By Riana Rayond and Yves Samoelijaona
According to a report issued by the Regional Director of Environment and Sustainable Development of Menabe, Andoniaina Narisoa, between 80 % and 90% of the protected Menabe Antimena forest, located in the district of Morondava and Belo-sur-Tsiribihina, is now destroyed.
The protected area covers 21 000 hectares, including a mangrove, lakes and a dry forest that is undergoing almost complete destruction. The Menabe Antimena Forest is a category five protected area. This classification means that there are within the protected zone areas that the population can exploit and use for living called “Tanàna Mirindra” (harmonious village).
Since 2004, the management of the Antimena Menabe dry forest has been under the control of a local community group (Vodron’Olona Ifotony or VOI). The dry forest was first declared a provisional protected area by the government from 2004 to 2006. It’s only in 2015 that the forest became a fully protected area. Meanwhile, and most notably in 2009, the destruction of the forest accelerated as no one abided by the legislation. The protected area has gradually been transformed into a vast field of corn and peanuts. “People burn the forests to grow these crops there. Those who destroy the forest often moves from place to place as the soil becomes less fertile after two or three harvests,” reports a state official. The Regional Director of the Menabe Police, Senior Commissioner Honoré Razafindranony, supports this statement by saying that what’s happening on site is a total destruction of the forest. “Those people do not care about the so-called environment. People will grow corn and peanuts until the soil is completely depleted. They come by the hundreds from the Androy region to settle here, on our lands. We make efforts to educate and to discipline them but the main issue is that they have leaders and elected officials behind them,” says the police officer. Mr. Anselme Toto Volahy, the local director of Durrell, an international association for the protection of the environment, even says that the disaster has already taken place and that this case concerning the destruction of the Antimena Menabe Forest proves to be particularly complex. “Since 2007 we’ve been advocating loud and clear but for various reasons including a lack of operating budget and the political events of 2009, things got worse, and it was no longer possible to control [the destruction]. Those who are destroying the forest are doing whatever they want, and most of them come from Androy. The VOI strives to do what it can by working with us but to no avail. The police is also making efforts, but that did not solve the problem,” says this protector of the environment. The head of the Menabe police, Lieutenant Colonel Diogène Maka Tolondrenibe, and the Regional Chief of the Malagasy army, Colonel Eugene Ramamonjisoa, both attest to the almost complete destruction of the Antimena Forest due to the harvest of corn and peanuts.
For these two high-ranking officers, “the pinnacle of the destruction of the forest occurred in 2018. Hordes of people from outside [the forest] are to blame,” according to statements made during interviews conducted in the offices of the National Police in Morondava on March 20.
In the protected area, trees have been replaced by a gigantic wasteland rendered barren by several consecutive corn harvests.
The MP Leva
Throughout our investigation in the Menabe region, particularly in the districts of Menabe and Mahabo, a name was often mentioned: that of a Member of Parliament Ludovic Raveloson also known as Leva, elected in Mahabo, and candidate again for the next legislative elections on May 27.
A part of the population and a large number of state officials in Menabe consider Leva to be the driving force behind the deforestation. The Attorney General of the Court of First Instance of Menabe, Jean Jacques William Ratsimandranto was unambiguous during the interview we had with him: the names of some elected officials are often cited in deforestation cases in the region. When asked about the involvement of MP Leva, the Attorney General is more cautious. To prove MP Leva’s involvement is difficult. In the absence of evidence and complaints filed against him, there is no charge to prosecute him. “A lot of people are destroying the forest. They are going to the prosecutor’s office and we strictly enforce law, sending them straight to prison. No one dares to testify against this member, even though he’s already being held in custody. And then he cannot be tried as long as there is no evidence supporting his direct involvement. We often hear people talk about him, that’s true. But we can’t act outside of the law. It should be noted that even in the investigations conducted by the Forest Department [the Regional Authority for Environment and Sustainable Development], which provides us with documents, there is no evidence of his involvement” reports the prosecutor during the two interviews we had with him in Morondava on Wesdnesday, March 20 and Thursday, March 21. The explanations given by Lieutenant Diogene Mara Tolondrenibe are not different. According to that officer, “what we can say for the moment is that the name of the Deputy has been mentioned, but so far there is no hard evidence against him nor has he been caught in the act so that we could charge him. Moreover, he still benefits from the parliamentary immunity as an MP. However, we currently work to contain the deforestation for now. We are ready to enforce the law if there is sufficient evidence and charge to prosecute him. ” For her part, Ms. Narisoa Andoniaina, Regional Director for Environment and Sustainable Development for the Menabe region, insists that MP Leva is not only part of the network, but he is the leader:
“According to the information we have collected, the MP name is often mentioned. But there is no hard evidence so that we can charge him. We can’t build a case to file a complaint against him. None of the person we arrested and whom appeared before our investigators has mentioned his name. While we find it difficult for over 200 people from outside the region to all get together into the forest, after a long journey, if no one prepared for their arrival.
