Africa’s problem is too much poverty, not too many people

Madagascar is the sort of place that we Brits know little about. Indeed try anyone on the subject of France’s former colonies in Africa, and you often draw a blank. Places like Burkina Faso attract little interest. Thus, it was good to be able to watch the ever engaging Simon Reeve on his way round the Indian Ocean, stopping off at this huge island.

Simon Reeve, for those of you who do not know him, is simply the best television presenter there is, and though young, he has an impressive portfolio of programmes behind him. He is certainly someone to watch, in every sense.

And what did Simon find in Madagascar? Well, sadly, it was the all too common tale of ecological devastation. To be frank, Madagascar seemed somewhat unattractive to me – treeless, deforested, and flat. Rather like parts of Kenya, I suppose, the less well known parts. And Simon and one of the conservationists he met was right, I think, to identify the destruction of forests as catastrophic.

There are many reasons why deforestation takes place, but one group of conservationists in the programme identified a burgeoning population as being a major problem, and were teaching the villagers about what the programme called family planning. Simon rightly observed that rich westerners telling poor villagers to have fewer children was problematic. Quite so; but I did wonder just how overpopulated Madagascar was.

A quick look at Wikipedia, that invaluable help for lazy writers, confirmed the following:

• Madagascar has an area of 226,597 square miles and a population of just under 22 million, according to the latest estimate. That makes for a density of 91.1 people per square mile.

• The United Kingdom, just for the sake of comparison, has an area of 94,060 square miles and an estimated population of around 62 million, which means a density of 661.9 people per square mile.

I was never any good at maths, but this seems to indicate that the United Kingdom is far more crowded than Madagascar; and indeed the south-east of England considered on its own would be even more densely populated still. Come to think of it, some of the world’s most prosperous countries are also its most crowded – Holland, for example.

Madagascar’s real problem is poverty, and poverty has many causes. Growing population is often a result of poverty, rather than a cause of it. Simon Reeve did spot the fact that the country’s infrastructure is virtually non-existent and its roads among the worst in the world- some looked even more bone-shaking than Kenya’s. I know that television is not a subtle medium, but it might have been better if the programme made clear that the population question in Madagascar has to be seen in the context of its other challenges – and that handing out condoms is not necessarily what those poor villagers need.

The rest of the programme took us to Mauritius, which is far more prosperous than Madagascar, but seemed, to me, at least, to be just as treeless. And then it was onto the Seychelles which are “verdant”, though here we met a fine Yorkshireman who had reforested a small island.

It was good to see Simon tackle some sensitive subjects, such as the whole question of Chinese investment in places like Mauritius. And he also took up the cause of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, who were moved to Mauritius by the British government to make room for the American base on their island. This question, which barely causes a ripple in the consciousness of modern Britain, deserves to be more widely known. I will try and make it the subject of a future article. But kudos to Simon Reeve for bringing up the plight of the Chagossians, who are among the least fortunate of the dispossessed populations of this earth.