Written by Jason Horowitz
In a nature reserve on the banks of the clay-colored Katsaoka River, an 8-week-old crowned sifaka clung to its mother’s back as she leapt across tree branches. Nearby, other lemur species combed their young’s backs, nibbled on leaves or lounged in the sun.
Some had white fur, or brown patches, or tails with 28 black-and-white rings. All had one thing in common: endangerment by rampant deforestation and climate change, which threaten the island nation’s future.
Pope Francis used his first full day in Madagascar to hammer the same point home.
“Your lovely island of Madagascar is rich in plant and animal biodiversity, yet this treasure is especially threatened by excessive deforestation, from which some profit,” Francis said Saturday in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, about an hour’s drive from the lemur reserve. “The last forests are menaced by forest fires, poaching, the unrestricted cutting down of valuable woodlands.”
Francis has been making a similar case since his election in 2013, when he put environmental protection and global warming at the top of his agenda. He championed the Paris climate accord and, in 2015, became the first pope to dedicate an encyclical to protecting the earth.
But the timing of his visits to Mozambique, which ended Friday, and to the islands of Madagascar and later Mauritius seemed unsettlingly fitting.
In recent weeks the Amazon has burned, fires have raged in Angola and Congo, and a glacier has melted in Iceland.
The appeals of Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager and environmentalist, have spread across Europe. And yet another deadly storm has been bearing down on the United States, where calls for a Green New Deal have gathered liberal momentum.
“The visit is an occasion for this subject to come forward,” said Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a confidant of the pope.
Parts of Mozambique were devastated in March by a cyclone that the United Nations called one of the worst in recent memory and another that followed soon after; Madagascar, Malawi and Zimbabwe were also affected. The storms caused severe flooding, killed more than 1,000 people and caused acute food insecurity for more than 1.5 million, according to the US Agency for International Development.
“Before the pope’s arrival we had many meetings with young people about what the pope said about climate change,” said Bishop António Juliasse of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. He called it “a big issue for us,” saying: “We know the consequences from that. We know because we suffer it.”
So do others.
This year’s Global Climate Risk Index lists Madagascar as the seventh most affected country in part because of the toll that droughts and floods have taken on the island’s poor, who rely on small-scale farming or fishing.
Throughout his trip, the pope has denounced the exploitation of natural resources. In Mozambique, the World Bank estimates, nearly 20 million acres of forest have been lost, an amount about the size of its onetime colonizer, Portugal.
“At times it seems that those who approach with the alleged desire to help have other interests,” Francis said Friday at a packed stadium in Maputo. The stripping of resources, he said, is “the price to be paid for foreign aid.”
Hints of China’s deep investments in Mozambique are everywhere, from the signs that bear Chinese writing to the spring rolls on the hotel menus. China has also taken much, importing large amounts of Africa’s rosewood and other hardwoods for luxury furniture.
“They said, ‘We come to help you,’” Augusta Alinda, 16, said of the Chinese, “but they made it worse.”
In Madagascar, nearly half of the forests have disappeared in the last 60 years, according to the French agricultural research center CIRAD. The Primate Specialist Group, a network of scientists, has deemed its lemurs the most endangered primates in the world, owing to illegal logging, poaching for food, slash-and-burn agriculture and charcoal production.
“In the wild, they need at least three hectares for each group,” Diary Rafalimanana, a guide at the lemur reserve, said as he watched a cramped family. Across the river behind them, villagers planted sweet potatoes, fished for tilapia and did what they could to get by.
Intense droughts, storms and floods have wreaked havoc on agriculture in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries. More than 90% of its 26 million people live on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations World Food Program.
While condemning environmental devastation, Francis recognized on Saturday that the poor often had little alternative to illegal logging or stripping the earth of minerals. Indeed, on the roads west of Antananarivo, climate change did not seem to be a pressing concern.
Instead, getting across the road seemed challenging enough. Taxi vans, scooters, bicycles and bull-drawn carriages loaded with bulging sacks of wood barely slowed for barefoot children rushing across the street. Shopkeepers in open-air butcher shops, vegetable stands and chicken spots brushed up against vendors selling brooms, license plates and sneakers. Men and women balanced bags of rice, stereo speakers, tires and baskets of live chickens on their heads.
Francis’ image in these parts was minimal. There were a few signs of him smiling and waving, and closer to town a woman sold sunhats adorned with his face. But in the periphery of the population Francis so wants to reach, he and his message seemed peripheral.
Everywhere smoke billowed. From exhaust pipes, from fires in the fields and from under the pots where children sell corn heated by brick ovens on the roadside. Many men wore orange shirts emblazoned with the face of Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina.
Rajoelina, an event promoter turned power broker, has tried to bolster the country’s finances by allowing a surge in deforestation. Much of the felled rosewood and ebony found its way to China, and a “large, unexplained stash of rosewood logs was discovered at the presidential palace,” according to a European Parliament resolution calling on Madagascar to curb corruption and better protect its environment.
The pope had the same message Saturday.
“In a word, there can be no true ecological approach or effective efforts to safeguard the environment without the attainment of social justice,” Francis said next to Rajoelina, who promised “on this day” to “repair and rebuild Madagascar.”
For some of Francis’ believers, at least, the message was getting through.
“The pope and now everybody is talking about the environment,” said Angelo Chambule, 51, who works in imports in Maputo. “That we have to do something or we won’t have a future.”