Antarctica - Caspian Sea - Madagascar - St. Lawrence
||Madagascar, 1994: Treasure of Diversity
Madagascar separated from the African continent 120,000,000 years ago and has, since then, followed its own unique evolutionary track. As a result, animals and plants found nowhere else in the world have survived and developed on the the worlds fourth largest-island. Lemurs, for example, have long been extinct in Europe and North America but, on Madagascar, there are more than 30 species; 95 percent of its reptile species and 98 percent of its amphibian species are endemic, i.e. native only to the island. People first appeared in Madagascar just 2,000 years ago, a mere blink of the evolutionary eye, which makes it a living laboratory in which to observe the effects of humans on Nature. The Cousteau teams explored and documented this astonishing reservoir of unique life forms throughout its extraorindary inland terrain as well as in its coastal waters.
|The expedition probed deeply into the heart of the island. One team plunged into primal forests amid the fortresslike spurs of Ankaranas rocky massif, slogging through mud and enduring scorpion stings and bat guano. Another went into the city slums of Antananarivo where people scratch a living from garbage dumps. Divers swam among hammerhead sharks in the Mozambique Channel and photographed in a turquoise sea. A film crew had the rare opportunity to document a ceremony of the turning of the dead, when family members are disinterred and wrapped in new shrouds; although tears are shed, there is also laughter, singing and dancing. Teams traversed the mini-continent over tortured (and torturing) roads to capture the hard but graceful life of the Vezo fishing families of the arid southwest coast.
||The six-month expedition found one of the worlds most intriguing and troubling places. Intriguing because of the fabulous wildlife and plants found nowhere else on Earth. Troubling because so much of it is threatened.
Deeply ingrained in the Malagasy culture is the system of "tavy," a term for cutting and burning land for new crops or for grazing humpbacked zebu. It is the number-one threat to nearly all of the countrys rain forests and is increasingly carried out on steep slopes where seasonal crops like rice are encouraged to grow. But in the early spring, when torrential rains come, the farmers abandon the land and the thin topsoil is swept away.
It does not seem an exaggeration that an estimated one-quarter of Madagascar burns each year in fires lit to clear the land. The system repeats and repeats itself because, with a population of only 12 to 13 million people in a country larger than California, there seems to be an unlimited amount of land. Theres always a new stand of forest.
As a result, rivers like the Betiboka run with rust-tinged water, laden with Madagascars topsoil, all the way to the ocean. It is this sight that inspired astronauts to exclaim that Madagascar is bleeding.
Another harsh truth surfaced in the small coastal village of Anakao, which might be a tropical paradise if not for the lack of rainfall. It is the village of the Vezo people.
The Vezo are born to water. Young boys learn the beginnings of seamanship by building tiny wooden boats with stick sails, that bob on the water like leaves. When the fishermen haul in the nets, boys accompany them in small dugout canoes with outriggers, paddling naturally and easily, smiling and watching the older ones dive for the nets.
The sail-equipped pirogues venture far out into the Mozambique Channel for the days catch. Fishing is the key to survival: families who bring in fish to eat or sell live fairly well, with diets supplemented by rice, corn and manioc. But a long drought can bring famine.
Water for drinking is a constant problem. Good water can be bought from enterprising men who paddle miles to bring back large barrels of water to sell. But those who cannot afford good water must dig in the sand to scoop out the bitterly brackish liquid that seeps up. Life, as one woman said, is "saro," very difficult.
To explore Madagascar and dwell only on its richesthe incredible biological diversity of its rain forests, the wonder of its geology, the varieties of its cultureis to ignore one of the central themes of daily life: grinding poverty. Nearly half of its people are unable to provide the basic necessities of life. Proper sanitation and safe drinking water are almost fictional concepts. With per-capita income at about one-twentieth of the developed world, the stark reality of conditions that are impossible to ignore. But misery and hope can co-exist. After the expedition left Madagascar, The Cousteau Society and Equipe Cousteau determined to carry out a pilot project to provide drinking water for Anakao, a lengthy and difficult challenge. With the cooperation of Malagasy and French institutions, tests, trials, experiments and evaluations continue in the expectation that this village by the sea will one day have its own safe, fresh water.
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