An excerpt from
Dancing at the Dead Sea
Tracking the World's Environmental Hotspots
In Search of Lemurs
Madagascar feels most ancient at night, after the urgency of the daytime heat has lifted. You sense that you are in a place where time has moved more slowly than in the rest of the world. You are conscious of being on a fiercely isolated island where evolution has taken an unearthly course. The evidence is all around, even in the dark, in unfamiliar sounds and smells and darts of light. The plants, the birds, the bugs, the snakes, nearly everything on this island is found nowhere else on the planet. It’s primitive here in this land of living fossils; species seem rudimentary, as if the evolutionary incubator has been set to a more languorous clock.
But there is a paradox to all this antiquity. Madagascar, tethered to the planet’s distant past, is also an eerie foreshadowing of its future. Madagascar is one of the world’s top extinction hotspots. It has among the most unique species to lose, yet nature is deteriorating faster here than almost anywhere else on earth. Madagascar shows what could happen to the rest of the world if today’s pace of extinction continues.
That’s why I’ve come here to Antananarivo, the capital city, ten time zones from where I kissed my husband and two children goodbye yesterday in North America. If this is the planet’s future, I want to see it now. I’ve just turned thirty-nine, I’m fighting the knowledge that my marriage of nearly two decades is in its death throes, and I have to see if I can face up to the worst the planet has to offer. And maybe even find redemption.
I arrive with my backpack slung over my shoulder just before midnight. The heat is still so intense that stepping off the plane is like being wrapped in a wet thermal blanket. The sweat runs off me, and my jeans stick to the back of my legs. Madagascar is old-fashioned in ways beyond its odd evolution. There is little industry, little work, few roads, and hardly any market economy to speak of. What little economy there is has been in a downward spiral for twenty-five years. Foreign aid is the biggest pool of money going. The vast majority of the Malagasy (pronounced Malgache) live off the land and use wood as their only source of energy, the same as their ancestors have for hundreds of years. In fact, one of the few things growing robustly here is the number of Malagasy who depend on the land for food. The population is growing at nearly 3 percent a year. This is one of the fastest growing and poorest places in the world.
I’ve spent most of the plane ride reading a library copy of Richard Leakey’s book The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind. Leakey, the eminent Kenyan paleoanthropologist and authority on human evolution, is convinced that humans are poised to become "the greatest catastrophic agent" the world has ever seen, a highly intelligent, highly lethal species set to destroy billions of years of evolutionary advances. Cascades of extinction on this scale have happened only five other times in the history of the planet, most recently when the dinosaurs vanished. Now, he says, we are orchestrating the sixth, a die-off of thousands of critical species, including, possibly, our own.
It’s been just over a year since I first learned that many scientists believe that the pace of extinction on the planet has become dangerously volatile, and I’ve been on a reading jag on the topic. I’m still not sure. What if Leakey and the others who decode the secrets of the bone beds are wrong? Or what if they’re on the fringes of scientific credibility? What if more conventional scientists think all this is bunk? I’m a journalist at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. I’m not being paid to chase fiction. Plus, I’m not an expert in biology. In fact, I was a Latin and English major, more up on the Aeneid than on island biogeography. Much as I’ve read and interviewed, how can I judge the pace of extinction? And if this theory of the sixth extinction is true, how can I explain something so abstract in ways that people can understand?
As luck would have it, I’ve arrived in Madagascar with two of the top conservation biologists in the world: Francisco Dallmeier and Alfonso Alonso, both of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. They spend most of their time in exotic places, looking at the rarest species the planet has to offer and figuring out how to make sure these species survive. Like me, they’ve come to Madagascar to see what’s left of the land known as the last living Eden. But the three of us have also come to look at a richly controversial mining proposal for the south of Madagascar that some proponents are saying could prove a model to help other endangered parts of the world. They argue that the mine could create wealth for the region and the national government and help persuade the Malagasy to use other sources of fuel than the endangered forests. It runs resolutely against the accepted wisdom that business is only capable of wrecking the environment and harming the people who depend on it.
