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Or such was the traffic until the spring of 2009. During that season the streets of Antalaha suddenly began to roar with motorcycles. The one store on Rue de Tananarive that carried such vehicles promptly sold out. Responding to the demand, a second store opened up down the street and began doing crazy business as well. The buyers were rawboned young men, and everyone in Antalaha knew where their fleeting cash came from. It wasn't the vanilla fields. The same young men could be seen driving into town in the backs of pickup trucks astraddle great loads of illegally harvested timber, systematically filling their pockets by selectively cutting Madagascar's precious rosewood trees from the forest.

Madagascar is an island—the world's fourth largest, at over 225,000 square miles, but an island nonetheless. Though all islands are blessed with their own unique biosphere, Madagascar (which was dislocated from Africa some 165 million years ago) is a special case: Roughly 90 percent of its flora and fauna is found nowhere else on the planet. The extraterrestrial spectacle of carrot-shaped baobab trees, ghostly lemurs, and whole "forests" of towering stone spikes is inclined to make the world-weariest of visitors grow wide-eyed with innocent delight.

Its rare and haunting beauty coexists with a desperation among its people that defines everyday life. The Malagasy, the island's major ethnic group, have an expression that is elegant in its fatalism: "Aleo maty rahampitso toy izay maty androany," or "It's better to die tomorrow rather than today." The typical Madagascan lives on about a dollar a day.

And considering that Madagascar's population of more than 20 million is growing 3 percent a year—one of the most rapid rates in Africa—the tension between rich land and poor residents on a finite landscape increases by the day. For this reason alarmed ecologists have termed Madagascar a biodiversity hot spot, deploring, in particular, the Malagasy practice of slash-and-burn agriculture, in which swaths of forest are torched and converted to rice fields. Just as the global environmental community rejoiced in 2002 when Marc Ravalomanana assumed the presidency on a green-friendly platform, so did they react with dismay in the spring of 2009 as the military routed Ravalomanana from office and installed a constitutionally underage former radio disc jockey in his place. As one veteran aid worker stationed in Madagascar said, "I feel like the past 25 years of work has been undone."

In September 2009, after months during which up to 460,000 dollars' worth of rosewood was being illegally harvested every day, the cash-strapped new government reversed a 2000 ban on the export of rosewood and released a decree legalizing the sale of stockpiled logs. Pressured by an alarmed international community, the gov­ernment reinstated the ban in April. Yet log­ging continues.

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