Allow your mind to conjure up images of the Indian Ocean, what does it see? Beautiful beaches, clear waters and coral reefs perhaps. If you did the same for Madagascar, one of the largest islands in the world, what do you see now? Dense forests, groups of acrobatic lemurs - a verdant, rich landscape maybe.
In the BBC’s latest episode of Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve their focus is Madagascar to the Seychelles. I eagerly anticipated the beautiful landscape that would be broadcast. As he himself points out, movies and documentaries usually portray Madagascar as a forested country teeming with wildlife. But Simon chose to show the reality rather than the fantasy.
Around 90 per cent of the forest, that supports about a thousand different tree species (some endemic to Madagascar), has been cleared. The groups of lemurs usually filmed by wildlife documentaries are those few clinging onto a tiny wildlife reserve in the midst of a massive sisal plantation – that looks like a desert. The lemurs like hanging out around the visitors lodge. Most documentaries try to keep the reserve’s buidlings out of the shot, to create the feel of a natural wilderness - that has sadly been lost.
Areas have been deforested for agriculture and then abandoned once the soils have lost their fertility. What many do not realise is the fertility of a rich forest is mostly captured in its vegetation. Only through the continuous cycle of life and death are nutrients released into the ecosystem. Once you strip the vegatation away, the soils hold only a small volume of the nutrients. They then become increasingly impoverished as they are over-farmed, and as rain washes away the remaining but unbound fertile topsoils.
The rainy season has always brought flooding to Madagascar. But the problem is increasing significantly as there are no longer any trees to soak up the water, facilitate its penetration into dry soils and slow the force of water movement. The floods are destroying large areas of crops and people’s homes. One farmer said, ‘you just have to try and fill your stomach with air and close your mouth, because there’s nothing to eat’.
This is the harsh reality of deforestation. Why do we want to save trees and create new woodland? Because trees give us so much that many of us never realise - until they are gone. Because without them we impoverish our land and leave it vulnerable. And because the world has evolved with them as integral components of life – we need them!
This episode will be available for a short time via the BBC iPlayer, it is well worth watching.