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Why famine in Madagascar is an alarm bell for the planet

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The UN has called it the world’s first climate-change-induced famine. Madagascar’s government agrees it is a result of the west’s carbon-fuelled lifestyle. A number of scientists and experts disagree, saying it is actually a consequence of poverty and poor governance.

For the people of southern Madagascar, unaware of the international furore, it is known simply as kere — the hunger.

Soanavorie Tognemare, a resourceful 22-year-old who lives with her husband and two toddlers in a village near Ambovombe, did everything she could to keep her children alive. “I fed cactus fruit and wild leaves to my children,” she says, holding her two-year-old daughter, Haova, who was at one point diagnosed as being severely malnourished. “We boiled the leaves and added salt. It had no taste but it filled our stomachs,” she says. “Kere means hunger. No food every day. That’s kere.”

Rain has barely fallen for three years in southern Madagascar, a semi-barren region in a California-sized island nation off the east coast of Africa that is more often associated with tropical forests, baobab trees and lemurs than with starvation.

But in the south, more than 1,000km from the capital Antananarivo, or three lurching days on a dirt track that passes for a highway, even in the best of times people eke out the meagrest of existences. In a part of the country where mobile phones and motorbikes are rare and where only the better-off travel in two-wheeled carts pulled by long-horned cattle, the lack of rain has tipped hundreds of thousands into extreme hunger.

Some 1.68mn people, or a third of the population of the Grand Sud, remain in “crisis” or “humanitarian emergency”, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a standard five-point scale of escalating hunger. In a cactus-filled landscape where people wear wide-brimmed cowboy-style hats and have a proud history of resisting central authority, many were reduced to eating plants and leaves normally fed to cattle.

Marcelline Voatsasinanjara, who grew up locally and who now works for Save the Children, describes the physical effects of extreme hunger. “You can’t move,” she says. “Only the eyes show you are alive.”

The government accepts that many people are hungry but it is wary of the term “famine”, with its implication of state failure. Still, one local official says he knows for certain that on one day alone, 26 people died of hunger.

“They had nothing to eat so they ate cactus leaves or they found leaves on the ground,” says Lalaina Rakotondramanana, the prefect of Ambovombe, capital of one of the three administrative regions that make up the Grand Sud.

Children staggered into town to beg for food, he says. Adults sold their few possessions, including pots and pans, to purchase cassava or rice or to buy water, a commodity so precious that one resident compared it to liquid gold. Like people fleeing America’s dust bowl in the 1930s, some people packed up entirely and headed elsewhere. A few were even filmed boiling and eating their leather sandals, though Rakotondramanana insists this was a hoax.

The prefect of Ambovombe, Lalaina Rakotondramanana
The prefect of Ambovombe, Lalaina Rakotondramanana: ‘The south has been forgotten for a long time’

The slow motion tragedy touches on several issues that go well beyond Madagascar’s particular circumstances. As in many countries, years of neglect by a centralised government have left marginalised communities vulnerable to sudden shocks, whether from the climate or from events like the food-inflationary war in Ukraine. The intervention of aid agencies has highlighted their role in pulling desperate people back from the brink, yet they have a much patchier record in preventing people from falling into crisis in the first place.

More fundamentally still, Madagascar’s humanitarian crisis raises the question of man-made environmental destruction, whether at a global or a local level. As the people of the Grand Sud struggle to scratch out a living from depleted soil, they offer a warning to other countries, and arguably the planet itself, about what happens when humans push nature too far.

As Jared Diamond, the geographer, wrote in his book Collapse, entire societies, such as that of Easter Island, the once-flourishing Pacific island, can suddenly spiral downwards towards self-destruction. Just as one Easter Islander presumably chopped down the last of the trees on which the island’s survival depended, some scientists say, so the people of Madagascar, where deforestation has also been rife, are in danger of wrecking the very landscape they need to survive.

As people in rich and poor countries alike exploit the environment for its resources and use it as a carbon sink and rubbish tip, what is happening in southern Madagascar could be a harbinger for communities everywhere. Many scientists believe it is only a matter of time before people in many parts of the world find themselves living in places that simply cannot sustain life as they have known it.

“It’s hard to live here. There’s not enough rain so we can’t grow food,” says Patricia Vola, a community organiser in the Grand Sud.

A portrait of Patricia Vola
Patricia Vola, a community organiser, in the southern region

Tracing the causes

Madagascar’s famine has become a lightning rod for arguments about climate change, in particular whether global heating has contributed to the island’s crisis. It was David Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina and now executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme, who first made the connection. “There have been back-to-back droughts in Madagascar which have pushed communities right to the very edge of starvation,” he said after a visit last June. “This is not because of war or conflict, this is because of climate change.”

