Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Madagascar and Ivan the Terrible

I don’t often tell people this but cyclone season is my favourite time of year. 

For a few months I get to fly around the country in private jets and helicopters, take speedboat journeys up rivers that cut through mountainous tropical rainforests in the east, wade through waist high mud and ride dirt roads in a 4x4 across the flat dry plains of southern Madagascar’s dry deciduous forests, deserts and shrublands.

Last weekend I flew to the North East of Madagascar in a Ukranian helicopter to join a World Food Programme mission to drop food in areas cut off by damage to roads and bridges caused by cyclone Ivan. I was in the same make of helicopter that is currently being used by Grande Comore to invade the rebel island of Anjouan in the neighbouring Union of the Comoros (Union being more a sort of aspirational term for this troubled federation that has suffered 21 coups or attempted coups since independence in the 1970s).

Air operations for this invasion, or rather a series of toe dipping mini invasions (a sort of tedious, costly and long drawn out game of tag you're it!), are continuing under the watchful eyes of a band of Ukranian mercenaries who come thrown in with the hardware. We have some too on this trip but our Ukranians are pleasant and spend most of their time huddled in the cockpit or wandering around muttering and pointing at the bags of grain and cooking oil. 

Robert, the UN emergency specialist in charge of the air operations confirms that these machines and their operators are indeed very versatile and quickly adaptable. 

Ivan the Terrible, the moniker earned by the cyclone's category 4 hurricane winds, destroyed transport routes, killed nearly 100 people and flattened hundreds of thousands of homes. This is where I have to explain why this is my favourite part of being here. This time last year, whilst waist deep in mud with my camera bag on my head, was when I stopped feeling like an imposter and started feeling like a journalist. I got to do something useful, meet people, record their stories and tell the world, or whoever was listening, what was happening to them. 

Overland through the north of Madagascar is a spectacular journey. Most of Madagascar's countryside has been devoured by forest fires. If you were to drive directly south of the capital for 5 or 6 hours you can count the patches of trees you pass on one hand and all there is to see is endless stretches of bare red earth. Driving through the north is where you find Madagascar's last lost Eden of thick green rainforest, mountains, silver winding rivers and deep valleys. It is at once breathtaking and inhospitable. 

The region of Analanjirofo, which literally translates to the forest of cloves, is one of the main growing areas for the girofle tree from which cloves are harvested, primarily for export. 

The man in the top photograph, Benja, is standing in the branches of a girofle tree searching out what remains of his harvest in bunches of dry dead girofle leaves. He will find nothing he can sell. 

Of his three hectare orchard, this is the only tree that remains standing. Even if he can find the money to replant, his orchard will take 4 years to grow trees that can flower and fruit. His vanilla crop, which prior to the cyclone grew in vines that wrapped themselves around the trunks of these tall trees, has also disappeared and will take careful rehabilitation.

Madagascar is the world’s largest exporter of vanilla, producing over half of the world's supply, and second largest producer of cloves after Indonesia. Almost all of the country’s clove and vanilla crops are grown in Analanjirofo and the neighbouring Sava region. They grow litchis and coffee here too which are also valuable cash crops.

The harvest season for cloves lasts just two short months in October and November, but a good crop can bring in 6000 Ariary a kilo or 400,000 Ariary a month which is about $237 US. In a country where most of the population survives on less than $2 US a day this is enough to keep a family going until their litchi or vanilla crop is ready and makes this a relatively wealthy region.

Access to affected areas has been slow and complicated by the country’s varied terrain and limited infrastructure. After Ivan hit with a force comparable to that of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in 2005, roads and bridges were destroyed. People walk for miles through the mountains and swim across rivers to reach cities and ports, but bringing in food and supplies to replace those lost has been near impossible.

Despite a recurrent cyclone season lasting from December to April, Madagascar lacks the capacity to reach remote areas even in the dry season. A country larger than France it only has 5000 miles of viable road, viable meaning roads that don’t turn to rivers for half the year, and two working stretches of train line, only one of which can carry passengers and may soon be closed and sold off. The helicopter will be returned to Mozambique in one month. The goal is to have as many roads up and running by then as possible, at least until the next cyclone season starts again.

That's enough rambling for today.

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