Madagascar Famine - What Happened And Why It Happened

MADAGASCAR !! When we hear this what comes to our mind is the beautiful movie ‘Madagascar’- the lovely place full of animals and not to forget the lemur King Julien’s song ‘I like to move it move it'. Well yes indeed Madagascar was a beautiful place, yes I mention 'was’, which is not anymore. The movie apart from promoting the beautiful country was to also protect the lemur population which are gravely affected by the deforestation and illegal logging in the country. Before I go too much into the details of the movie and lemurs, I need to emphasize that this blog is to let you’ll know about the state the country is in right now due to climate change. It needs our help.

The Republic of Madagascar, an isolated island country located in the Indian Ocean, lies to the South East of the African continent. It is the fourth largest island in the world, with land mass of 587,000 km2 and 27.6 million inhabitants. The country has plants and animals which are not found elsewhere. One can find about 12,000 plant species endemic and 700 vertebrae species and hence is known as one of the biological hotspots in the world. To qualify for a biological hotspot a region must have at least 0.5% or 1,500 vascular plants endemic that cannot be found anywhere else and should have faced atleast 70% loss from their earlier total. Madagascar gets all the ticks and fits perfectly to be called the biological hotspot. The country's isolation for the past 88 million years has been beneficial as most of it’s flora and fauna does not exist anywhere else on this planet. Despite having considerable natural resources, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world with highest poverty rates and not to mention the after effects of the French colonization.

Image from: Lemur Conservation Network

Currently Madagascar is going through a very bad phase and needs attention. This issue has not yet been known to the whole world the way it should, especially the climate change and the severity of the famine that started almost 3 years ago. The worst ever to hit in 40 years. Mostly, famines occur due to a combination of various factors such as natural disasters, human conflicts, corruption, crop failures and pests. Though many organizations say this is the first time in modern history it is man-made and due to climate change, solely generated by the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Looking at the country’s history there are many factors that could have contributed to this. The country is heading to becoming another Easter Island in the making, if action is not taken.


For the past 60 years Madagascar has lost 90% of it’s forests, 44% in slash and burn agriculture known as 'tavy' and the rest for charcoal production and in illegal logging. 25-30% of the forests are burnt every year in agriculture. Deforestation, illegal hunting, a craze for pet collection and trading has also added to the destruction of the forests resulting in many species nearing extinction. Half of the forests that remain now are within 300 ft of unforested area posing danger of getting cleared anytime soon. In the year 1950 forest lands covered about 7.6 million hectares, by 1985, 50% of it was lost due to deforestation, at the rate of 111,000 hectares per year. Between the years 1990 to 2005 the country had lost further 854,000 hectares. One of the reasons is Madagascar’s fast growing population- at the rate of 2.68% per year. This is driven by its high fertility rate of 4.11 births per woman. The increase in population has pushed the demand for more land which means more clearing of rainforests for agriculture and burning it. The country’s poverty and unemployment too has seen more and more people becoming farmers, as a means to sustain their family. This rapid population growth is putting the land under immense stress.

For long, logging has been a very big issue in Madagascar. The country produces the best high quality wood such as ebony, rosewood, timber and mahogany. According to WWF, about 52,000 tons of precious wood were estimated to have been cut in 2009 alone from 100,000 trees. Which roughly is about, 20,000 hectares within the national parks of the Atsinanana rainforest. To make matters worse an additional 500,000 trees were felled to help raft the heavy trees downstream, After the 2009 political crisis in Madagascar, several timber barons took advantage of the lack of environmental governance and law enforcement, to illegally fell precious logs from within protected areas. The aim was to export it, mainly to China. With mafias taking over the rainforests, the local communities had very few options in their poverty stricken areas which were often exploited, sometimes working for ridiculously small amounts of money in terrible conditions. The timber mafias earned more than $250 Millions during the recent political crisis while the locals struggled. Madagascar being a country of many traditions, rituals, cultures and groups of people such as the high level farmers and low level herders and so on, the government found it very difficult to implement and execute anti-fire laws among it’s citizens. After the French colonization many farmers and herders were trying to control and go against the government as a way of showing colonial domination over the Malagasy natural resource management. This attitude of the locals were mainly to show the colonial repression and resistance, with many middlemen in every community instigating that it was local rights and they had the power to burn. This made it difficult for the government and forest officials to control. The locals were showing their desperation and hatred to the government and hence indulging in protest fires. Each time to attract the attention of the government people resorted to setting fire to the grasslands and forests.


Human activities all over the world has become a cause for concern and Madagascar is not an exception. These activities ravage tropical forests worldwide resulting in habitat fragmentation, over-harvesting of wood and other forest products, over-hunting, native forest species extinction, pollution and climate change. For Madagascar along with this comes the threatening of the lemurs population. Lemurs in Madagascar, especially the ruffed lemur is an important seed disperser which has been greatly affected by the human activities and consuming of lemur meat. All these have become a cause for severe environmental degradation.

