MIKEA FOREST, Madagascar — A spear, an ax, a fire starter crafted from cow horn, a hand-carved pipe, and tobacco: these are all of Bezery’s material possessions, and he carries them at all times. A member of the Mikea tribe, the last group of hunter-gatherers in Madagascar, Bezery has lived off food he gathers from the forest for his entire life — 60 years, perhaps, although he said he doesn’t know his age. He’s gone years without drinking anything, relying instead on a water-rich yam called balo.
Having grown up, married and raised his children in the forest, he knows no other way of life. Now, however, he’s facing a crushing predicament. He says he must leave the forest to find work. “The forest is all I know, I don’t want to leave,” he told Mongabay while sitting by a campfire, smoking his pipe. “If there’s enough food I want to stay, but there is just not enough food in the forest anymore.”
The Mikea, who number around 1,000 people, are facing what many of them say is an existential environmental problem. The tribe lives in a roughly 370,000 hectare (914,000 acre) swath of dry and spiny forest in southwestern Madagascar’s Atsimo-Andrefana region that bears their name, Mikea Forest. About half the forest, which is home to numerous unique and endangered animals, including several species of lemur, has been protected since 2011 as Mikea National Park.
Like many of Madagascar’s forests, Mikea Forest is rapidly being chopped down to supply a growing demand for charcoal, the country’s primary source of cooking fuel.
In the southwestern part of the country, charcoal is everywhere: sold on the side of major roads as well as next to coffee shops in remote villages. At about $1 for a sack the size of a large garbage bag, it is cheap even by Malagasy standards. But charcoal comes with a high environmental price that has to be paid by somebody — in this case, the Mikea.
Firewood, while not without its own environmental costs, typically entails collecting branches that are already dead and fallen. But to make charcoal people cut down living trees. They then burn the wood in a low-oxygen environment inside a kiln to turn it into nearly pure carbon that burns hotter, weighs less and lasts much longer than firewood — hence its popularity. The process runs the very real risk of starting a wildfire, especially in an incredibly dry area like southwestern Madagascar.
At least 15,000 hectares (37,100 acres) of dry forest located to the north and south of Toliara, the closest major city to Mikea Forest, are razed each year for fuelwood, according to the NGO World Wide Fund for Nature Madagascar. Much of this logging is done illegally. With NGOs and the government aiming to replant only 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of trees annually in the region, there has been a massive imbalance, according Paubert Mahatante, a professor of environmental impact studies at the University of Toliara. And even that comparatively modest reforestation goal is “still far away” from being fulfilled, Mahatante told Mongabay.
Looking at 323,000 hectares of forest that includes Mikea National Park, the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch reports that approximately 37,000 hectares (91,400 acres) of tree cover was lost between 2001 and 2018 — nearly 11.5 percent of the total area. (Disclosure: Mongabay has a funding partnership with the World Resources Institute, which manages Global Forest Watch. However, WRI has no editorial input on Mongabay content.)
The health of their forest affects every aspect of the Mikea’s lives. Mongabay asked a group of Mikea villagers to list the medicines they make or gather using only resources from their local environment, and they responded with hearty laughter. Finally, one of them said “There are so many medicines that we make, there are not enough pages in your notebook to write them all down.”
When a group of Mikea men volunteered to show Mongabay the medicinal plants in their forest, they stopped at seemingly every plant along the way. An elderly man too old to hunt pointed at one, saying “this is mandravasarotsy; we use it to treat stomachaches.” Pointing to different plants, his son said “this is sagnatry; we use it to treat headaches,” and “this is netoy; we mix it with salt and put it in our wounds to heal infections.” The list went on and on.
The forest is also the center of Mikea culture and their link to their ancestors. Prior to entering an area they refer to as their “ancestors’ forest,” newcomers must participate in a ritual, sacrificing rum and tobacco to a sacred tamarind tree followed by a chief asking his ancestors for safe passage in the forest. However, charcoal production has left much of their ancestors’ forest either clear-cut or burned.
While some Mikea, like Bezery, live in the forest as nomads, others live in villages and rely partially on farming. One village leader, Chief Vindala, walked through a part of the forest that had recently been cut and accidentally burned by charcoal producers. Charred, leafless trees loomed over tan soil in what was left of the forest. A faint campfire-like smell still hung in the air. The chief seemed resigned, overly accustomed to the scene before him.
“This forest is not ours to destroy, this forest belongs to our ancestors,” he said. “Nothing will be able to grow with everything burned like this.
“We must protect this forest or there will be no more animals here, there will be nothing,” he continued. “As Mikea, we will always hunt, but I don’t know if future generations will be able to live like we have been able to, it just keeps getting harder each year.” Vindala and several other Mikea men said that the hedgehogs, birds and wild boar they hunt have become increasingly scarce as the habitat loss has worsened.
People from neighboring villages, comprised of historically farming ethnic groups, are doing most of the clearing in Mikea Forest. Many feel they have no choice but to make charcoal in order to survive.
Tsifantari Zilbare, a 35-year-old father from Ankilimalinika village, told Mongabay he never wanted to be a charcoal maker, but found himself with no other options after the soil became so dry that he could no longer farm. He walked as he spoke, along a 20-kilometer (12-mile) route that he and many other local men now trek almost every day. It runs past rivers that have run dry, empty fields that once were fertile, and former forest with nothing left standing but baobab trees that store too much water to burn for charcoal. At the end is a section of original spiny forest outside the Mikea’s protected terrain, perfect for turning into charcoal.
In an unfortunate feedback loop, deforestation is what caused the area’s loss of soil fertility and desertification, helped along by human-caused climate change, as well as natural climatic cycles, according to Mahatante.
Some countries seeking to reduce deforestation and desertification from charcoal are looking to alternatives, including making charcoal from banana skins, coffee beans, corn, bamboo, and sugarcane. There are some initiatives in Madagascar attempting to produce commercially viable alternatives or teaching people to make cook stoves that require half the fuel, but so far they are not the norm. An outright ban on charcoal production, like ones imposed in Kenya, Tanzania and Gambia, does not appear to be a realistic option for Madagascar yet, given how reliant the country is on charcoal. Change isn’t coming fast enough to put the Mikea at ease.
In the meantime some Mikea are taking matters into their own hands. Chief Vindala showed off a makeshift hut that he built in the forest. The hut had no walls, just a bark roof held up by four long sticks. “This is where I sleep, often for two or three days at a time, listening for the sound of chopping,” he said. When he hears or sees logging he confronts the perpetrators and they leave.
And then Chief Vindala waits for the next group.
Sam Friedberg lived in Madagascar for two and a half years while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. Following his service he stayed to investigate environmental issues in Madagascar. Find more stories and photographs from his time there on Instagram: @samuelfried.