in the Tsingy National Park in October with friends we saw a bowl outside the hotely that had been stitched up. It has obviously split at some point (more than once) and rather than throw it away someone stitched it back together. It was no good for liquids anymore but it was perfectly serviceable for dry food, of which it was full.

I am humbled by how people achieve so much with so little here. I’m not saying that we, in developed countries, should live in the same way. We are privileged to have everything we have and we should not forget that. But being here has made me consider, even more, where products I use come from and where they go to once I am finished with them and I am trying to hold onto everything just a little longer and re-purpose as much as possible.