Mob killing of Malagasy officer spotlights risks faced by forest guardians

5 Mins read
  • A law enforcement officer was fatally wounded and two civilians killed on Jan. 20 when a mob accosted him and three others as they tried to apprehend suspected illegal loggers in a village in northeastern Madagascar.
  • The confrontation was exacerbated by the presence of trained mercenaries who villagers sometimes enlist to protect them against cattle raiders, local media reported.
  • Madagascar, a megadiverse island off Africa’s eastern coast has suffered dramatic forest loss in recent years, but reliance on community-led conservation is fraught, given their lack of power and resources.
  • At the front line of the fight to preserve its natural riches but at the lowest rung of the enforcement apparatus are Madagascar’s forest guards and law enforcement officers like Lahatra Rahajaharison, who died in the attack.

A Malagasy law enforcement officer was hacked to death by a mob during a confrontation over illegal logging 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the capital, Antananarivo, on Jan. 20. Two civilians were killed when another officer fired into the crowd.

The deadly encounter spotlights risks faced by those safeguarding some of the world’s most precious forests in a country where the grip of law and order is tenuous.

Lahatra Rahajaharison, 41, a chief warrant officer with the gendarmerie, and three others had gone to the village of Amparibolana to arrest suspected illegal loggers when they were ambushed. The village in Madagascar’s northeastern Alaotra-Mangoro region borders a community-managed forest.

Madagascar, a megadiverse island off Africa’s eastern coast, has hemorrhaged forests in recent decades. It lost 7,000 square kilometers (2,700 square miles) of forests in just 14 years, from 2004-17, according to a recent WWF report. With much of its woodland outside the bounds of legal protection, community management is often put forth as a desirable conservation strategy.

At the front line of the struggle to preserve its natural riches, but at the lowest rung of the enforcement apparatus, are forest guards and law enforcement officers like Rahajaharison. While communities conduct forest patrols, they cannot arrest violators and have to rely on the gendarmerie, a military arm responsible for internal security. Attempts to self-regulate sometimes spark tensions within communities, many of which have traditionally relied on forests for everything from firewood to food.

The regional office of the environment ministry for Alaotra Mangoro, DREDD, called in the gendarmerie after the local association overseeing the forest raised the alarm about persistent violations.

The squad of two gendarmes and two forest patrolmen apprehended two men illegally logging in the forest. On their return to the village, they were accosted by a crowd of angry villagers along with some Zazamena, a Malagasy term for trained bands enlisted by community members for protection, especially against cattle raiders.

Faced with an agitated mob, the agents released the two men. Despite this, one of the mercenaries attacked Rahajaharison with a machete, fatally wounding the officer. According to a senior gendarmerie official, the crowd attempted to snatch his gun and chased after the remaining three. The other gendarme officer present opened fire after his colleague was assaulted, killing two civilians.

It is not clear what incited the villagers to turn on the state agents, but trouble has been brewing for years over access to the forest.

Management of the forest spread across 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) was transferred to Fivoarana Fitarikandro, a community forestry group, or vondron’olona ifotony (VOI), in 2017. “At the beginning, it had nearly 120 members, including residents of Amparibolana. Then, they left little by little and have become our adversaries,” said Mickael Razafindramaro, president of Fivoarana Fitarikandro.

Nearly all of Amparibolana’s 300 residents continue to farm in the forest. “Almost half of the forest cover is now destroyed,” Razafindramaro said. “They destroy the forest for beans, maize, and rice cultivation.”

The VOI repeatedly flagged the unlawful activities with the DREDD, and the accused were summoned to the DREDD office in the regional capital Ambatondrazaka last year. They did not appear. “We as forest administration, have to rely on the police for any intervention, and hence, asked the gendarmerie to assist us in bringing these people from their village to the court,” said Marc Behaja Rajaonarivo, director of DREDD, Alaotra-Mangoro.

The two forest guards and gendarme were captured and forced to kneel as they negotiated with the villagers, photos circulated on social media appear to show. Only when additional gendarme forces arrived were the three men let go.

“This was not only about murder, but it was also like a rebellion,” said Njatoarisoa Andrianjanaka, commander-in-chief of the national gendarmerie.” The Zazamenas pretend to form a private security agency in the countryside. They pretend to be a little government within the government, and they resist when they face the gendarmes who represent the government.”

Government officials say they have “zero tolerance” for environmental crime, but the uneven exercise of power complicates matters on the ground. Cattle raiding by armed groups has led to heightened insecurity, especially in rural Madagascar, where much of the population lives. With the government failing to reign in the menace, groups like Zazamena have risen to fill the void, increasing the possibility of violent confrontations.

Military officers stationed at the commune where the confrontation took place. Image courtesy of Groupement Alaotra-Mangoro.

The deteriorating law-and-order conditions imperil even legally recognized protected forests in the country. Most of them are managed by NGOs that also do not have the authority to arrest criminals and rely on government security forces, including the gendarmerie.

While Madagascar’s protected area network has expanded significantly in the past 15 years covering more than 7 million ha (17 million acres) today, many forests remain outside its fold. Because of its high endemicity, even small pockets of forest are believed to be of crucial importance for preserving the island nation’s unique biodiversity. Local communities often have even less power and resources than NGOs, undercutting their ability to take on outsiders exploiting forests in their care or aggrieved community members.

“We have already warned that the perpetrators of these crimes will not get out so easily,” Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina, minister of environment and sustainable development (MEDD), told local media outlets. “We refuse this type of treatment to our people who ensure the protection of the forest and the common home,” she said.

The police made 21 arrests in connection with the case, including the head of the fokotany where the attack took place, who was allegedly part of the mob. The police have also charged a schoolteacher for a Facebook post that the police say incited hatred against gendarmes.

It is not only state agents who face hostility in the line of duty; environmental activists in Madagascar are frequently at the receiving end of threats. Madagascar’s own record of protecting the rights of campaigners is muddy.

Ten days after the attack, the situation in Amparibolana remains tense, with security forces stationed in the area to prevent further violence. But some locals worry about what would happen once they leave. “The government should create a military base in the area. Everyone should be stricter with the environment protection,” Razafindramaro of the VOI said. “Forest is a heritage to be left for the next generations.”

Banner Image: The funeral of Lahatra Rahajaharison taking place at the gendarmerie office in Ambatondrazaka on Jan. 21.  Image courtesy of Groupement Alaotra-Mangoro.

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy. Rivonala Razafison is a contributor for Mongabay based in Antananarivo, Madagascar.


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