Berenty's Thorny Past and Present
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
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 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.
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
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