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A letter from Dan Turk in Madagascar

April 22, 2013

Dear Friends,

Today was Earth Day.  God has richly blessed the island of Madagascar with flora and fauna found nowhere else. To celebrate the occasion in Madagascar, the U.S. Embassy planted three of Madagascar’s unique palms on the Embassy grounds. 

Dypsis robusta and Germain Andrianaivoson at the Ranomafana Arboretum, November 2011

The palms came from the tree nursery of PC(USA)’s partner church in Madagascar, the Fiangonan’i Jesoa Kristy eto Madagasikara (FJKM).  Present for the planting were the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy, Eric Wong; the Mission Director of USAID in Madagascar, Rudolph Thomas; and the Director of the FJKM Development Department, Tse Rahajary.  Each planted a palm.  Also in attendance were PC(USA) regional liaison Doug Tilton and representatives of a variety of environmental organizations in Madagascar.

The palms planted were Tahina spectabilis, Dypsis robusta, and Beccariophoenix alfredii, found in northwest, central, and southeast Madagascar respectively.  All are large palms endemic to Madagascar that were discovered and named as new species within the past 10 years.  The fact that they remained undiscovered by botanists into the 21st century says a lot about how little is known about the flora of Madagascar.  Unfortunately, like most of Madagascar’s close to 200 species of native palms, they are threatened with extinction in the wild, primarily through deforestation and cutting for specific uses.

Palms at the Ivato Theological College

The three palms planted at the U.S. Embassy on Earth Day 2013 will help educate the public about the amazing diversity of creation in Madagascar and the need to preserve Madagascar’s remaining natural forests.  Their educational role is partly fulfilled through publicity surrounding the tree planting (including in the Malaza and Midi-Madagasikara newspapers), and partly simply by being planted where they will be seen by all the people coming to the Embassy for many years to come.  Eventually plaques should provide the palms’ stories to those who pass by.

Tahina spectabilis was named one of earth’s 100 most endangered species (plants and animals combined) in 2012.  It grows for maybe 100 years, flowers and fruits once, then dies.  The huge, 15-foot tall inflorescence has been described as like a Christmas tree sticking out the top of the palm (see photo).  The discovery of the Tahina palm created a lot of excitement among palm experts and enthusiasts partly because it is only distantly related to all the other palms known in Madagascar.

U.S. chargé d’affaires Eric Wong (left) planting Beccariophoenix alfredii at the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo with help from Dan Turk

Beccariophoenix alfredii was described as a new species in 2007.  It looks a lot like a coconut palm and in fact is fairly closely related to the coconut, though its fruits are much smaller and not edible.  It is highly ornamental and it is thought that it could serve as an ornamental substitute for the coconut palm in sub-tropical areas too cold for the coconut to grow well.  The discovery of Beccariophoenix alfredii by Malagasy botanists is an interesting story.

Dypsis robusta was described from a large palm growing in Hawaii from a seed known to have come from Madagascar but without information as to where the species naturally occurred.  In 2008 a palm growing within the Ranomafana Arboretum that I had been helping to protect since 1994 was identified as Dypsis robusta.  Up to now it is the only known individual of its species known in the wild, which is why the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the species to be Critically Endangered

The seedling of Dypsis robusta planted at the U.S. embassy is a daughter of the Ranomafana Arboretum’s impressive tree.

This past March Dypsis robusta and Beccariophoenix alfredii were also planted on the grounds of the Ivato Theological College, along with 10 other species of endemic Malagasy palms.  The total number of native Malagasy palms at the Theological College is now 28, including Tahina spectabilis, which is represented by three individuals. The palms generate income for the theological school by helping attract visitors who appreciate the theological school as a beautiful setting for family picnics, church excursions, and wedding receptions.  More important, the palms help educate the future pastors of the FJKM church about the value of God’s creation and the extraordinary diversity of God’s handiwork in Madagascar.

Unfortunately, almost all the biodiversity of Madagascar is threatened by deforestation and/or hunting.  Madagascar’s four-year-old political and economic crisis is contributing to increased deforestation and illegal export of endangered plants and animals.

Please pray for an end to the crisis, for effectiveness of the FJKM’s efforts to bring about much-needed reconciliation in the country, and for the growth of the palms at the Embassy and Ivato Theological College.

It is a privilege for Elizabeth and me to be part of these efforts and other exciting areas of ministry in Madagascar.  Thank you very much for your prayers and financial support.

In Christ,

Dan

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 121
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