Paradoxically, African Railroad Keeps Habitat Intact

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 12, 2004
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 gum—that'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 cyclones—as hurricanes are called in the Indian Ocean—struck, 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.

Beneficial Road

"The results were staggering," Freudenberger said.

The cost-benefit analysis showed that without the train, the environmentally friendly agricultural system would be in jeopardy, placing the incomes of the people who live along the track at risk. Within 20 years at least 250,000 acres (100,000 hectares) of pristine forest would be cut and burned to make room for rice plantations.

"People can't eat coffee nor live on bananas," Freudenberger said. "What was clear was that [if the train disappeared] people would cut the perennial tree crops grown now and go to slash-and-burn cropping."

Conservationists say rampant slash-and-burn cropping, known in Madagascar as tavy, is partly to blame for the rapid loss of biodiversity on the island nation. Madagascar harbors thousands of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.

The FCE railroad plies a corridor of intact forest that allows animals to migrate between the Ranomafana National Park to the north and the Andringitra National Park to the south. Tavy would destroy the corridor, Freudenberger said, posing a serious threat to the parks.

"What Karen and [her husband] Mark have done and shown quite well is we cannot afford not to rehabilitate the FCE," Barrett said.

For biodiversity conservation to rely on a transportation corridor is unusual, Barrett added. Environmentalists working in the Amazon and other humid tropical forests regularly deplore new road construction, because the corridors provide easier access to the forest and thereby often accelerate deforestation.

Stone-Soup Fairytale

Armed with the results of the cost-benefit analysis, Freudenberger rallied the local people and international lenders to launch the FCE Railroad Rehabilitation Project, a fund-raising effort that she describes a "classic, stone-soup fairytale."

It began with a U.S. $1,000 check written by a former Madagascar project director who had moved to a post in Senegal and heard news of the cyclones. With this money, an army of men was hired at the prevailing rate of a dollar a day to begin digging out the railroad.

A few days later a friend sent another thousand dollars, which allowed the digging to continue. Then the United Methodist Committee for Relief caught wind of the struggle and sent $10,000 to the cause, which allowed the purchases of shovels, fuel for a bulldozer, and larger crews.

The $10,000 donation was followed by the release of $362,000 from an ongoing USAID-funded conservation and development project in the region.

"That's the amount we initially had just to open the railroad, to move the dirt on the tracks to the side of the tracks and get the railroad open," Freudenberger said. "We were able to run by the first of June—at five kilometers [three miles] per hour in some parts, but getting through—and that meant the livelihood of the people on the line was assured."

These initial donations rallied the communities along the railway. They also allowed Freudenberger and her colleagues to approach international lending agencies like the World Bank and USAID for serious help.

After receiving 4.7 million dollars in cyclone relief funds from the U.S. government, the project is now working with a consortium of donors. In addition to the U.S. government, donors include the World Bank, the European Union, and Government of Madagascar Debt Relief Funds. The plan is to implement a $13 million overhaul of the FCE Railway.

Today the track is cleared and the train running. Within three years Freudenberger expects the project to be complete—the track outfitted with new drainage systems and slopes stabilized with vetiver, a hardy plant with unique soil-stabilization properties.

"The FCE's future is now secure, but it really started with a thousand dollars," she said.

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