'We need nature, but nature doesn't need us'

Belgium-based singer Lala Njava's native Madagascar is facing a barrage of environmental problems threatening its unique biodiversity. She tells DW why she's made it her mission to alert people to the dangers.

DW: Could you tell us more about your efforts in helping to protect the environment — how much of a role does it play in your life?

Nature and Environment | 24.11.2016

It is my duty to protect the environment, because, as you know, my country is under threat. The problem of deforestation is getting worse — if we don't do anything, if we don't react quickly, it will be too late.

It's a never-ending battle, a constant fight to protect the environment in Madagascar. Sometimes you need to sound the alarm and shout really loud to be heard.

To really understand the problem, I visited Madagascar for seven months in a region where I could be very near to farming communities, and above all so that I could understand them, and educate them about picking up plastic waste, to explain to people that every day the forests are burning, causing immense damage.

Eco@Africa | 28.07.2016

Here, we have a traditional practice of slash-and-burn [agriculture]. We have to explain to people the future consequences of it — even the baobabs, our magical trees, which are the symbol of Madagascar, are threatened and are disappearing.

Not to mention that our rich biodiversity is threatened, because rare species are disappearing. I have to say the issue of defending the environment in my country isn't a priority for politicians.

I’m fighting [for the environment] out of love for my country, for the future of the next residents of our planet, in other words, our children. We need nature, but nature doesn't need us.

Watch: Making music for Madagascan trees

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Lala Njava beim Baum-Pflanzen in Madagaskar

Singer Lala Njava planting trees in Madagascar

The environment is one of the inspirations for your music. How do you hope to raise awareness through your music?

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In my last album "Malagasy Blues Song," I was really inspired by what's happening in my country. So yes, of course the environment is a part of my message, certain songs denounce the politicians who aren't reacting.

An artist has this opportunity and the chance to say things through our music, we are the conveyors of messages and make people dream, and give them hope. That's my approach, because being an artist also means being a politician.

I understand that a percentage of proceeds from your music goes toward funding environmental projects — please could tell me more about that?

Yes effectively, I gave a part of my royalties to an NGO, which plants trees in my region. I want to make a gesture and offer up examples of what we can all do — doing little things with a lot of love in the hope of having a better future. So far, we have been able to plant more than 1,000 trees.

Baum-Pflanzen in Madagaskar

A portion of Lala Njava's royalties goes towards a tree-planting project in Madagascar

You grew up in a large musical family — what was that like?

I am one of 15 siblings, all musicians. I had a childhood full of love and surrounded by music. We were very poor but our poverty turned into prosperity; music really provided for us.

Music is one of our strengths, which let us understand life's value and especially the love for each other, and our parents taught us to give and share respect. That wasn't always easy because each of us was different but thanks to music, we are still together and have love and respect for others.

Lala Njava is a singer and guitar player originally from Madagascar and who now lives in Belgium. She has a long career playing music with her family, and released her first solo album "Malagasy Blues Song" in 2013.

This interview was conducted by Melanie Hall.

Four years of crisis

The Island state in the Indian Ocean is rich in minerals. Vast deposits of titanium, nickel and crude oil lie under ground and off the coast. But the vast majority of the population lives in poverty. Madagascar has been in a political crisis for four years now and the economy is stagnating. Uncertainty, fear and money worries dominate the daily lives of many Madagascans.

Weak economy, price of food rising

Madagascar's weak economy started to recover under the presidency of Marc Ravalomanana between 2002 and 2008. Growth was assisted by a liberal economic policy, investment and development aid. In 2009, Andry Rajoelina seized power in a coup and still heads a controversial transitional government. Donors have frozen aid, the prices of staple food has risen.

Not enough money for a hot meal

A plate of rice with meat and vegetables costs 500 Ariary (17 euro cents, 23 US dollar cents ) at the stalls of vendors on the streets in Antananarivo. That is a lot of money in Madagascar. According to World Bank, over 92 percent of the population live on less than an equivalent of 1 euro 50 cents a day. Many families go hungry.

Poor harvest

Despite the many rice fields in Madagascar, the country still has to import this staple food. Local soil is fertile and there is sufficient water, but the agricultural sector remains far below its potential. Although 90 percent of the population work in agriculture, they generate only a quarter of GDP, says the World Bank.

At the mercy of natural disasters

Cyclones, floods and extreme drought hit parts of the island regularly, threatening the crops. There is still no effective early warning system or means of protection. Earlier this year, Madagascar was hit by locusts. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says there is a loss in the rice crop of around 630,000 tonnes.

Help for farmers

Since the start of the political and economic crisis, many people have been looking for jobs on the land. They often have had no appropriate training, are familiar only with outdated agricultural techniques and can hardly afford any equipment, says the Madagascan NGO CITE. It helps farmers to take their produce to the market.

Waiting for customers

Agriculture is also the only hope for Jean-Noel and Erick Regis. They have come to the inland city of Antsirabe to work as rickshaw drivers and earn money for their families. But they can't always afford to pay the daily rent of 2 euros for the use of the “pousse-pousse.”. Before the economic crisis, they had 20 customers on a good day, but they have only four or five.

Concern about cattle

Working animals a source of food, or a financial investment - cattle are important for the survival of many families. With the crisis, however, crime has increased. Almost everyday newspapers report about so-called “Dahala”- cattle robbers who raid villages often stealing several hundreds of cattle. Clashes between residents and the police often end in injury and death

A life full of worry and fear

Eliane lost her brother in one such attacks. The “Dahalo” shot him, she said. With her relatives, she picks cotton in the dry fields of southern Madagascar. The family lives on cassava and maize. But last year a cyclone destroyed a large part of the harvest. Eliane has about 100 euros a year to live on.

Elections as a way out of the crisis?

The capital Antananarivo is the center of political life in Madagascar. Observers agree that the period of transition must end before the country can overcome the crisis and poverty. The presidential election has already been postponed many times. But many Madagascans say it is not who governs the country that matters, but whether there is any food on the table the next day.

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