The richest poor country in the world


It is an island of fabulous beasts and unforgettable vistas.

A place where lemurs howl like car alarms and chameleons the size of your forearm mimic the movement of leaves in the breeze.

The alleys of fat baobab trees and canyons of jagged karst look straight out of the mind of Salvador Dali. The beaches and reefs that rim this island the size of Texas are among the most beautiful in the world. And an exotic mix of African and Asian bloodlines, flavored by French colonization, create a one-of-a-kind culture.

With all this, Madagascar should be a perennial “it” destination — luring backpackers and five-star glampers to explore “The Eighth Continent.”

But Madagascar’s once-abundant resources are now in peril due to disasters both natural and man-made: from political corruption and pestilence to crushing poverty and now, the plague.

Unlike the medieval “Black Death” which was spread by rats carrying infected fleas, this is a rare pneumonic plague that can pass between humans with a single close cough and kill within 24 hours.

At least 33 lives have been taken by this outbreak, alarming officials as it spreads rapidly through the capital and to coastal cities. On October 6, the World Health Organization delivered over a million doses of antibiotics to Madagascar and is appealing to the United States to provide the island with $5.5 million in emergency medical aid.

This is just the latest crisis for a nation defined by hardship, struggle and strife, both before and after declaring independence from France in 1960.

The last few generations have seen coups and assassinations, despotic dictators and failed democracy. Of the more than 20 million residents, only 15% have electricity, and most live on a dollar or two a day.

Aside from the human misery, these conditions have led to one of the greatest environmental disasters in modern times.

The forests that hold some of the most unique life on the planet are shrinking, as desperate people turn the trees into charcoal to burn and sell. In low wetlands, they clear trees to grow rice and in the rainforest, timber mafias poach precious rosewood to fill China’s demand for expensive furniture.

With a government overwhelmed and bogged down with tribal strife, the last protectors of these disappearing places are bands of local guides, determined to convince their neighbors that an endangered lemur is more valuable in the trees than in a pot.

Groups like Association Mitsinjo in the lemur forest of Andasibe try to teach a new generation of Malagasy kids that ecotourism is sustainable while slash-and-burn farming is not.

“As I see it, the current generation will be out of poverty by 2050,” President Hery Rajaonarimampianina told me with a smile during our interview in 2016. “When that happens, the animals and plants will be doubled and tripled. We will have many more tourists who will come here, instead of going somewhere else.”

Considering his country’s needs, it may be the boldest political prediction ever. But the most dependable renewable resource in Madagascar is hope. Turning that hope into action could mean the difference between survival and extinction, for man and beast.