Madagascar’s own government picked up the claim. At the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow last November, Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina, then environment minister, excoriated the west for failing to take seriously the links between its own actions and the plight of poor people. Why did Europeans continue to criss-cross their continent on cheap flights, she asked? Even delegates at a climate change conference ate outside warmed by gas heaters.

Nor had rich countries, she said, honoured their pledge, first made in 2009, to muster $100bn annually to help poor countries with climate mitigation and adaptation. With its share of that money, Madagascar could have constructed a pipeline to bring water into its parched southern region, she said.

Amid soaring temperatures in the UK, warnings of a “heat apocalypse” in France and devastating forest fires from Australia to the US, it might seem obvious that Madagascar’s prolonged drought is the result of global climate change. Several regions of Africa, from the Sahel to the Horn, where hunger is also prevalent, have been adversely affected by unpredictable and devastating weather patterns.

However, a report last December by World Weather Attribution, a respected research collective, found that in Madagascar’s case “natural climate variability” rather than “human-caused climate change” was the main weather-related cause of what would normally be a once-in-135-year event. (Such an event has now occurred twice in 30 years.) Moreover, it said, “food insecurity in Madagascar is not just driven by meteorological drought, but also a host of factors such as demographics, poverty, infrastructure, policy and non-climate shocks”.

That report was seized on by some critics as evidence that both the UN and Madagascar’s government had milked the climate-change angle as a fundraising ploy. One charity that works in southern Madagascar concedes that contributions shot up after articles began to appear linking the famine with global warming.

Emre Seri, a Madagascar-based journalist writing for French magazine Revue XXI, called the claim “one of the most successful media stunts of recent years”. Instead of climate change, he blamed the failure of government policies, cattle-rustling and other local factors in a country that is poorer now than at independence in 1960.

An aerial view of Ankilihago, showing arid fields and few trees
Parched fields around the village of Ankilihago in the Androy region

Government neglect has undoubtedly played a role. In the south of Madagascar, provision of everything from schools to roads is inadequate to non-existent. “The south has been forgotten for a long time,” says Rakotondramanana, the prefect of Ambovombe.

Politicians in Antananarivo have been promising to fix the main road for decades, something he thinks may now actually happen, at least on one section, after a recent presidential visit. As things stand, cars and trucks can get stuck for days or even weeks, raising the cost of goods and making it difficult to transport farm surpluses — where there are any — to the cities.

Even more urgent, say local officials, is to bring water to the region, either by piping it in or by tapping the reserves that lie deep underground.

“Rural Madagascar has gone backwards economically in the last few decades,” says Paul Wilkin, an expert on Madagascar at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. “The drought is not primarily caused by climate change, but by poverty. ”

Policy failures aside, some scientists have a different explanation for the drought. Patricia Wright, an expert on Madagascar’s environment at Stony Brook University in New York, argues that unsustainable human practices have pushed the country towards the brink of catastrophe. “Madagascar is in a dangerous downward spiral,” she says. “People get poorer every year. And with climate change breathing down their throat, it makes it worse, accelerating everything.”

A family fills yellow plastic cans with water at a well
A family buys water from commercial wells on the outskirts of Ambovombe. It is so scarce in the south that one person referred to it as liquid gold

Chopping down trees for charcoal

Human settlement on Madagascar, which according to some estimates broke off from the continental landmass more than 80mn years ago, is relatively recent. Ten thousand years ago some Africans found their way across the Mozambique Channel to the island, 400km off the coast, but it was people from Indonesia who colonised the island en masse, probably about 2,500 years ago. The closest language to Malagasy, Madagascar’s national language, is spoken in the interior of Borneo, some 10,000km away.

The new settlers found a heavily forested island — quite how forested is disputed — whose flora and fauna was 90 per cent endemic. For much of the island’s megafauna, the arrival of people spelt extinction. Scientists estimate that some 17 species of giant lemur, a type of mammal only found on Madagascar, two species of hippo, two species of giant tortoise and four species of elephant bird were wiped out, either hunted for meat or deprived of their habitat by slash-and-burn agriculture.

The introduction of cattle, so venerated in the south that their horns adorn owners’ graves, created need for pasture.