It is obvious that they are being paid to work in the forest and clear the land to grow corn and peanuts. The question then arises, where do the seeds come from to cultivate an area of more than 400 ha of cleared farming land in a protected forest?” the director tells us.
There is yet another source, a senior regional official who has asked to remain anonymous. The latter asserts that the former MP has, without a doubt, been involved in the destruction of the forest. “We, who have been born and raised in this region, do not ruin this forest. If we did that, we ourselves would suffer the consequences. The problem is that people from the Androy area are being brought in to grow corn and peanuts. And it’s that MP who supplies them with seeds. Unfortunately, for fear of being killed or by pure complicity, no one dares to testify nor to attack the MP,” admits the official. A major operator living in Morondava also claims that the former MP is involved in the destruction of the Antimena Menabe forest. Since the operator does not work in the agricultural section, he is not in direct competition with the former MP. “I don’t have any interest in hiding it because sometimes the MP comes to see me at home, and what I do is warn him that our common heritage has been completely ravaged. I keep warning him every time we meet, but we are each responsible for our acts,” claims the producer. Other people met, representatives of VOI, citizens and community and fokontany officials from Lambokely, Marofandihy and other regions surrounding the forest all confirm that the former MP is actively involved in the destruction of the forest.
Jealousy and political manoeuvring?
In order to give him the chance to respond to several accusations against him, a meeting was organized with Mr. Ludovic Raveloson, known by everyone as the Deputy Leva.
The meeting took place in his office in Mahabo on Sunday March 24, 2019. They easily agreed to the meeting and he came with several members of his team. They also agreed that the meeting would be recorded.
It is with a confident and unmoved manner that he received us to tell us about his point of view on the destruction of the forest. For him, the question of his implication is simple : “I have nothing to do with the destruction of the Antimena forest. I am not even in this district. Secondly, the state officials in Morondava are accusing me because they are not doing their job properly and they are looking to blame someone. As a MP, I voluntarily went into the forest to warn people not to commit harmful acts. However, they are not available to go there with me when I am. Thirdly, ask those who have written evidence that I am really behind the destruction of the forest to come forward to testify and bring charges. I’m ready to fight. I’m ready to face the investigations if you can bring evidence,” he stated. He adds: “For me, behind all this defamation is only slander, jealousy and political manoeuvring with the purpose of damaging my reputation.”
Ludovic Raveloson, known as the MP leva, during our meeting in his office in Mahabo.
During our meeting with Mr. Raveloson, a fokontany official appeared as a defence witness. The fokontany official from Mahabokely told us that the MP has nothing to do with the destruction of the forest. “It would be absurd to say that by supplying seeds, the MP is destroying the forest because that’s exactly what he’s been doing in our commune. We made written contracts that are kept in the fokontany and in the commune,” he says. “To our knowledge, the MP’s family does not grow corn beyond the boundaries of our district,” he continues.
A close associate of the Deputy Leva affirms that as for him, it is clear that “this defamation is the produce of jealousy on the part of operators in Morondava who cannot stand the competition. I am telling you sincerely that there are some bad politics right now, one really wants to destroy him” , affirms the man who wishes, however, to remain anonymous.
During the interview the MP Leva, has repeatedly insisted that he is innocent relatively to the destruction of the Antimena forest.
Following the defence of the former MP, another person close to him and that he trusts has given us very sensitive information about him. We will not give the name of the source to protect his safety and that of his family. According to this person’s statements, all the seeds distributed in the districts of Mahabo, Monrondava and Belo-sur-Tsiribihina have been provided by the former Deputy. “He supplies seeds all the way to the Lambokely forest which is inside the protected area. We are among those who collect products in these regions. We collect from Ankilizato and we cross the village to reach Lambokely. During the harvest period, there are about 11 trucks transporting corn in Antananarivo every other day.
