Remon doesn't like the work. The timber boss who employs him—but whose name he does not know—has told Remon that he must paddle all day without pause because the rangers have been bribed to stay away for only a finite period, after which another bribe will be expected. Still, transporting the fallen trees is better than cutting them down, which had been Remon's previous job. He quit after concluding that the risks had become too great. While illegal logging had been going on for years, the pace had suddenly escalated: The forest was unpoliced and filled with organized gangs, a free-for-all of deforestation spurred by the collapse of Madagascar's government in March of 2009 and by the insatiable appetite of Chinese timber procurers, who imported more than 200 million dollars' worth of rosewood from the country's northeastern forests in just a few months. One rosewood cutter Remon knew had been robbed of his harvest by forest thugs who told him, "There's 30 of us, one of you." And he's just heard that two men were decapitated with a machete over a timber dispute a few days ago.
The river grows still, and Remon lights a cigarette of tobacco and marijuana. He speaks of the fady, the taboos that protected the forest for centuries. There is always anxious talk among the timber thieves whenever an errant tree crushes a skull or the river rapids shatter a leg: We have angered our ancestors. They are punishing us. Elders have lectured Remon about pillaging sacred turf.
"Fine," he tells them. "Try feeding the trees to your family."
Remon used to feed his family by working in the vanilla fields outside of Antalaha, a coastal town that is, like the island itself, rich in resources and poor in every other way. Two decades ago Madagascar's president at the time, Didier Ratsiraka, was so proud of Antalaha's reputation as the world's vanilla capital that he dispatched an official to pay tribute to the town. "He thought we would be full of big buildings and paved roads," says a longtime vanilla exporter, Michel Lomone. "The president was very disappointed by the report his counselor gave him."
Since then a succession of cyclones and slumping prices have conspired to jostle the crown from the vanilla king's head. Today Antalaha is dusty and somnolent, and though its main boulevard, Rue de Tananarive, was finally paved in 2005 with funding from the European Union, the street's traffic consists largely of a few dinky taxis, rusty bicycles, chickens, goats, and, above all, pedestrians striding barefoot in the rain and holding over their heads the elephantine leaves known as traveler's palms to stay dry.