By Phil Boyle, British ambassador to Madagascar
We are delighted to welcome you all to our first Queen’s Birthday Party in Madagascar. Our national day event due to be held in early May last year was unfortunately cancelled because of the political crisis. I think it is fair to say that looking back to that time, most of us here today were pessimistic about the trajectory for democracy and stability in Madagascar.
But what a difference a year makes. The Presidential elections, supported by the UK among others, has led to renewed optimism. Madagascar has walked a long and difficult road, but now feels like the time that there is a real opportunity for economic growth, slashing poverty and protecting this island’s unique environment.
The history between our two islands is long and deep. The first ever diplomatic treaty was signed 202 years ago between King Radama I and Great Britain. Soon after the first British missionaries arrived. Schools were established, the Malagasy language was transcribed, the Bible was translated, and a variety of new technologies were introduced. And, in 1837, Queen Ranavalona I sent envoy to our royal court in London, led by a certain M. Andriantsitohaina, the direct ancestor of the current Minister of Foreign Affairs.
In the spirit of this long partnership, today we are focusing on the colour green in the Malagasy flag – with the theme of ‘Conservation and Biodiversity’ in Madagascar.
The challenges are profound. Perhaps 90% of all primary forest has been lost here, and the remaining 10% is at great risk. The iconic lemurs, baobabs and chameleons which attract tourists are endangered – in some cases, critically so.
Species are disappearing from this island before they have even entered the scientific literature. And the effects of climate change look likely to hit Madagascar harder than almost any other nation.
There is a direct link between how well we act as stewards of our environment and the quality of the future we leave to our children. Soil erosion from deforestation has dramatically affected agriculture. The silt run off into rivers and lakes is creating dead wetlands. And the pollution of the air – most notable in Tana’s clogged roads – is damaging our bodies and our minds. When our food, our water and our air are all threatened, it is time to act. In saying this today, I am not trying to give lessons. I could talk equally about the challenges in another island, where almost all of the primary forest has gone.
Where villages are already making plans to relocate because of rising sea levels. And where schools sometimes close because of dangerous traffic pollution levels.
That island is Great Britain; my country.
Because of these experiences, the UK is aiming to be a world leader for the protection of the environment. We have created vast new marine protected areas, and led the world in developing wind technology. We are moving our energy generation to renewables. Last year we hosted the international conference to fight the Illegal Wildlife Trade, from which Madagascar suffers greatly. And we are gathering support to host the next Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 26) in December 2020 – I hope we can count on Madagascar’s support for that!
The UK has a long history of supporting conservation in Madagascar. The famous conservationist and film-maker, David Attenborough, began his BBC career here in the early 1960s. For all of his work since then, Madagascar made him a Chevalier du Legion d’Honeur in 2017, and you are all here at Attenborough House, our home, named after the great man himself.
He has inspired several generations of conservationists, including, the UK’s fantastic NGOs for which we have dedicated today’s event: Kew Gardens, the Durrell Foundation, Blue Ventures, Seed Madagascar, Reef Doctor, Feedback Madagascar, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and those that the UK partners, such as Madagasikara Voakajy. They work with communities in every corner of Madagascar in areas both protected and in need of protection. Please visit their stands this afternoon to find out more about their work and about the amazing ecosystem in which we are living.
We support the Malagasy government’s ambitious plans to protect the environment, including through reforestation. We already support financially the work of Blue Ventures to replant mangroves in SW and NW Madagascar, and we hope to announce a major new programme funded by our Ministry of Environment for protected areas in Madagascar later this year.
We send Malagasy students to the UK to study Masters degrees through our Chevening Scholarship programme, and I’m delighted to see here this afternoon some of those who have studied environmental science and have returned to Madagascar to work for the benefit their country. And we have funded dozens of small projects through our Darwin scheme to fight the Illegal Wildlife Trade and protect biodiversity here.
We will soon be recruiting a full-time member of the embassy team to work solely on environment and conservation issues and projects, and British-trained botanists from Kew hope to provide technical assistance to the Ministry of Environment. I will also continue to use my voice to support the human rights of Madagascar’s environment defenders.
It is important to us to practise what we preach. Our garden here is filled with endemic plants, carefully installed by our friends at Kew Gardens. Simple steps such as digging a pond, having an area of long, wild grass, and banning insecticide leads to a big increase in local biodiversity. We document all this through citizen science projects such as iNaturalist and eBird. All organic matter from the Residence kitchen and garden is composted and put back into the earth.
Water is conserved during the rainy season and used during the dry season. We have solar panels. And we work with local organisations to recycle our waste.
I can announce today that our embassy and this residence are now free of single use plastics, which have become such a scourge for our oceans and waterways.
The next step is to eliminate palm oil use, which is causing terrible deforestation in SE Asia. These are all simple measures that I hope will allow us to achieve our goal of being the greenest embassy both in Madagascar and in the UK diplomatic network. We encourage businesses and other organisations represented here today do the same: it would have a huge beneficial impact.
Finally, we understand that large-scale environmental challenges can never be addressed in Madagascar, or anywhere else, without eliminating poverty and promoting alternative livelihoods. Poverty reduction and conservation are two sides of the same coin, and I have oriented our whole of embassy effort to fighting these two major challenges.
So, I am proud to announce that in January 2020 our Department for International Development (DFID) will have a presence here in Madagascar, for the first time since independence. And this year will see new and major Centrally Managed Programmes, including on Women’s health, Education, and food resilience. This is in addition to the support we recently made available to fight childhood measles here through the World Health Programme.
The relations between our two island nations have long been friendly, but I hope and believe that we are now entering a new phase. One of concrete engagement and working together to tackle the shared problems of climate change and biodiversity loss that threatens us all.
Long live the UK. Long live Madagascar. Long live the Anglo-Malagasy friendship.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office.