Wright at Stony Brook argues that recent human activity has been more destructive still. Poverty has pushed people into increasingly unsustainable practices, she says, including chopping down trees for the charcoal that people in the cities use to cook. The country’s population has grown sixfold from 5mn at independence to almost 30mn today, adding to land pressure, she says. “Where does this end? It ends in disaster, doesn’t it?”

Alison Richard, a senior research scientist at Yale, pushes back against what she calls the “Paradise Lost” version of Madagascar’s environmental history, one that she says was characterised by constant flux well before the arrival of humans. Author of a recent book, The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present, Richard says that much of the island was covered in wild grasses, not forests, and that soil in the south has probably always been poor and droughts frequent.

Satellite imagery, she concedes, shows that some 40 per cent of forest cover has vanished in the past 50 years, swallowed up for farmland, forestry, mining and charcoal. Though there have been attempts to blame Malagasys for everything, she says, there are plenty of other culprits.

France, which colonised the island in 1896, accelerated environmental destruction by expropriating the best farmland, forcing rice farmers up the slopes on to unsustainable land. In the south, much land clearance came after 1990, she says, the unintended consequence of a well-meaning EU policy to promote commercial agriculture.

“There are many hands on the axe,” she says.

Richard argues that, with more political will, environmental destruction can be reversed and people’s lives improved. She advocates the planting of native trees. Farmers could grow valuable cash crops like vanilla, of which Madagascar supplies 80 per cent of the world’s needs, and green peppercorn. “It’s not the fact of human presence. It’s what you do,” she says. “That to me is a seed of hope. Otherwise, it’s a kind of: ‘We’re doomed. It’s in our DNA to destroy ourselves.’”

In the village of Somontsala, a three-hour drive from Ambovombe, Letoto Manantsoa, an elder, accepts the link between deforestation and drought. “As Malagasy people, we think maybe it’s because we cut the trees,” he says. “That’s why there’s no more rain.”

Wilkin at Kew agrees there could be a connection between local deforestation and changing rain patterns. The same could also be true for fearsome dust storms, known as tiomena, or “red winds” that destroy seedlings and make life unbearable. “The tiomena comes from the east, bringing red sand,” says Fenosoa, a villager who goes by one name. “All the leaves and everything else in the village turn red. Even the cows turn red.”

A boy  runs past stands of cactus
The arid land sustains cactus but food crops will only grow when there is sufficient rain

Rakotondramanana, the prefect, says: “The sandstorms are a result of deforestation. There are not enough trees to maintain the land.”

As the soil degrades, it becomes yet harder to grow crops, forcing people to seek other income. One man agrees to show his illegal charcoal operation using wood harvested from trees several hours’ walk from the road. A large sack goes for 10,000 ariary, or about $2. “I can’t give my name. I’m scared of going to jail,” he says.

A smattering of rain earlier this year, combined with a big international aid effort — catalysed partly by the famine’s alleged association with global climate change — has eased the situation somewhat, though many people remain desperate. The IPC says that the likelihood of poor harvests of maize, cassava and sweet potato, the region’s staples, mean that tens of thousands could slip back into extreme hunger. After three years of drought, it will take more than a few days of rain to restore equilibrium, aid workers say.

In Somontsala, villagers say that monthly cash payments from Save the Children have staved off starvation. But the last of six instalments was paid in July.

Asked what they will eat now, Mary Blandine breaks open a tiny nut and displays the seeds on the palm of her hand. “This,” she says.

A hand displays the seeds from a nut that villages eat, along with leaves and cactus, when the harvest is poor

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SEC chair Gary Gensler rushing to unveil big changes amid FTX scandal

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You would think that with the FTX scandal still brewing and investors missing billions of dollars from their supposedly secured crypto accounts, Securities and Exchange Commission chair Gary Gensler would have so much on his plate, he wouldn’t have time to muck around in our capital markets, which are working just fine.

But sources tell me Gensler is doing just that — preparing to unveil plans for the biggest changes in about two decades to the way stocks are routed from buyers to sellers. If Gensler’s timing holds, he will announce (possibly this week) an open meeting for mid-December that will detail his plan to remake the nation’s $46 trillion stock market, as I first reported on Fox Business.

The idea is to jam out his proposed changes — and they’re pretty significant — before year’s end.

Why the rush? The word inside the SEC is that Gensler wants to get much of the work on it done before the new GOP Congress takes over Jan. 3. While a probe of Hunter Biden’s swampy business dealings is high on the list of the incoming committee chairs, Gensler knows he also has a target on his back for his ambitious — some would say zealous — progressive agenda at an agency that has a core mission of protecting investors from being ripped off by scammers.