Whatever the merits of the project, the optics are rotten. It is a mine proposed by London-based Rio Tinto, one of the world’s biggest, richest mining companies, to take a mineral out of a piece of the world’s most endangered ecosystem in one of the world’s poorest nations. It’s a very tough sell to some of the international non-governmental organizations trying to preserve what’s left of Madagascar’s environment. So tough, in fact, that the project has become a cause célèbre over the past decade for the international group Friends of the Earth, which has picketed Rio Tinto’s annual meeting in a bid to stop the mine. The anti-mine campaign picked up steam in 1994 when the British environmentalist Andrew Lees of Friends of the Earth died on New Year’s Eve right here in Madagascar on one of the proposed Rio Tinto mine sites as he was gathering evidence for the campaign. More persuasive still, Sir David Attenborough—famed for his beautiful BBC documentaries on the planet’s ecosystems—joined the anti-mine campaign as a tribute to Lees. No other industrial proposal in the world is under more international scrutiny.
Flying over Madagascar the next morning from the capital to the island’s south, it’s easy to see why there’s so much concern. The island should be thickly covered with trees. But instead of the living green of vegetation, the land is pitilessly scoured. The cursive rivers, once clear, run deep red with the rootless earth that washes ceaselessly into them. His Royal Highness Prince Philip, former honorary chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, once said that from above Madagascar looks like a giant animal bleeding into the sea. Less than 10 percent of the forest cover is left. That’s about 6 million hectares, broken up into desperate little pockets running the length of this island, some standing only because they’re so remote the Malagasy can’t get at them to cut them down. This is not from commercial logging. The trees fall at the hands of poverty-stricken Malagasy, who need to feed their children. It’s one of the most massive modern ecological disasters yet catalogued, and it has unfolded mostly over the past thirty years.
But that remaining forest cover is not stable. The trees are vanishing at the rate of 200,000 hectares a year as the Malagasy cut them down for fuel or burn them off in a primitive land-clearing practice they call tavy. It’s one of the least efficient ways in the world to use land, and the Malagasy are expert at it. Slash and burn the same piece of land often enough and it becomes barren. Do it for long enough and forest disintegrates into sand. And what of all the animals, birds, insects and plants that need the forest to survive? Some move on to find another slender remnant of forest. Many die in the blaze. This is why so many of Madagascar’s unique species are on the brink of extinction. They’ve simply got nowhere to live.
The best example of that is the lemur. It’s a primitive version of the monkey and exists exclusively here in Madagascar. It’s a primate, a cousin to humans, although privately scientists have been known to say that it’s the most dim-witted member of the family. Primates as a whole are horrifically endangered. One in three, or 195 species, are right on the edge of extinction, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Some of the species are down to a few dozen individuals left in the world and others have only a few hundred. That doesn’t include humans, the only primate whose numbers and reach continue to grow. But of all the primates on death row, some of those closest to the edge are lemurs. One of the main goals of this trip that Dallmeier, Alonso and I share is to see a lemur in the wild while there are still some left to see.
Fort-Dauphin, where we’re staying, is a seventeenth-century French fort town of forty thousand ringed with white beaches at the very southern tip of the island. It’s got a small airport and a few rugged roads and is the closest town to where Rio Tinto’s mineral strikes have been found. That means this town will be the most affected if the mines are built. Shoes, uncommon in Antananarivo, are unknown to most of the people wandering these baked streets. They are dressed in faded, unaccountable clothing—one man is wearing a Western winter coat in the blazing sun as if it were a warrior’s cape—most sent here by aid organizations from people in richer countries. At first blush, it feels as if this is the dumping ground for the developed world’s castoffs. Everywhere, the smell of burning wood hangs heavy in the air.
Already, Daniel Lambert, the head of the company trying to set up the mine, and his crew are among the biggest money-spinners in town, with their four-by-fours and drivers, expense accounts and nonchalant Western standards. The group of us take over the Miramar Hotel. Johanne Leveillé, a Montrealer who is working with Rio Tinto and is the only other woman on this trip, whips out a metal container of industrial-strength bug spray that she picked up on the way, in Paris. It’s banned in Canada. Grim-faced, she sprays her room, mattress and pillows—and mine as well—for any multi-legged creatures. Dallmeier and Alonso are horrified. They’ve been enchanted by the bizarre bugs of Madagascar, crowing to each other every time they spot something they’ve never seen before. They try to explain that bugs—even malarial mosquitoes—are part of the joyous web of life and that the chemical in the bug spray will undoubtedly do me more harm than any living insect.
