Eucalyptus trees were introduced to Madagascar from Australia when the counties narrow gauge railways were built. Sadly, very little of the rail network is still used, save from a freight line to the capital from an east coast port, and a delightful passenger service, mainly used by tourists, pulled by a railcar which (if memory serves) was acquired from Germany by France as part of the reparations for World War I. The eucalyptus trees remain, and other than various endemic pine trees, seem to be the main trees in most of the terrain we’ve passed through. Eucalyptus grows quickly and responds fairly well to crude coppicing (i.e., a tree may well regrow after most of it has been cut down). That’s important in a country where the main fuels are wood and charcoal. Nevertheless, over several hundred miles, I have yet to see a growing tree as broad as many of the hewn stumps I have seen. Madagascar’s forests are on a downward spiral that has been several decades in the making. And with a rapidly growing population (around 50% young people), it’s hard to see that turning around. Eco-tourism makes a significant contribution to the incentives to conserve what remains.
We passed today through a region with greater tree cover. It was very striking what a difference it made, not just visually, but to the wellbeing of the people. Where more wood is available, there’s enough timber to support tiled roofs, to construct attractive and useful balconies, and to make local furniture. In all other respects, the terrain, the agriculture, everything, very closely resembled all the other areas we had passed through. The better state of the forests was the only apparent cause of significant differences in wellbeing.