The Gensler SEC has moved so far beyond this mission that he’s looking to score lefty points and join the Environmental Social Governance bandwagon by forcing companies to disclose non-financial metrics such as how they are reducing their carbon footprint.

The House Financial Services Committee, meanwhile, is intent on grilling Gensler on what he knew about the shenanigans of Sam Bankman-Fried, the Democratic megadonor under criminal investigation over the implosion of the crypto exchange FTX. The company is now in bankruptcy, while SBF, as he’s known, remains in the Bahamas.

Securities and Exchange Commission, Chairman Gary Gensler testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on "Oversight of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission" on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, in Washington.
If Gensler’s timing holds, he will announce (possibly this week) an open meeting for mid-December that will detail his plan to remake the nation’s $46 trillion stock market
Bill Clark/Pool via AP

Billions missing

As this column goes to press, countless billions in customer money remain missing, likely gambled away in Bankman-Fried’s side hustle of a prop-trading fund.

Here’s where things get interesting: Gensler met with SBF months before the blowup. The SEC had additional meetings with the fallen crypto bro’s people and business partners who were looking to start a commission-approved exchange. GOPers want to hear how all this occurred ­under the nose of Wall Street’s ­so-called top cop.

Market structure, meanwhile, hasn’t really caught the full attention of the incoming 118th Congress and its new GOP majority yet, but it should. The way we buy and sell stocks, the so-called plumbing of the market, is often taken for granted for the simple reason that it works pretty seamlessly even if the process is pretty complex.

It’s more complicated than just a bunch of guys on the New York Stock Exchange screaming out bids to match buyers and sellers.

For starters, most of those guys are gone, replaced by computers that can match orders in nanoseconds. The main public stock markets, the NYSE and the Nasdaq, aren’t the only game in town and are in competition to match buyers and sellers with private exchanges and market makers, companies like Citadel Securities and Virtu Financial. They’re armed with highly efficient trading machines that can match orders cheaply and still skim a bit and make a profit. It’s why we have low-cost and, in the case of Robinhood, no-fee trading platforms.

The system isn’t perfect, of course (see what happened during the early stages of the so-called meme-stock craze of 2020-21). There are outages and price discrepancies due to computer errors. But it works pretty well, and by most measures small investors benefit greatly from better execution and lower trading costs — just the way the SEC intended the last time it instituted changes.

FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried
Sam Bankman-Fried is under criminal investigation over the implosion of the crypto exchange FTX.
FTX/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Anything can be improved — but should it?

The main thrust of Gensler’s proposal, according to people briefed on it, could cost retail investors billions of dollars. I don’t have all the details, but broadly he wants trades made by small investors to be routed separately into various public auctions, presumably run by the NYSE or Nasdaq — a change that would significantly reduce competition that the SEC intended. His hypothesis is that there’s nefarious stuff going on in those private venues where ­rip-offs might be going down.

What are those rip-offs? Gensler hasn’t really said. Do we have evidence that cheap or no-fee discount brokers are covering up hidden costs on execution performed by market makers? No.

Looking for headlines

So why is Gensler looking to fix what isn’t broken? Some people in the markets say he’s merely looking for headlines and to curry ­favor with the Wall Street-hating progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has a big say in President Biden appointments for economic roles in the administration. Gensler is eyeing treasury secretary when Janet Yellen steps down next year as expected.

Others say he really does think Wall Street is a sewer of corruption. Maybe we will find out more at the SEC’s next open meeting, or maybe Gensler will drop his fixation with fixing something that’s not broken and realize his time is better spent finding those countless billions still missing from those FTX customer accounts.

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World Cup fans choose party city Dubai over buttoned-down Qatar

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Football fan Chris Leek was born in 1958, the last time Wales qualified for the Fifa World Cup. “All I ever wanted was to see Wales in the World Cup — now I can be happy for the rest of my life,” he said of the principality’s participation in this year’s tournament in Qatar.

Leek plays alto saxophone with The Barry Horns, a brass band made up of 11 Welsh football fans. Seven of them have travelled to the Gulf to play at Wales’ matches in Qatar, not only to try to galvanise the crowd with their music but also to promote Welsh identity and independence from the UK.

But like thousands of other supporters, they have based themselves in nearby Dubai, the regional trade hub in the United Arab Emirates, making the tiring day-long trip to the Qatari capital Doha via hour-long shuttle flights connecting the cities during the tournament.

Fans from the participating countries have opted for Dubai’s lively nightlife scene over Doha’s buttoned-down atmosphere. Qatar’s last-minute decision to ban alcohol sales around the stadiums only served to underline the country’s more conservative culture.

