My last excursion into the field brought a spectacular success: During a patrol in the new protected area Ranobe-PK32 (congratulations on this sexy name!), we managed to catch one of the “Big fishes”: a man who is the owner of several cultivations on slash-and-burn clearings in the forest, and who is paying other villagers to conduct the burnings and look after the fields. This is a first-time ever in the history of the aerial surveillance project.
On a personal level, the situation is not quite that easy to digest. It is almost certain that this man will go to prison and it is equally certain that he has a family with children. Which alternatives he might have had to earn his living, we can’t judge well. And we are, in a way, responsible for his imprisonment. The next evening, I see my colleague who was with me on the patrol. After I inform him that he looks awful, he tells me that he has not been eating during the whole day, but drinking since 8 in the morning, because he felt guilty towards this man and had a hard time accepting his own (entirely professional) decision to take the guy back to Toliara.
Still, hatsake (slash-and-burn) is illegal, and anyone who does something illegal, will be punished according to the law, anywhere in the world. I find that very normal, but in Madagascar, it isn’t anymore. But if people get too used to their actions never having any negative consequences, then we might as well save the time, money and energy to conduct the overflights, evaluate the aerial photos and go on exhausting patrol missions. Worse still: if people feel safe burning the forest, the insane destruction that is taking place at the moment will continue at the same rate.
This is why it is so important to set an example. Just one person who is found guilty of hatsake and punished accordingly might have a huge impact on the burning rates during the next season. This guy just happened to get unlucky.