During a college semester abroad in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, I suddenly felt compelled to write long letters to anyone who I thought might read them. Partly it was to plaster entire envelopes with the country's beautiful palette of penny stamps--everything from lemur scenes to Elvis tributes. But I also really needed to tell someone about the malnourished, 24-hour banana salesmen who slept in doorways, the giant hissing cockroaches in the outhouses, and the men who stood on the rocks alongside the coral beaches and hurled out fishing line, bending over as it unspooled off the tops of their heads.
Madagascar has never been a practical country, and I suppose that's part of its charm. The bridges are all washed out. The national highway is a soup of laterite. Rural folk live in mud-brick hovels yet spend the afterlife within palatial cement replicas of airplanes and taxi brousses--the jacked-up WWII-era troop carriers that are the only way to get around. The less intractable of these problems were, according to Fort Dauphin's students, caused by the greed and ineptness of the country's then-president, Didier Ratsirika, who clung to power only because his party rode into town before each election atop huge loads of free rice.
An island off the southeast coast of Africa, Madagascar is in some ways even more tragic than the continent's cliches. When humans first drifted there from Africa and Indonesia beginning only about 1000 B.C., it was as if they followed the wake of a second Noah's Ark. They found lemurs the size of gorillas, pygmy hippos no bigger than pigs, and elephant birds, which stood 10 feet tall and weighed half a ton. Those creatures were long ago engulfed in wave of extinction that continues to this day. Among the most tenuous survivors is the Aye Aye, which seems like a fusion of monkey, bat, and woodpecker. Despite Madagascar's status as a virtual mini-continent where 80 percent of species are found nowhere else, its infrastructure has been too unreliable to support what should be a thriving tourism industry.
There was once hope that politicians could turn things around. In 2002, Malagasy president Marc Ravalomanana, a self-made dairy farmer, ousted Ratsirika at the polls in a wave of popular support and optimism. Of course, Madagascar was still a country where children stood on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, waiting to dance for the occasional driver in hopes he'd toss coins out the window; poverty ran deep. So when Andry Rajoelina, the young, charismatic disc jockey who'd become mayor of the nation's capital, Antananarivo, organized protests against rising food prices and government graft last year, Ravalomanana had him ousted. The ensuing three-month standoff ended this week when troops sympathetic to Rajeolina stormed the presidential palace and forced Ravalomanana to cede power.
"This is no clash of policies; it is a clash of personalities," the BBC opined. That doesn't mean it's any less a disaster. The Madagascar military has ended its tradition of not taking political sides. Rajoelena has refused to submit to a referendum on the presidency, paving the way for an uncertain period of dictatorship. And tourism has ground to a halt and will likely take months or years to start up again, especially in the midst of a global downturn.
As the coup clearly shows, tourism and poverty are uneasy bedfellows. The tragedy in Madagascar is that they need not be. Though hard to reach and difficult to navigate, Madagascar is far from dangerous. It simply needs more ways for tourist money to flow to people at the bottom of the economic ladder, and more tourists who won't let a few sand fleas, stomach bugs, and lost tires get in the way of seeing the most unique place on the planet.
in the mid-'80s, an atmospheric physicist named Carl N. Hodges predicted that the key to saving the planet was to make the desert bloom—with a spindly saltwater plant known as salicornia, a.k.a. sea asparagus. The idea languished for years, but now scientists, investors, and even celebrities are lining up behind the 71-year-old's vision for feeding the planet, fueling our cars, and reversing rising sea levels. "I don't know if I'm slow or the world is," says Hodges, the founder of the University of Arizona's Environmental Research Laboratory, "but finally it has all come together."
After evaluating more than 700 kinds of salt-tolerant plants, Hodges thinks the lowly coastal succulent (official name: Salicornia bigelovii) is the crop of the future. Sea asparagus can be sautéed (it's salty and crunches like snap peas), crushed into a protein-rich meal (Hodges has made it into cookies), or pressed into oil (it cooks like safflower oil). Hodges says the most likely market for edible salicornia is animal herders looking for cheap feed supplements, and he thinks the oil could catch on in poor countries. Salicornia can also be turned into biofuel—one that can power cars without hogging freshwater or distorting food prices. nasa scientists estimate that growing saltwater plants like salicornia across an area the size of the Sahara could supply more than 90 percent of the world's energy needs.
in the 1960s, landscape architect Karl Linn transformed vacant lots in cities across the nation into "neighborhood commons"—early prototypes of the community garden. Contemporary food activists are defining urban agriculture more broadly, looking for ways to harvest fruits and veggies almost anywhere a seed will take root, from tiny backyards to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Finders Keepers "There is a ton of wild produce out there," says 27-year-old Iso Rabins, founder of ForageSF, a San Francisco-based csa (community supported agriculture) startup whose members will be able to barter whatever they find growing in the city, from blackberries in parks to fennel in empty lots. In a similar vein, Fallen Fruit, a Los Angeles collective, produces maps of fruit trees whose branches overhang streets and sidewalks—"public fruit" ripe for the picking. Cofounder David Burns urges fellow urban gatherers not to get sticky fingers. "This is about making relationships," he says, "not just grocery shopping."
A recent report by International Rivers details a rash of dam building projects in the world's most rugged and scenic mountain range:
Massive plans are underway in Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bhutan to build several hundred dams in the region, with over 150,000 megawatts of additional capacity proposed in the next 20 years in the four countries. If all the planned capacity expansion materializes, the Himalayan region could possibly have the highest concentration of dams in the world.
It's almost certain that this will happen. Sometimes known as the "Third Pole," the Himalayas contain of 3,700 square kilometers of glacial ice, which is melting due to climate change and gushing down the slopes of the 14 tallest peaks in the world. South Asia's boom in population, economic output (which is surprisingly immune to the global downturn), and Western-funded carbon offset projects virtually insures that the forces of dam building will be almost as powerful as the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates.
Clearly the dams will export cheap and low-carbon electricity. But they will also displace hundreds of thousands of people, import hordes of culturally disruptive migrant laborers, wreck fisheries, and, maybe worst of all, breach in the likely event of an earthquake or climate-change-induced flood, unleashing a cascade of disasters. Novelist Arundhati Roy has eloquently opined against the Narmada dam project, though to little avail. We can only hope that the scenic Himalayas will fare better in the protective embrace of their poets.
The EPA's criminal investigation division has a website where you can print out wanted posters for environmental criminals who are on the lam. Who knew? Most of these guys look so perfect for Central Casting that you've got to wonder if they were chosen more for their oily hair and trucker glasses than their rap sheets. The website's America's-Most-Wanted feel is reinforced by a big red warning that reads: "Do not attempt to apprehend any of these individuals." What, not even this guy?