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Berenty's Thorny Past and Present

Patricia Wright

Lords and Lemurs: Mad Scientists, Kings with Spears, and the Survival of Diversity in Madagascar. Alison Jolly. x + 310 pp. Houghton Mifflin, 2004. $25.

Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, is a naturalist's promised land, with diverse and bizarre forms of plant and animal life that have been shaped by millions of years of isolation in the Indian Ocean. Alison Jolly, a primate behaviorist who first went to the island 40 years ago to study lemurs, is well aware of its special place in evolutionary history. Her latest book, the autobiographical Lords and Lemurs, is a history of the place and its people, focusing on Berenty, a nature reserve in southern Madagascar that is "extreme in its distance, extreme in its parching climate, extreme in the violent reputation of its people."

Loping alongside this expert storyteller, the reader is projected pell-mell into scenes of revolution, drought, cyclones and poverty—but never despair. Jolly introduces us to a world out of time, offering insights into human nature, political history and conservation. The narrative is alive with the feel of the thorn-studded spiny desert, riverbanks lined with gallery forest, and plantations that grow the spearlike sisal plant, whose fiber is used to make rope. These locales are the backdrop to accounts of the intriguing, tangled lives and careers of lemur watchers, French businessmen and herders of the Tandroy tribe (literally "the People of the Thorns").

Early on, we meet the feudal "lords" alluded to in the title, the de Heaulme family. Brothers Alain and Henry de Heaulme first visited Madagascar at the end of World War I on their way home to the nearby French island of Réunion. They later decided to return to the French colony on Madagascar and build a plantation. Jolly follows the successes and trials of this aristocratic family through four generations, describing their efforts to preserve natural habitats for the lemurs and their work with the Tandroy, in which they strive to strike a balance between tradition and the modern world.

Some readers may find Jolly's portraits of the de Heaulmes controversial. Can members of this family really be heroes, given the history of French colonialism? Yet we can't help admiring their inventiveness, resourcefulness and courage in protecting wildlife and bringing prosperity to this spiny desert area. Even through the worst of times, they have remained committed to the welfare of the native Tandroy, giving them hope of one day surmounting their grueling poverty. Jolly makes the point that we can't simply pigeonhole colonialism as a negative, destructive force if we want to understand the history of this place.

The Tandroy tribespeople . . .Click to Enlarge Image

The book treats the Tandroy with respect; their customs of cattle stealing, wife stealing and festive funerals are described appreciatively. Jolly emphasizes that this culture has not changed in perhaps a thousand years, nor is it likely to in the near future.

Madagascar won its independence from France in 1960, after decades of rebellion. A revolution in 1972 led to policies of socialism and isolationism that plunged the country into bankruptcy. In 1985 the Duke of Edinburgh, then president of the World Wildlife Fund, led a conference on Madagascar's environment and sustainable development. The Duke and Malagasy ministers flew over the countryside to observe the rampant deforestation and erosion. Then they politely proclaimed that Madagascar was committing suicide.

To alleviate this crisis, the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other large donors set about to provide millions of dollars in loans and relief. In 1989, a collection of agencies established the $75-million Program for Environmental Action in Madagascar, the first of its kind anywhere. These funds resulted in the formation of a National Park Service, a change in national environmental policy and an action plan to study and preserve Malagasy wildlife while improving the lives of people who live near the protected areas.

Now that the world sisal industry has collapsed, ecotourism is proving to be the salvation of the economy of Berenty. Visitors have included participants in programs like Earthwatch, which has amateurs from developed countries pay good money to conduct field research that bears on the country's problems. Many of these expeditions have been centered on the study of lemurs. Jolly shows that in this and other ways humans and lemurs are inextricably linked and that their relation, if properly managed, may serve to improve Madagascar's future.

This Madagascan brown lemur . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Lemur fans may, however, be disappointed that Jolly has little to say here about the behavior of those creatures. And some readers may trip on all the Malagasy names and have trouble keeping the de Heaulme descendants straight. But Lords and Lemurs is nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable book. The great mass of historical detail is leavened by Jolly's disarming writing style and graphic descriptions.

Jolly has a subtle sense of humor and a clear understanding of primate nature, both human and nonhuman. She manages to convey all the complexities of Madagascar's human and lemur dilemmas and to show how they are interrelated. By the end of the book the reader will be enchanted by the island and better understand its diversity and history.—Patricia C. Wright, Anthropology, State University of New York, Stony Brook

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