“How Illegal Mining Is Threatening Imperiled Lemurs”

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The Story

“How Illegal Mining Is Threatening Imperiled Lemurs”
by Paul Tullis
National Geographic, March 6, 2019

The Pitch

In a densely wooded area of northeast Madagascar last fall, someone discovered a blue gemstone: A sapphire. That initiated a rush of people into an ostensibly protected wildlife corridor intended to protect lemurs; more than 90% of lemur species are on IUCN’s red list due largely to habitat loss and fragmentation. This was at least the third instance in recent years of the discovery of sapphires leading to thousands of Malagasy destroying lemur habitat in search of riches. Official estimates put the number of people at the site near Ambatondrazaka last fall at 4,500, forming a large tented community where the cries of critically endangered indri lemurs could be heard among the sounds of chopping trees and digging gravel. Women in jelly sandals trudged for 12 hours through the muddy jungle with their young children in tow, some to dig for jewels, others to cook and make coffee for the miners. Local traders–mostly Sri Lankan–believed the stones rivaled Burmese sapphires, which are considered the best on the market and demand the highest prices, though few of the Malagasy digging in the mud found much of any value. After a few months, gendarmes who had been complacently observing the scene for weeks suddenly decided to shut down the mine.

Madagascar’s government is weak, and lacks the capacity to enforce wildlife and forest protections across the country. A land deal the government negotiated with a foreign corporation several years ago led to protests resulting in a coup, with the international community not recognizing the government that followed. All US aid except humanitarian was cut off, and the instability led to a rush for illegal deforestation of rosewood. The country’s wet, jungly east, where forest cover had been expanding, saw tree cover loss of 20% or more in many areas in the years after the coup, according to Global Forest Watch. The current president was a member of the coup administration and corruption is rampant. One miner near Ambatrondrazaka told a visitor he was there to find a gem so he could pay a bribe his university’s administration had demanded to issue the degree he had earned. “The government is engaged in cronyism in that very region [around Ambatondrazaka],” said Steig Johnson, a professor at the University of Calgary who spends several months a year in Madagascar studying lemurs. Not far away, in Didy, the president’s son is involved with Sri Lankan traders in illegal sapphire mining, according to Jonah Ratsimbazafy of MICET, a conservation group. “It’s common now; people don’t care if it’s a strict protected area. They just go in massive numbers to extract stones and nobody can stop them,” he said. “It’s linked with corruption and the laws are not really enforced. Kids quit school because they want to look for sapphires, the water is made dirty, there’s insecurity. There are rich people who push it and protect it, that’s why you cannot stop it. It’s a mess.”

The political instability has weakened Madagascar’s economy, forcing many residents to move to new areas in search of opportunity, often in illegal sapphire mining. Migrants often don’t respect local cultural taboos, including those against killing lemurs, and bushmeat hunting can now be added to the list of threats to the lemurs. “Those from the south respect taboos in their region but when they move to other regions they don’t respect the taboos of the other tribe,” said Ratsimbazafy.

But MICET and international organizations are working to save lemurs by helping local communities see value in their surroundings other than through resource extraction. Ed Louis, a wildlife biologist with Omaha Zoo, started the Madagascar Biodiversity Project 10 years ago and currently runs the biggest reforestation program in Madagascar. It involves engaging local communities on a number of levels, including as employees making a lot more than the $0.55 per day average in the country. Women who help to plant trees are paid in credits they can use to buy a sewing machine so they can develop income independent of men in the community. “It’s not going in and saying, ‘Stop destroying forests,’” Louis told me. “If the people aren’t on board, all the species we’re doing research on will not be there much longer.” MDP helps farmers get deeds to their land and places the documents in several offices around the country; in exchange the farmers commit to setting aside a portion of their property for lemur habitat. Working with another NGO, MDP developed a coloring book for kids that discourages the hunting of lemurs; they distributed the spiral notebook and 5 crayons to 5 sites with critically-endangered lemurs and saw hunting come pretty much to a halt as kids convinced their parents to quit the practice. “Whether you have clean water, forest, disease, medicine–it’s all connected,” Louis said. “If we provide a rocket stove, that family doesn’t have to cut wood. If the water is clean, a guy doesn’t get sick, and he can work to feed his family.” The approach is seeing some success, with counts of some critically endangered species up significantly since Louis began his work.

I’d like to travel to Madagascar for at least a week to report on sapphire mining, government intransigence in doing anything about it, and conservation efforts to save lemurs despite it. According to my sources it’s very likely that sapphire mining will be ongoing at least on a small scale at or near the Didy or Ambatronrazaka sites (or if not there, somewhere else nearby, and if not there the destruction will be visible and former miners will be easy to find). As I mentioned, you could spread out the expenses for this story and the community buy-in story by assigning both simultaneously; putting some distance between the pub dates would protect against repetition of the community buy-in theme.

In any case, thanks for considering. I look forward to your response.



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