for National Geographic News
When back-to-back hurricanes whiplashed the African island nation of Madagascar in February and March of 2000, Karen Freudenberger thought the Fianarantsoa Côte Est (FCE) railroad may have reached the end of its line.
"It was going on Band-Aids and bubble gumthat's when the cyclones hit," said Freudenberger, who is now leading a U.S. 13-million-dollar project to restore the railroad and prevent an environmental disaster in national parks bordering the tracks.
The 101-mile (163-kilometer) railway slashes a precipitous path through the dense forest that separates the highland city of Fianarantsoa from the east-coast port of Manakara. It serves as an economic lifeline for the hundred thousand people along its length.
The rural communities grow tree crops, such as bananas and coffee, which they transport to market via the train. Using income generated from the sale of these crops, the farmers purchase rice and bring it back to their villages.
At the time the cyclonesas hurricanes are called in the Indian Oceanstruck, a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded study was in the works to determine whether any additional funds should be invested to save the already ailing railroad.
"There had been no investment in drainage or track maintenance for more than 20 years. The railroad passed through a tunnel of vegetation that grew right up to the edge of the tracks," Freudenberger said.
Chris Barrett is an economics professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who specializes in poverty and international development. He said the study had to demonstrate that the railroad was as worthy an investment as health care and education.
"In a place that needs so much, the hard question is which of the many meritorious investments should one make," he said.
After the storms Freudenberger's hunch was that the FCE railroad would never run again. Most donors were skeptical about investing significant funds into the remote and rickety line.
The cyclones had unleashed more than 280 landslides that buried the railroad under 5.3 million cubic feet (150,000 cubic meters) of debris. Large sections of the track were gone. Others hung suspended over open air. No trains could get through.
Given the gravity of the situation, the researchers pushed ahead to complete their study.
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