KIRINDY FOREST, MadagascarKIRINDY FOREST, Madagascar (Reuters) - As a shocked world watches fires ravage the Amazon, slash-and-burn farmers are wreaking proportionally worse destruction half a world away in Madagascar, driving humanity's smallest relative - the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur - to extinction.
Frustrated conservationists hope Friday's arrival of the environmentally-conscious Pope Francis will spotlight the island that lost 2% of primary rainforest last year, the highest of any tropical nation according to the World Resources Institute.
"He should say that this forest is God's creation. He gave it to us and for our own benefit," said Anselme Toto Volahy, researcher from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
"If we don't manage it well, we will destroy ourselves."
The Kirindy forest, on the west of the island, spans 100,000 hectares (245,000 acres) but has lost almost half its size in two decades. Wastelands of blackened stumps are broken only by scorched trunks and twisted boughs of baobab trees resistant to fires.
Kirindy is home to a multitude of rare species, including the tiny Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, the world's smallest primate, which only exists there. Bug-eyed and weighing just 35 grams (1.25 ounces), the lemur's habitat may be completely destroyed in three years, said Volahy, though the animal might go sooner.
Matthias Markolf, a lemur specialist at the German Primate Centre in Kirindy, has not spotted it for two years.
"We do not find Berthe in places that we used to find it before," he said. "It might go extinct in the next couple of years if deforestation continues."
'THE SOIL IS DYING'
With more than 80% of its species native, Madagascar has more unique plants and animals than the rest of Africa together.
But as well as farmers' fires, the island is facing increasingly powerful storms and extended droughts at the sharp edge of global climate change.
When a 2016 harvest failed in the south, thousands of farmers migrated to the west - to Kirindy - accelerating the forest's destruction.
Unscrupulous businessmen linked to local politicians pay around 50,000 ariary ($13.40) for every hectare of forest cleared, say village elders. It is backbreaking labor, but there is no shortage of workers in a nation where 90 percent of people survive on less than $2 per day.
"We had to eat cactus and mango, from the morning to the evening," said 24-year-old Sonlinde Nathaly, recalling the drought that drove her and others from the south in a migration wave that coincided with a massive spike in deforestation.
Satellite data shows Kirindy lost 4% of its area in the last two years, said Volahy, pacing through a clearing scattered with singed maize husks and giant snail shells bleached white by the blaze.
After trees are felled, the area is torched to clear land for maize. Middlemen take the crops to big cities, where the kernels become untraceable, potentially entering the supply chain for big companies.
"Since 2013 we have worked with people from the government. The deal was, we cut (the forest) and grow maize," said Nahità, vice president of the local administration in Lambokely, a dusty village that used to hug thick forest.
Now the wooden houses cluster forlornly in a barren landscape. The shallow soils are worn out after three harvests of maize and peanuts, driving farmers further into the forest.
"The soil is dying," said Phrosalia Soriana, a 36-year-old farmer. "The people in charge of the forest tell us that we are doing wrong." But, she asks, how else can she feed her family?
In the past nine months, the government has made some efforts to slow the destruction, arresting several farmers and destroying corn in the protected area.
But bigger players remain free.
"To totally eradicate the problem, we have to touch the untouchables," said Liana Rakotoson from Fanamby, a local conservation group investigating the maize business in Kirindy.
Prosecutors want to go after politicians involved and big companies that buy the maize.
But Andrianirina Francis, deputy prosecutor for Menabe region, said building a case is hard because farmers' maize crops are mixed before being sold on.
"The product passes through many hands," he said.
However, big companies, like national brewery the STAR group, have a responsibility to know their suppliers, he insisted. "Tons and tons and tons of corn come from the destruction of the forest," Francis said, but "STAR never asks where their product comes from."
Since 2011, French beverage company Castel has owned STAR, which is also Coca-Cola's Madagascar bottling partner.
Castel and Coca-Cola did not respond to requests for comment. Francis Ambroise, the general manager of STAR in Madagascar, said the company accounted for only around 2% of the maize market. Most went to feed cattle, he said.
“The company has supply contracts preventing sellers from sourcing their maize from the forest or any other protected area," he told Reuters.
“We work with (environmental group) Fanamby to control our suppliers, respect the contracts’ clauses and to ensure the traceability of our maize supply ... using maize from protected areas would be against what we consider to be our society responsibility.”
But Tiana Andriamanana, executive director of Fanamby, said "the chaotic market makes traceability impossible."
"Everybody sees the trucks of maize coming back and forth, usually at night, but nobody records where they go."
(Reporting by Rondro Ratsimbazafy and Hereward Holland; Additional reporting by Inti Landauro in Paris; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Andrew Cawthorne)