Help the land of lemurs move forward

FOR decades, Americans tried to make the world safe for democracy. Now, in a distant but exotic African nation, they have an opportunity to make a democracy safe for ... endangered species.

The large island of Madagascar off eastern Africa, the fourth-largest island in the world, is one of the world's most diverse ecosystems, noted for its wide-eyed lemurs. But the world's attention has been focused on a different kind of animal in Madagascar recently - the political kind.

Earlier this week, presidential candidate Marc Ravalomanana, a dynamic businessman, walked out of negotiations over an election generally acknowledged to be rigged and declared himself the winner.

The political stakes are so high for the future of this unique island of 14 million people that at least 100,000 of them have been protesting in the capital almost every day - in favor of Mr. Ravalomanana (who's known as Mr. Tiko for a brand of yogurt he made famous). He claims he received over 50 percent, not the official 46 percent that has forced him into a runoff with the aging dictator Didier Ratsiraka. Citing vote-rigging, he refused to participate in the runoff. Independent election observers confirmed massive election tampering.

Former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, Ravalomanana's attorney in the US, says Ravalomanana took action because he was convinced a runoff election would be far more corrupt than the inconclusive Dec. 16 vote.

Since 1975, with only a brief hiatus in the early 1990s, Madagascar has been ruled by Mr. Ratsiraka. During his tenure, Madagascar has been transformed from a post-colonial success story into one of the world's economic basket cases.

Described by one historian as existing in "a state of grace" in comparison to its African neighbors in the 1960s, the former French colony is now the world's 13th-poorest country. Seventy-five percent of the island's people live in poverty. The population continues to rise as rare species disappear under an onslaught of slash-and-burn farming that has destroyed at least 85 percent of Madagascar's original forests.

Eighty percent of the country's species are endemic, which means they exist only on Madagascar. Three-quarters of the world's chameleons, porcupine-like creatures called tenrecs, and 50-foot-high spiny trees that exist nowhere else in the world are found on this island.

As mayor of the capital city Antananarivo, Ravalomanana has sometimes acted more like early-vintage Rudi Giuliani than Mike Bloomberg. He has been criticized for being ruthless about clearing slums, but he also was resolute about making the capital a more attractive place to live.

Yet Ravalomanana has inspired what amounts to a cult of personality in the capital city. Dissatisfaction with the corruption that flourished under Ratsiraka's regime is pervasive among Madagascar's urban population. Burgeoning international trade has raised expectations among the middle-class, and Ravalomanana promises to spur economic growth.

Despite a degree of disapproval from the international community over Ravalomanana seizing power, there is little doubt that the hundreds of thousands of people who have gathered daily on the streets of the capital feel they have spoken.

In tumultuous post-colonial Africa, this may be as close to a clean election as one can hope. The Bush administration, perhaps forgetting its recent travails in Florida, continues to insist that Ravalomanana participate in a runoff election. Whether or not this happens, international aid and lending institutions stand ready to help Madagascar move forward.

Realpolitik dictates that the rest of us, including the US government and environmental organizations, should be ready to turn Ravalomanana's presidency into an opportunity to help Madagascar's poverty-plagued population and the country's globally important endangered species.

• Susan Zakin, a journalist and author, traveled to Madagascar last year as a Senator John Heinz Fellow under the auspices of the Washington-based International Center for Journalists.

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