The party atmosphere starts at Dubai’s two airports, where outlets have been so busy this week that some ran out of McDonald’s and Heineken beer.

Football fans watch a match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia on a large screen, at a fan zone in Dubai, United Arab Emirates © Hussein Malla/AP

Across the city, fan zones have been bustling with supporters from every nation, reflecting the diverse nature of Dubai’s expatriate population, which makes up 90 per cent of the 3.5mn population.

In the downtown financial centre, bankers have been swapping suits for football shirts to watch matches at its fan park, where companies have been renting out lounges at $5,500 for 20 people, which includes food and booze.

With 60 daily shuttle flights between Dubai and Doha, up to 350,000 people could be transported from the region’s tourism hub throughout the tournament, which expects to host about 1.5mn visitors.

The deluge of fans comes in the middle of Dubai’s tourism season, when visitors flock there in search of winter sun. The government-owned airport operator says passenger throughput has eclipsed pre-pandemic numbers, with traffic surpassing 6mn a month during the third quarter. Dubai’s Emirates airline has recorded a 228 per cent rise in passengers in its first-half results.

“Dubai has extremely strong demand at this time of year and I’m sure there will be people travelling through Dubai to the World Cup,” said Issam Kazim, chief executive of Dubai Tourism. “This tournament will be a boost for the entire region.”

But officials say the number of fans who are visiting the emirate with the sole purpose of catching games in Qatar is likely in the low tens of thousands, or the equivalent of an uptick in hotel occupancy of up to three percentage points. Many match tickets have been sold to expatriates in the Gulf, including some of the 100,000-plus Britons living in the UAE.

Many hotels are now operating at near full capacity anyway as travel demand has soared. In September, the last available statistics, average occupancy at the roughly 140,000 available rooms across the emirate was 71 per cent with the average daily rate around a quarter higher than 2019.

Dubai-based Expat Sport has brought in about 2,000 fans through its hotel and flight packages for supporters who have tickets to attend games in Qatar. Fans from South America, India and the UK are staying in the popular Palm Island district of Dubai, shuttling to and from Qatar on flights booked by the company, which also sells World Cup hospitality packages for UAE-based expatriates.

“There’s general excitement, it’s suddenly here,” said Sue Holt, executive director of the sports tourism group. “People who weren’t thinking about it are saying ‘why don’t we just go’.”

For visitors such as The Barry Horns’ founder Fez Watkins, Dubai also offered a chance to visit “amazing” clubs where the blend of south Asian and Arabic-influenced rhythms was “absolutely, mind-blowingly good”.

Local well-wishers have been lending the band sound equipment and drums for the matches in Doha as well as their gigs for expatriate enthusiasts at hotels and events at the British embassies in Qatar and Dubai.

The group, formed in 2011 when the national team’s fortunes were at a low point, plays tunes such as the military march “Men of Harlech” and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”, to raise the morale of the “Red Wall” of Welsh fans decked out in national colours and bucket hats.

“There have been a few hassles, but it’s been great overall — arriving at the airport with the fans from likes of Mexico and Argentina has been a joyful World Cup experience,” said Watkins.

“The World Cup has always been like a party we were never invited to. And now we’re finally part of it.”

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Whole Foods upsets Maine politicians with decision to stop selling lobster

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Whole Foods’ decision to stop selling Maine lobster has been cheered by environmental groups, but made politicians steaming mad.

The high-end grocery giant took lobster from the Gulf of Maine off the menu at hundreds of its stores nationwide, citing a pair of sustainability organizations yanking their support for the US lobster fishing industry.

The organizations, the Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch, said they were concerned about the risks fishing gear posed to the endangered North Atlantic right whales. The whale population is estimated to be around 340.

The decision, revealed last week, has drawn ire from Maine, which boasts the nation’s largest lobster fishing industry.

In a joint statement, Gov. Janet Mills and the state’s four congressional legislators voiced their concern about the impact on local fishermen’s livelihoods and defended the state’s fishermen, saying they’ve been committed to sustainability and protecting right whales.

Whole Foods cited a pair of sustainability organizations yanking their support for the nation’s lobster fishing industry in their decision to stop selling the crustacean.
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“The Marine Stewardship Council, with retailers following suit, wrongly and blindly decided to follow the recommendations of misguided environmental groups rather than science,” the politicians said.

Whole Foods said that it is “committed to working with suppliers, fisheries, and environmental advocacy groups as [the situation] develops.”

With Post wires.

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