The effects of slash and burn along with deforestation resulted in soil erosion in many places in Madagascar, adversely affecting the river system and lakes. The red soils from the hilly slopes and the loose soil gets washed off and settles into the rivers and lakes. Lake Alaotra in Ambatondrazaka area has decreased in size by approximately 30% in the last 40 years due to increased sedimentation in the lake, reducing it in size. Almost 400 tonnes/ hectares of sediments gets washed off annually into the waterways. This affects both the quality of the land and the lakes, reducing the productivity of neighbouring rice cultivations. Frequent slash and burn technique has made the soil infertile with the burning taken away all key nutrients required for future plant growth. Now the land is covered by sand with no water, showing no signs of rainfall in the near future. These kind of destruction activities threaten Madagascar’s biodiversity and its human population.

Image From: Lemur Conservation Network

Deforestation in Madagascar to a certain extent does have an influence on the climate. When forests are cleared, the understory, which are small shrubs or plants that grow under large forest tree shades, are exposed to direct and strong sunlight. The heat takes away the moisture in the soil and increases the evapotranspiration rate stunting their growth and dehydrating them. Absence of large trees and their shade might completely restrict their growth. Deforestation also adds to carbon emission, increasing levels of carbon dioxide contributes to global warming.

Madagascar is home to more than 2,500 plant species having medicinal properties, right from common cold to cancer. The loss of these plants will pose a big threat to the pharmaceutical industry. It will affect Madagascar's tourism industry by reducing international investment opportunities in resorts, recreational facilities, and national parks, decreasing long-lasting employment opportunities for local communities..


Droughts and slash and burn agriculture are not new to Madagascar and it’s people. Way back in the 1880s, attempts to conserve the forests were made by many rulers right from the French colonization. The earliest known ban on slash and burn techniques was in 1881 by Queen Ranavalona II. These efforts aimed to protect the future of the countries rainforests. So when efforts were being made for the last 100 years ago, how and why did the country get into this crisis now? Where did things go wrong?

To understand this we must understand the culture and the history of the country. Madagascar was ruled by the French from 1894 – 1960 till they got their Independence in 1960. After 1960 the country has been plagued by assassinations, military coups and disputed elections. Protecting the rainforests and implementing rules were met with resistance and with anti- burn protests. After Independence the new Presidents and their governments made efforts to protect the rainforests but were faced with strict resistance from the locals with the same psychology as it was before Independence. Forests and grasslands continued to burn as protests from the locals continued. They felt it was a way of retaliating and also showing the governments that they control and protect the land, as per their culture and tradition it is their right. Till now it has been a very difficult task. The locals haven’t realized yet that by doing this they are harming themselves and their environment. According to Madagascar's law burning is a crime but the peasants don’t care and continue resisting this criminalization. 100 years of antifire efforts have not been able to stop them. Many farmers and herders burn farms during the nights or blame in on accidents started by children. Sometimes they burn so that they get the low branches to use for firewood. Accidental burning incidents are very common in places where there are political clashes so it’s easy to put the blame on the politicians. Controlling and enforcing laws are difficult as there are shortage of forest officers and a proper official place to work along with bad record keeping making it easy for corrupted officers. The locals like to burn in order to attract the government and get their attention to their poverty and hunger, when billions are spent on protecting the nature. The regulations by the State for certain natural resource management techniques has met with negativity. Hence the burning of forests continued. All this shows the locals knowledge of global warming was nil, though now efforts are made to educate them but it’s too late.

It is estimated that the country has lost more than 80 percent of it’s forest lands after the late 1950s. Though the drought now maybe due to climate change but it is more due to ignorance and the way the government dealt with it. Each time the government made a rule to stop fire there used to be exceptions. Even for slash and burn as well as for logging. These exceptions were misused and paved way for illegal activities. Finally various international organizations such as UN and UNESCO had to put their foot down and take control, before the rainforests were lost completely. Madagascar has many precious high quality wood such as rosewood, mahogany and more. To save these forests UNESCO named the Atsinanana rainforest a World Heritage Site in order to end illegal logging. Adding the site to danger list was to stop the wood from entering the international market. Exporting of raw precious wood is illegal according to Malagasy laws, but the government has repeatedly granted exceptions and given cover to rosewood mafias who deprive the local people of their natural heritage. These exceptions are illegal since there hasn’t been any stocking or logging permit issuance since 2002. Past exceptions caused severe depletion of the wood species, thus driving loggers inside protected areas where logging is not legally accepted. Recently a proposal was submitted to list all Malagasy precious woods under protections of the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an important step taken to regulate trade and gain transparency. In spite of all this the situation remains far from being solved.

