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Madagascar's Spiny Forests Being Deforested for Charcoal

The Spiny Forest is like nowhere else on Earth, but it’s disappearing fast. It’s a bizarre Dr Seussian world of spiky octopus trees and swollen baobabs, and almost all its species exist only in Madagascar. The strange vegetation teems with even weirder wildlife: there are ghostly white lemurs impervious to thorns, birds that sing communally, and a chameleon that spends most of its life as an egg. Once there were ten-foot tall elephant birds and gorilla-sized lemurs too, but they went extinct just a few centuries ago.

Unsurprisingly, scientists have long ranked the Spiny Forest as one of the world’s most important “ecoregions”. Even so, hardly anyone outside Madagascar has heard of it. The tragedy is that the Spiny Forest is rapidly, silently, going up in smoke while the world looks the other way.

Southern Madagascar is a dry and impoverished region with little in the way of infrastructure or industry. Most of the population scrapes a living from the land, as cattle herders and farmers, or as fishermen at sea. People also depend on the forest’s essential resources, such as construction wood and fuel, medicinal plants, wild yams and “bushmeat”, among other things. So why is it disappearing so fast?

There are two main causes of deforestation – shifting cultivation (also known as slash-and-burn agriculture), and the production of charcoal. Here charcoal is not just a novelty for barbecues, but the fuel that cooks almost every meal. Making it involves baking the Spiny Forest’s precious hardwood trees in makeshift earth ovens, and it’s a gruelling job. Nonetheless, it’s a growing menace.

Leonora Enking

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