Guest columnists: Preserving lemurs, forests, and livelihoods

Dec. 07, 2012 @ 04:01 PM

A lemur. A Gibson guitar. A few large, majestic trees. These photos were projected on the screen. “What do these photos have in common?” our professor asked. It was the first day of our class, “Globalization and Corporate Citizenship,” and we sat, petrified by the thought of being asked a question within the first few minutes of our very first class at Duke. No one spoke. Indeed, why these pictures?

The first photo: a lemur. A red-ruffed lemur, native to Madagascar. Actually, most lemurs are native to Madagascar and can be found only there, the world’s fourth-largest island. Madagascar is a “biodiversity hotspot” filled with endemic species that, like red-ruffed lemurs, are found nowhere else on earth. However, due to habitat destruction, their numbers are dwindling.

The second photo: a Gibson guitar. A guitar that might have been built from illegal timber exported from Madagascar. Madagascar’s government has outlawed the felling of precious woods within protected areas of Madagascar due to the rampant loss of forests. However, the underground timber industry is thriving. The most negatively impacted are, as always, Madagascar’s forests and its rural population.

Why is this happening? Madagascar’s government does not have the resources to enforce its ban on sales of precious woods, and there is some suspicion that government agents are themselves involved in the trade. The groups who exploit these natural resources, also known as timber barons, make millions of dollars from illegally exporting precious woods to corporations in China and the U.S., where the raw materials are turned into high-end furniture or musical instruments (such as Gibson guitars). The global demand for the timber fuels the timber barons, who have become extremely powerful in Madagascar.

The third photo: a few large, majestic trees. Rosewood, a precious wood sold in the illegal timber trade. The guarantee of a reliable income draws in many local people hoping to benefit from the industry. Conventional methods of moneymaking are insecure sources of income throughout the year, so many must work for the timber barons for a tiny, yet steady wage.

Malagasy people encourage strong relations both with one’s land and with one’s ancestors. Land acts as a social foundation, establishing a person’s historical ties to a place, rather than merely as a source for production. Unfortunately, working for the timber barons can pull people away from their land, instead creating purely economic relationships that undermine traditional commitments to family and land.

While laudable in their aim to preserve rare natural resources, many conservation efforts in Madagascar are organized around the idea that the natives are largely to blame for the loss in biodiversity over the past few centuries. Since colonial times, Malagasy people along the coast have been described as lazy and ignorant for clear-cutting forests.

However, locals sometimes wonder why it seems more money has been invested in forest protection rather than in lifting them out of poverty or helping them achieve political stability. With limited resources and poor living conditions, farmers and laborers can hardly be blamed for not simply jumping onto a conservation bandwagon that they perceive restricts them from accessing the forests they value and need to survive.

On Dec. 3, our class at Duke helped host a symposium, sponsored by the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Duke Lemur Center, discussing these complex issues. Experts in Madagascar’s biodiversity, economy, politics, culture, conservation efforts, and illegal timber trade came together to analyze the great struggles of Madagascar’s centuries of conservation efforts and what paths remain to protect biodiversity while benefiting its human population. The day concluded with an evening concert by Razia Said, a Malagasy singer-songwriter who has made saving Madagascar’s rainforests and cultural treasures the centerpiece of her music. We found hope in many of the presentations, from the promise of DNA bar-coding’s ability to identify whether wood has been harvested illegally to discussions of conservation efforts that provide more widespread opportunities for Malagasy people to engage in planning for their own future.

But why should we care? These issues are not isolated purely in Madagascar. The harvesting of precious timber has presented a problem in larger countries such as Brazil, Russia, and India. Even in countries as developed as China and the United States, locals face oppression as outsiders seek the precious resources that have supported their communities for generations. Understanding the problems in Madagascar would have profound effects on the way we confront similar obstacles on a global scale.


Find out more about the symposium, “Forests, Families, Lemurs, and Guitars” at and more about Madagascar’s rare biodiversity at


Jared Lin and Phillip Reinhart are members of the Duke University class of 2016.