President Marc Ravalomanana was working to remove the old system and attract foreign investments built on sustainable business models, though much was not done. The current President, Andry Rajoelina, promised to reforest 99,000 acres every year for the next five years when he came to power in 2019 which is equivalent to the size of 75,000 football fields. It was rather encouraging and exciting to hear this but it lacked a strong implementation plan. The only other industry that is playing a major role in the country is mining, which is helping in developing Madagascar’s economy.


The country for the first time has entered phase 5 catastrophic food insecurity as recorded by Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which could double by October. The country actually contributes less than 0.01 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions but are facing climate change. The change in weather patterns has almost stopped rainfall resulting in famine, with crop failure and leaving thousands of people with little or nothing to eat. Facing the worst drought ever in the last 40 years has caused complete disappearance of food sources resulting in severe hunger. More than 1.14 million people are facing food shortage while another 400,000 are headed for famine. People have started eating raw cactus, wild leaves and locusts. The land and water bodies are very dry with deep cracks. Children are suffering from acute malnutrition which almost doubled over the last four months, from 9 to 16 percent. About 110,000 children face the prospect of malnourishment and “irreversible damage” to their growth and development.


According to Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) there are totally 5 phases which are used as ways of identifying the level of food insecurity of a country. It is widely accepted by the international community, IPC describes the severity of food emergencies. Based on common standards and language, this five-phase scale is intended to help governments and other humanitarian organizations to quickly understand a crisis (or potential crisis) and take action. The below details is as it is mentioned and stated by IPC.

• Phase 1 : Minimal -

Households are able to meet essential food and non-food needs without engaging in atypical and unsustainable strategies to access food and income.

• Phase 2: Stressed-

Households have minimally adequate food consumption but are unable to afford some essential non-food expenditures without engaging in stress-coping strategies.

• Phase 3: Crisis- Households either:

- Have food consumption gaps that are reflected by high or above-usual acute malnutrition;


- Are marginally able to meet minimum food needs but only by depleting essential livelihood assets or through crisis-coping strategies.

• Phase 4: Emergency- Households either:

- Have large food consumption gaps which are reflected in very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality;


- Are able to mitigate large food consumption gaps but only by employing emergency livelihood strategies and asset liquidation

• Phase 5: Famine-

Households have an extreme lack of food and/or other basic needs even after full employment of coping strategies. Starvation, death, destitution, and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident. (For Famine Classification, area needs to have extreme critical levels of acute malnutrition and mortality.)


Madagascar faces various other problems too. If tackled properly it could have helped them survive in difficult times such as this. If they had concentrated on other ways of attracting investments and generating revenue they could have moved out from felling trees. Even movies such as ‘Madagascar’ was not able to attract much crowd into the country due to many reasons. One of the reasons are lack of infrastructure. Roads are not paved and in very bad condition and wide enough for only a single vehicle to pass. To attract investments the country has to have a serious strategy in place. Cyclones and other weather conditions often wipe out roads and bridges making travel even more difficult. The country being isolated increases the cost of trade. Small population of 26 million where corporations lack the incentive to develop, transport, and market many goods in Madagascar. Identifying areas where they can develop and attract investments, along with ease and security to do business such as concentrating on ecotourism would ease the burden on the country and it’s population to a certain extent. Another drawback is being a poor country it’s difficult for the government to spend on education. Local textbooks do not teach about the country’s flora and fauna or culture.

President Marc Ravalomanana had initiated a major infrastructure improvement program in an effort to boost the Malagasy economy. This plan was likely to bring economic benefits but may have high social costs with increased access affecting traditional Malagasy culture. Though not sure if this will continue as it’s a new President now. Currently Madagascar's major emphasis is on improving Madagascar’s educational system including providing training for teachers and distributing backpacks and school supplies for children. International organizations are using radio as a tool for educating adults in remote areas about issues such as conservation while others work with local farmers to improve crop yields.

Lack of investment in sustainable industries has retarded Madagascar’s economic development significantly. Well all this is in future, the main is now to sort out their current issue of famine.The WFP, which is on the ground helping with food distribution, describes the scenes are of unimaginable suffering, with people and children going hungry.


Many civilzations have been lost due to climate change but we are in a position to understand, rectify and find solutions to reverse it, if done on time. We can learn from past civilzations. Some of the lost civilzations are :-

• The Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica which lasted for about 3,000 years was lost due to overpopulation which had too much strain on their natural resources. There were frequent violent clashes with other nations over competition for resources. Their over exploitation of natural resources put the region through an extensive period of drought, ruining crops and cutting off drinking water supplies. Finally the whole civilization came to end and migrated to various places which were favourable to them.

Photo by Alex Azabache

• Another great empire is the Akkadian empire than ruled 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Due to climate change which occurred in various places in the Middle East around 2,200 BCE, their region too was affected. It faced a 300-year-long drought bringing an end to this empire.