One truck can carry up to 32 tons of corn in one trip. Therefore, there are about 320 tons of corn leaving Menabe every other day. We deliver the corn to three big companies, one in Analamahitsy, one in Anosizato, and one in Antsirabe. If I’m not mistaken, the companies in Antananarivo are Agrival and LFL. There is also another company in Ambohimena that works with Malto-Star in Antsirabe” he says. The Deputy, during our interview, mentioned and defended the companies: “It is neither the Star nor the LFL who are sending us to cultivate in the protected forest. I am against that,” he says. This statement confirms, however, that the companies do purchase corn from him.
As for these three companies, they refute the claim that they have been complicit. According to the law enforcement officers we have interviewed, and which require anonymity: “we have already had interviews with officials of these companies, and their answer was clear. They will not tolerate the destruction of the environment, and if they were made aware of such actions, they would never buy such tainted products.”
It is worth mentioning that according to the close associate of Deputy Leva, he uses seven large trucks without roofs to recover the products in the forest. “These vehicles do not have roofs to facilitate the circulation in and around the forest,” he says. The Deputy Leva, however, told us that he only owns four or five trucks used to transport goods to Antananarivo.
“And this is again through coming from partners and banks that grant loans so that we can do our work as operators,” explains the former MP. Despite his statements regarding the slanders he would be subjected to, Mr. Raveloson was unable to help the investigators discover who caused the deforestation. “I really don’t know who is the mastermind who has caused this deforestation. He can’t be in the region under my control,” he says.
Corruption and fear
During our investigation conducted by the state officials in the Menabe region, we found that many are afraid of the elected official as he has been enjoying a parliamentary immunity for a long time. The local elected officials, particularly the mayors and the fokontany officials, were terrified by MP Leva’s power. On the question of individuals arrested for having destroyed the forest, the Regional Director of Environment and Sustainable Development mentions: “What surprises me is that we are unable to charge the MP. Those who have been arrested and interrogated do not mention his name. And I do not participate in the investigations. I am only communicating the decision. Therefore, I cannot attest to the details of the case file to court .”
The Attorney General Jean Jacques William Ratsimandranto commented on the investigation reports from the Department of Environment. “We can’t do anything because of the reports we receive. There is not enough evidence for the MP to be charged. However, often, there are people who we strongly suspect of colluding directly with him whom we send to prison. It should be known that those arrested for destruction of the forest are placed in custody without pardon. But if someone can testify and provide us with evidence, then we will take the responsibilities that lie before us,” said the judge.
Mr. Anselme Toto V. from the NGO Durrell gives us the following details about how public servants work: “First, we find that the environmental service and the court have the same vision and the same way of working. The court is waiting for a well-documented case from the investigators. However, the investigators who are employed by the regional environment direction, find no charge to prosecute those involved in the destruction of the forest. In addition, the public servants of this region are confronted by a lack of resources, according to complaints made by officials. Therefore, often times, when there is a need for urgent prosecution, they will arrive too late because they still need to ask for fuel. The public servants are asking us for allowances. Consequently, the destruction of the forest keeps on getting worse. ”
Workers and associates of Deputy Leva complain that many officials, including those from the district, the national police, the court and the department of environment, are receiving money from the Deputy to look away. Therefore, they will not stop him from doing his wrongdoings.
“What saddens us is that the big guys are satiated while the little ones are only executing orders. The result is that some of us who work for the MP, who collect products in the field, give a bit here and there to the public servants,” says one of the collaborators of the former MP.
The Ministry of the Environment stays silent
Insofar, even if the danger is real, we have not yet seen a frank recognition of responsibility from the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development. The cultivation of corn and peanut continues in the protected zone. Illegal farmers are already waiting for the harvest season. We have requested an interview with the responsible minister in order to discuss the environmental problems, such as the ‘Flying Boat’ and the ‘Antimena Forest Destruction’ case. The meeting did not take place due to his busy schedule. On Friday, April 6th, an interview was finally granted with the Secretary General of the Ministry. Unfortunately, only a few minutes before the scheduled interview time, the official informed us by phone that the meeting would have to be cancelled.
The MP Leva and his son both in custody
MP Leva and his son were arrested by the police forces in Mahabo on April 23, 2019.
Their house was searched and firearms seized, including rifles and bullets. Money was also seized upon his arrest. The next day, April 24, 2019, the two men appeared in court. They are currently detained and awaiting trial. A high-ranking army official, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that the former MP offered him a large amount of money to avoid his arrest. The offer was refused by the official. We are now waiting for the results of the trial of the former MP and his son.
This English translation has been possible thanks to the PerMondo project: Free translation of website and documents for non-profit organisations. A project managed by Mondo Agit. Translators: Cressida Mcdermot, Elizabeth Banerd, Lauren Meakin, Tiani Allen and Antonita Pratcher.