Madagascar – Not the Fun Side of the Island

164 - LemursWhen you think of Madagascar what do you think of ?

Perhaps its thick, dense tropical jungles inhabited by unique wildlife – especially lemurs, either that, or the Dreamworks cartoon film – also with lemurs.

Unfortunately, these days Madagascar is looking a bit different.

Since the first arrival of humans, Madagascar has lost over 90% of its original forest cover, and seen the extinction of many of its original native species, including the enormous elephant bird (extinct by the late 1600′s) and numerous species of giant lemur.

It is estimated around half of this deforestation has occurred since the 1950′s and is continuing today, fueled not only by traditional slash and burn methods of farming, but also by the continued expansion of beef cattle grazing, illegal logging, and clearance for mining and coffee production. All these practices are exacerbated by Madagascar’s extreme poverty and governmental corruption.

Madagascar is home to almost 100 different species of lemur – the iconic primates found nowhere else in the world, almost all species now being classified as endangered. Though lemurs have been legally protected for decades, many local people, desperate for income, continue to hunt them for sale as bushmeat, but it is the continuing destruction of their habitat that is driving them ever closer to extinction.

Solutions are hard to come by.

As in all such circumstances more regulatory protection and stricter controls can only provide a temporary solution. If we want our future world to contain lemurs living in the wild, we will have to find a way to ensure rural Madagascan’s are able to improve their standard of living and have achievable life aspirations without having to destroy their natural environment. Fair trade, debt relief, targeted aid and encouraging political reform will all play a part.

It’s estimated that over 400 million people have seen the Dreamworks Madagascar films, but only a tiny proportion are probably aware of the extent of the danger faced by lemurs and Madagascar’s forests – something you might want to mention the next time the films are repeated on TV.

Photo by Cornelliuscz, via Flickr

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Green Walls

Plants are fantastic – they provide food, regulate temperatures through transpiration, underpin ecosystems, help lock-up moisture and carbon, protect soil from erosion and they look good too. They can help improve air quality, with some studies indicating that they can cut pollution by up to 30%.

These are all things we could do with more of in our urban areas, where plants can the literally ‘thin on the ground’, but where there is rarely additional land available for new green space.

The solution: vertical green walls.

The concept is hardly new, vertical planting was supposedly a key aspect of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but using modern structures and substrates, we can now produce an increasing array of green walls using modern hydroponics and different structures and substrates.

Green walls have many additional advantages; deflecting water away from building surfaces, providing a degree of insulation and noise adsorption etc. It’s also possible to plant a variety of edible species, including herbs and some soft fruits, such as strawberries, or scented varieties.

They are increasingly being used architecturally, both externally, and internally, and several organisations and companies now produce advice for home gardeners who are interested in producing their own green walls in their own properties, such as the Royal Horticultural Society, Biotecture, Green Over Grey and the amazing site DIY Greenwalls.

Building a few more green walls in our urban areas could provide a large number of benefits for very little cost – not least providing a welcome splash of natural greenery, which will help improve people’s wellbeing and connection with the natural world. Something we could definitely do with more of.


Photo from Thelmadatter via Wikicommons

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Last Chance to See

We are living through what is referred to by many as the Anthropocene extinction.

Man’s activities, particularly destruction of habitat, is widely believed to be responsible to the loss of many species every year. In fact we simply don’t know how many species are being made extinct, but some estimates put it as high as many species every day !

If you didn’t get to see the Eastern Cougar, the Western Black Rhinoceros, the Pyrenean Ibex or Lonesome George, the world’s last Pinta Island Tortoise, anytime within the last ten years, then I’m afraid you’ve missed your chance. All are now extinct and gone.

You’ve probably still got a chance to catch the mountain gorilla (740 left), the Great Bamboo Lemur (60 to 160 left), the Blue-Throated Macaw (100 to 150 left) or  the Amur Leopard (19 to 26 left) if you don’t leave it too long.

Tragic and depressing as news of these critically endangered species are, no doubt many of us wonder what we can do to protect animals whose habitats are under threat far away.

Unfortunately the answer is probably not much – other than perhaps donating funds, where possible and raising awareness. Conservation and protecting biodiversity is something that has to be done locally. But we shouldn’t be so complacent about the biodiversity in our own backyard:

In the UK the Scottish Wildcat, the Red Squirrel, the Brown Hare and even the Hedgehog, are all considered to be under considerable threat.

Numerous societies and organisations would welcome you support, in campaigning to stop inappropriate development, protect habitat, support conservation measures and raise awareness, such as the Hare Preservation Trust, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, British Hedgehog Preservation Society, and the Westmoorland Squirrel Society.

We might not have been able to save the Chinese River Dolphin from our living room, but we might be able to save the Red Squirrel !

Photo from Wikicommons

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Costa Rica’s Green Economy

A lot of economists and environmentalists around the world are looking at what the small Central American country of Costa Rica is managing to achieve, and asking ‘could we do the same thing here?’

Costa Rica has a strong history of progressive policies.

It abolished it’s armed forces permanently in 1949, and reallocated the money to education and health care, and is Latin America’s oldest democracy (since 1953). It is widely seen as performing well on issues of human development and equality, and was the only country to meet all of the UN’s five established criteria for environmental sustainability, now being ranked 5th in the world in terms of Environmental Performance Index and 1st in terms of the Happy Planet Index. It has plans to be the world’s first carbon neutral country by 2021.

How has it done it ?