• The Khmer empire of south-east Asia known for the exquisite Angkor Wat temple is another lost civilization, which flourished between 802 and 1431 CE. Also lost due to drought caused by climate change.

• Similar fate was seen by the Viking settlers of Greenland, in the far north Atlantic who had to leave their island due to drastic temperature drop. Farms started producing less making it also difficult to raise livestock. Ultimately had to go elsewhere.

When the effects of drought is felt, people leave the stricken areas and migrate to more abundant ones. These mass migrations, increase the pressure on the remaining resources in the new areas leading to more problems. Droughts and famines are natural calamities and climate change is an ongoing and unavoidable one. But from our earlier lost civilizations we can understand that if natural resources are over exploited the effects of climate change is of zooming intensity. If proper measures are taken we should be able to combat it.


From the time Industrial Revolution started, vast amounts of polluting gases have been released into the atmosphere, triggering high level of global warming. According to the IPCC, activities by humans have been the main cause, contributing about 1°C of global warming, which is above pre-industrial level. The acceptable or safer range is between 0.8°C and 1.2°C. By 2052, global warming is likely to increase by 1.5°C. This increase is likely to push 20%-30% of animal species to extinction. If it reaches 2°C it is going to be catastrophic to the whole world. The climate change threats in future will see rising sea levels posing high risk to coastal areas, mass migration from drought driven areas and a word of caution to areas experiencing conflicts and civil wars. These places are more vulnerable to famines.

If this continues and moves to other countries then around 13 million people will face serious food shortages. Reaching to every drought and famine areas will become very difficult, if conflict areas then dangerous too. Delay in reaching people on time for distributing aids could force people to migrate to other places. We should not underestimate global climate change. Atleast we are in a position to understand and assess, not like other lost civilizations, so we can find solutions and start working right away to save the planet.

The Paris Agreement which was signed by 195 members of the UN Framework Convention on Climate change has taken the climate change seriously and determined to fight it. Those who do not sign the agreement fear losing signing trade deals with the members. The main goals and commitments of signing this agreement is to keep the increase in average global temperatures below 2°C. The financial costs of climate change can be seen everywhere now. By the end of the century, an estimated $43 trillion of losses could be generated by climate change and extreme weather events.


The World Food Programme is supporting thousands of people in the south of the country who may die of hunger without the organization’s help. The organization urgently needs US$78.6 million to help. Without this fund people in Makagoa, Falento, Tema, Tameria and thousands of others who are facing starvation will lose their WFP rations, which is their only means of survival. If we don’t support and stand by these people in this hard times it is going to double by October. From 2020 WFP has supported 750,000 people by supplying rations of general food distributions along with supplementary foods to prevent acute malnutrition. At one of the health centers UNICEF gives them a fortified paste/snack. As part of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, wealthy nations agreed to set aside $100 billion a year in climate financing, to help developing nations adapt, but they are yet to meet that goal. In 2018, the, donors were still short of $20 billion.The World Bank estimates that climate change could cause more than 140 million people to migrate by 2050. At Grand Syd more than 1.14 million people need emergency food and nutrition assistance. They have been suffering from hunger since last September. It is time we support them and we should be prepared too, might never know our region could be next. With the covid pandemic taking its toll, helping one another could be a problem but we still can try. A minute help can go a long way.

If the remaining forests everywhere are protected then maintaining and enhancing the integrity of protected areas will save many countries including Madagascar. If environmentalists, governments, NGO's, volunteers and each one of us, work toward long-term solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that drive climate change it could help all of us. We as children of the planet should stand up in solidarity and unity to protect Madagascar and ourselves from ongoing environmental destruction. We need to both protect the unique environment for Madagascar and it’s people. After all we are all responsible. If one country is affected then all of us are. This is going to impact sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, Europe, Asia, and America as well. As we know the heat wave in America and the floods in Germany are all due to climate change. This really needs to be taken seriously. I fully agree with what Landry Ninteretse, the Africa director for climate advocacy organization said “In the same way the world reacted to the pandemic and were able to get vaccines in less than a year—If the world would have reacted in the same way when we started sending the first warning signals of climate change, the situation would be much better than what it is now.”So true, aptly said.

Some of the ways Madagascar can deal with this situation is by probably getting new irrigation systems, along with more drought-tolerant crops and hardier breeds of cattle. Madagascar, one of the poorest nations in the world, is unlikely to be able to afford such innovations on its own and would require our help. So let’s all of us work together in supporting each other to make this place a beautiful one. Let’s not burden our planet Earth, it can bounce back at us anytime. We need to be ready. Your smallest of the smallest contribution too, either in cash or kind will help someone starving out there to get a single meal. Let us all do it together. It’s our environment, it’s our planet and it’s our lives….only we can protect it.

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