Next morning, Dallmeier, Alonso and I try to shake off the jet lag with a swim in the chilly Indian Ocean, a scramble down the hill from the Miramar. Dawn is just breaking. The white-sand beach seems to go on forever. A couple of huts on the hillside are the only evidence of human life. Then the Malagasy fishermen arrive, paddling into shore after the night’s fishing. They’re in dugouts carved from centuries-old Vintanona trees, carted here long ago from a mountain rainforest far away. We pass along gentle hellos in their language, our heads just visible above the waterline. The scene is achingly beautiful, the way it must have been thousands of years ago. It feels as though the rhythm of destruction that grips the rest of the island has abated here just now.
But the passing of time has left something of immense modern value on this beach and several others throughout southern Madagascar. It’s the jet-black mineral ilmenite casually mixed in with the bleached sand. Rio Tinto has found three deposits covering about 6,000 hectares underneath some of Madagascar’s highly endangered littoral—or coastal—forests. It’s one of the biggest strikes found so far in the world and makes up about 10 percent of all the known ilmenite. Together with the other deposits Rio Tinto has control of, this would give the company a hefty share of the world’s ilmenite for the next three generations. Lambert, president of the Rio Tinto/Malagasy company that wants to set up the mine, is here on the beach too, fastidiously decked out in the snorkel and mask he always wears in this ocean. He reaches down and carefully brushes some grains of the heavy black mineral off his feet so he can get his water shoes on before he wades in. That’s a sign of how easy ilmenite is to mine. All you have to do is suck up the sand and whip it around in a big separator bin with a whole bunch of water. The light, white sand spins off, leaving the black ilmenite behind. Then you dump the white sand back where it came from and move on to the next batch. The surf on the beach is doing that now, laying down the black ilmenite like a slash through the sun-struck sand.
After it’s separated from the sand, the mineral would be shipped away and transformed from black ilmenite into stark white titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is one of the most imperceptible minerals in the world. Its main job has been to replace lead in paint, but it’s also what makes toothpaste white and sunscreen impenetrable and fish fingers appealing instead of ashen. The trick is that to mine the sand, the company will have to cut down every stick of tree, shrub and bush on top of it. And here in Madagascar, not only is every one of those endangered, but they are all that keep people from starvation. These fishermen taking in the night’s fish aren’t going to think—like Lambert does—about the abstracts of corporate profits or government revenues or long-term regional economic development when they can’t make a fire to cook their catch.
I’m still hesitant to bring up Leakey’s sixth extinction theory. Almost embarrassed, in case it’s not polite talk in august scientific circles. I mention it to Dallmeier, who is now standing up to his waist in the ocean. To my surprise, he takes it very seriously indeed. What’s happening now is clearly cause for alarm, he says. I mull over the evidence I have read. The extinction rate is anywhere from one thousand times to ten thousand times normal. And it could become dramatically worse very quickly because so many more species, like the ones here in Madagascar, are right on the edge of vanishing from the planet’s genetic store. This is a sign that the structure of life is poised to collapse catastrophically, the way it has done just five times before. The list of these previous five mass extinctions is well known from the fossil record: the Ordovician crash 440 million years ago, the Devonian, 370 million years ago, the Permian 250 million years ago, the Triassic 210 million years ago, and the Cretaceous 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs died out.
This time, though, it’s happening because of what humans are doing. But we keep on as if we don’t understand that we too are at risk. Why is it that we are so fixated on keeping the death of individual Homo sapiens at bay—with vaccination programs and anti-cancer research and intricate cardiac operations and famine relief—but we don’t spend nearly as much time and money making sure the species as a whole can survive?
I stand in the ocean, surrounded by preternatural beauty, and ask Dallmeier this question: Are humans a suicidal species? Dallmeier crosses his arms over his bare chest and weighs his answer. He is a careful scientist in charge of an international-class program at a sober institution. Finally, he says that the prospects for human life are unknown; in fact, they are uncertain.