Nothing is as simple as it seems in Madagascar. When international mining house Rio Tinto wanted to exploit a rare mineral deposit on the country's idyllic southern coast, it seemed a clear-cut case of corporate expansion pitted against environmental protection. Environmental protesters won; the project was postponed.
But recent studies have shown that slash-and-burn land clearance practiced by local farmers is likely to destroy the unique coastal area within the next 40 years, mine or no mine.
Rio Tinto argues that it will at least protect the most valuable areas, while bringing prosperity to an impoverished people.
Once part of Africa, Madagascar broke away from the continent some 165 million years ago and has followed its own evolutionary path ever since. Most of the island's mammals, half its birds, and 80 percent of its plants exist nowhere else on earth. Its southern "spiny" forests of thorn-covered bushes and cactus-type succulents are a particularly rich habitat for chameleons, rare orchids, and lemurs.
But beneath the dry forests near the small port of Fort Dauphin lies a huge deposit of high-grade ilmenite, a form of titanium dioxide which is used to whiten toothpaste, paint, and washing powders. For 10 years, Quebec Iron and Titanium (QIT), a Canadian subsidiary of Rio Tinto, has been chasing the right to extract the mineral.
The company expects the 15,000-acre site to yield 2 billion tons of titanium dioxide over the next 40 years from an investment worth $400 million. In exchange, the government would receive some $40 million a year in foreign currency and another $10 million in taxes and license fees.
But environmentalists argue that the proposed mine would endanger more than two dozen species of plants and animals unique to the forest, including Madagascar's rare brown-collared lemur. Protesters have called for a two-year moratorium on mining the site.
"This area of biodiversity is irreplaceable," says Sarah Tyack, forest campaigner at the London-based Friends of the Earth environmental group. "The spiny forest is home to many species of chameleon, lemur, and insects that exist nowhere else in the world. By taking out that forest, QIT would cause the extinction of several species."
The protesters have pressured the Malagasy government into demanding detailed guarantees from Rio Tinto before it rubber-stamps the project. Rio Tinto says the land can be restored as the mine progresses and the forest replanted. It has guaranteed to protect at least 10 percent of the area to ensure the forest's survival.
"The plan would be to identify and set aside the most important areas ... and possibly develop buffer zones around them," says Dorothy Harris, a spokeswoman for Rio Tinto in London. "We're also doing tests to see which plants could be regrown successfully."
Rio Tinto argues that a similar operation in South Africa's Richards Bay has successfully rehabilitated one-third of the indigenous flora; the remainder was replanted with commercial crops.
Environmental activists are not convinced.
"That's still two-thirds of the original forest cover that's been lost," exclaims Tyack. "In terms of sustainable development, it's not the way forward. Ecotourism would be a much better use of the forest."
But the environmental lobby is divided: Some ecologists believe that slash-and-burn farming - known as tavy - will destroy the forests anyway. Some 85 percent of the country's indigenous forests have already been wiped out by subsistence farmers clearing land for cattle or rice paddies.
Without tree cover, Madagascar's red topsoil is being washed away at such a rate that the massive spillage into the Indian Ocean is visible from the space shuttle.
"The only way to help the environment in Madagascar is to persuade the local people that it is in their interest to do so," says Jean de Heaulme, a Frenchman who runs a private game reserve.
The realization that the mine might actually do more good than harm is starting to influence the government, which is understandably tempted by the plan. Madagascar is one of the world's poorest countries; average wages are less than a dollar a day. The mine would affect just six miles of coastline in a country the size of France, yet it would boost hard-currency earnings by more than 10 percent.
Not that wildlife conservation is top of the agenda for most ordinary Malagasy. "It's sad to say it, but much of the conservation work in Madagascar is carried out by foreigners," says Mr. de Heaulme. "It's difficult to explain to the local people that they can benefit from conserving their wildlife."