Costa Rica produces over 90% of its electricity from a variety of renewable sources. 30% of the land area is held ‘in reserve’, as natural wilderness, and while many parts of the world have been subject to deforestation, Costa Rica has increased it’s forested area from 21% in 1987 to an impressive 52% in 2005, though land use pressures continue. Though agriculture remains an important part of the economy, high technology industries are increasingly important – attracted by Costa Rica’s well educated workforce and strong environmental credentials.

Costa Rica just like everywhere else has it’s problems, with development pressures, globalization and persistent poverty in several areas – but they are charting their own course, and so far seem to be doing rather well.

Photo by hotshotjen, via Flickr

In Pursuit of the ‘Holiday Experience’

A guest post by The Happy Hippy.

Holidays are very important to me.

All my holidaying life I have very rarely travelled to the same location, except to visit friends in foreign places, and my husband and I attempt to give our children ‘experiences’ which they will remember – and also hopefully ones which shape and change how they view the world.

Every year we have the same dilemma, where and when to go and how much to spend.

With three growing kids it’s hard to balance the cost with the right experience for us all, and in an attempt to match my ‘green credentials’, I’ve also always tried to ‘do the right thing’ – buying local products, using public transport, being responsible etc. It can often be difficult to balance these green aspirations within the mix.

But last year we found that rare thing – a holiday experience which met all of our expectations and more !

I’ve always tried to book destinations which are a little off the beaten track, offer some kind of engagement with the locals – avoiding at all cost the high-rise, the fight for the beach beds, the noise and glitter of a ‘resort’ . . . much to my kids’ disappointment. I hear them now . . . ‘ please mum can we just go into one arcade for candy floss and kiss me quick hats’ . . . ‘NO’ I say, ‘we must have an experience !’

The destination that managed to make us all happy last year was Transylvania.

I can honestly say that Transylvania was by far one of our best experiences to date. Our initial concerns about vampires and dark dangerous forests were soon dispelled upon arrival. Apart from the usual ‘what a beautiful country’, ‘great views’ etc – what made it special was seeing how sustainably many of the locals live.

Romania joined the EU in 2007 and you would think that they would have embraced all the EUness of their neighbouring countries. While the rest of Romania, leaving behind its communist history, may be on this route, hopefully Transylvania will remain one of the hidden gems of the world.

The first thing I have to mention was the food – divine ! Everything was handmade, the jam, the yoghurt, the elderflower and raspberry juice and not a plastic bottle in sight. The wine was produced in the neighbouring valley and was perhaps the best wine I have had anywhere – and it was organic. There is something quite special about seeing the food being grown on site and watching the cook hand picking fruits and vegetables from the plot for that evening’s taste sensation. All the villages had gardens full of fruits, vegetables and flowers.

We stayed in the small village of Miclosva for a few nights, then moving further into the Carpathian Mountains, to an even smaller village. There was no TV, no mobile phone signal, occasionally no electricity and there was no phone, as the copper had been stolen from the overhead cables. . . and where were all the cars ? How would my husband and kids survive ? I was worried, I wanted us all to have that ‘experience’, but I didn’t want us to be bored! I needn’t have worried.

Usually one of my children would do anything to avoid the ‘countryside’ but even they were excited by the nature walk. Our guide, Garbor (fantastic name and fantastic guy) was very knowledgeable and engaged with the children, showing them a multitude of wildlife, exploding plants, fields of butterflies and bear trails, including their ‘poo’. We all shared a scary moment in the graveyard late that night when Garbor took us bear watching. We had to remain as quiet as possible lying on a bank and listening and focusing on the clearing in the woods. I couldn’t believe the children were able to remain quiet for so long, not a sound, us all waiting in anticipation.  We heard grunts, gruffs and heavy breathing getting closer . . . then all of a sudden Garbor jumped up shouting and screaming, the bear had approached from the side and in fact was worryingly too close! Thankfully the bear was sent on his way and the kids thought this was one of the highlights of the whole holiday and told the story many times of how we were nearly caught by a bear !

We spent our days on horse and cart visiting the charcoalers, the sheep and goat farmers who had to milk their 200 strong herd twice a day every day, the Ferrier and their work horses, the farmer who worked the land by hand with the help of their children, the baker who baked real bread, the shopkeeper who sold nothing which the kids could relate to – all working together as part of their village community.

Perhaps as close to a truly sustainable way of life as perhaps it’s possible to get these days ?

Early one evening my daughter and I were taking a gentle stroll along the dirt track through the village; all the villagers were sitting out in front of their houses chatting with neighbours, their children playing with the dogs, puppies and ducklings. Everybody we passed spoke to us and smiled, many inviting us to chat and offering us drinks. On our way back my daughter, who was then 12 – and like all 12 year olds loves her shopping – said, ‘these people don’t have much money do they, they don’t really appear to have anything?’ ‘No’ I said pondering on her remark. We walked in silence for a few seconds and then she said something which put all the rights and wrongs of the world into perspective . . . ’but they are all so happy and friendly’.

How meaningful I thought from a 12 year old but how true. It’s sparked many a meaningful conversation since and when she asks for a new designer sweatshirt, I remind her of this experience.

I hope for their sake the EU, with its regulations and policies, does not change them too much . . . . . unless they want to be changed of course.

A number of companies offer eco-holidays to Transylvania, including Responsible TravelGreen Mountain Holidays and Transylvanian Eco-Holidays.

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