Released in February 2015, the documentary film Baobabs between Land and Sea directed by Cyrille Cornu, recounts a scientific adventure in which we meet the Baobabs of Madagascar and the Vezo, a nomadic tribe of the sea. The film unveils breathtaking landscapes and follows a unique voyage by pirogue (a long, narrow canoe made from a single tree trunk) along 400 kms of wild and isolated coastline.
Naturalist and bio-geographer Cyrille Cornu has worked for ten years at the International Centre for Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD). He conducts research on ecological issues, studying tropical dry forests and using satellite images to characterize their biodiversity, degree of deforestation and the impacts of climate change. For the last seven years he has focused on the baobabs of Madagascar and has become one of the world’s leading specialists. Every year he organizes unique expeditions mobilizing local transport to access the hearts of the forest ecosystems where giants live.
At Ecophiles, he shares a special account about baobabs of Madagascar and his film Baobabs between Land and Sea:
Since boyhood, nature, trees, and the forest have fascinated me. I first encountered baobabs in 1979 during a stay in Senegal with my parents. Even though I was not yet ten, I fell under their spell. But it was another 30 years before I was to meet them again in Madagascar. They are powerful beings, mysterious, exciting. So exciting that six years ago I settled here on the Red Island to study them.
The Wilds of Madagascar
The island of Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot. Its fauna and flora are unique throughout the world and around 83 per cent of plant and land vertebrae are endemic. This uniqueness is partially explained by the past isolation of the island, as well as the ecological diversity of its environment. Baobabs feature amongst the emblematic species of island. Of the height species known in the world, six are endemic to Madagascar. Three are listed on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world with an area the size of France and Belgium! Of the 32,000 kms of roads, only 12,000 are passable in the rainy season and only 5000 are paved. For comparison, France has more than one million kms of paved roads. It is understood that most of the territory is inaccessible by car.
Many baobabs grow in the west part of the island, in isolated forests difficult to access. Only local transportation such as boat or zebu-cart will get you there. Sometimes you have to walk for hours. This makes Madagascar a place of adventure.
First, we are scientists. From this perspective we organize expeditions to produce knowledge about baobabs, their ecology and biology, as well as socio-cultural knowledge on how local people perceive and use them. Our original approach combines advanced technologies related to satellite imagery to identify baobabs with investigative locally based methods during our field trips. This is probably not new, but this approach is suitable for the study of the biodiversity of the island.
Exploring the Unknown
There are still many places to explore in Madagascar. It’s very exciting! Take the example of Tsingy. Much of the complex karst networks has never been visited. It is the same massif Makai that was recently visited by a scientific team. During our trips, we sometimes enter forests where few people have ever gone, including locals. In these places, the trees bear no traces of exploitation, wildlife is close and curious. You feel a strange sense of calm and harmony.
My friend and field partner Wilfried Ramahafaly accompanies me on every expedition. A forester by training, he worked for many years at the CIRAD plant nursery where he germinated and grew baobabs. Nobody knows them better than he. Every year we organize one or two expeditions. I use satellite images to discover unknown baobabs sites and GPS reconnaissance technology to reach sites. In five years, we have already organized seven fantastic expeditions.
Indeed, you have to be adventurous and in excellent physical condition to manage the heat, spartan conditions, insects and other disturbances that await you. Bandit assaults can occur but they can be avoided by observing simple rules: do not walk at night, check with the villagers for areas to avoid and do not camp too long in one place. Information travels faster in the bush. On the island, most of the animals are not dangerous except crocodiles and mosquitoes. I tested scorpion stings and centipede bites. I do not recommend them.
The Impact of Deforestation
In five years, we produced quantity of knowledge and information on baobabs. One of our most important results concerns deforestation that is spreading at a terrible rate on the island. We observed that deforestation causes a dramatic loss of biodiversity including baobabs. It becomes crucial to limit burning as a means to clear forested areas. This practice, called locally “hatsake” is to use fire to clear forest areas and develop agricultural plots. The plots are harvested for two to three years and then abandoned because they rapidly become infertile.
It becomes increasingly urgent to raise awareness on the dramatic impact of this practice on forest ecosystems, biodiversity, soil and even water resources. On site, things are not simple. Families act out of urgent need. They live in extreme insecurity, daily. The development of protected areas is a good way to stop the deforestation process but all forests can be protected in this way. Another solution is to implement community rules and sustainable management of forest resources with local populations.
Adventure in the heart of Madagascar
Most of the fantastic forests we visited during our expeditions are very difficult to access. Madagascar lacks road and tourism infrastructure in the western regions where baobabs grow. The development of tourism in the areas concerned is not easy and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Nevertheless several attractions exist within easy reach, such as the alley of baobabs or the national park of Kirindy Mite. Other people visit as adventure tourists. This requires appropriate means of transport, time and the spirit of adventure. I think of the track linking Morondava to Tulear, one of the most beautiful to see the giants of the Big Island or the Mangoky River last wild river in Madagascar- a canoe descent which requires at least five days.
The island of Madagascar is a great source of inspiration for filmmakers and photographers. Nature and landscapes are exceptional. Cultural diversity is also remarkable. I have photographed the island, its people and its nature for many years. With Baobab between Earth and Sea, I drew up a new objective: to share one of our expeditions in a documentary film as my first realization.
Filming Four hundred kms of Rugged Coast by Canoe
The film chronicles a trip in June 2013 between the towns of Morondava and Tulear in Madagascar’s southwest. We journeyed for 22 days by pirogue to explore 400 kms of rugged coastline. The film reveals our findings, our encounters and our scientific results. The narrative is intimately related to travel. Content and form change the rhythm of encounters and discoveries in an attempt to place the spectator at the heart of the adventure. The film is self-produced with a very tiny budget.
I worked alone for shooting, sound and editing. I had a clear idea about the movie I wanted to produce, and the best way to achieve this was to do it myself. Not easy! Especially when one is constrained by the time-consuming exigencies of a researcher. One has also to learn many techniques and assemble everything for the overall production. It’s fabulous! We spent a long time with building such a story that was gradually born through drifting experience. The most difficult was to cut the umbilical cord and let the film live. At least 200 hours of work anyway!
Since May 2015 the film has been selected a little more than a hundred times in international festivals with some prestigious as Green Screen (Germany), CMS Vatavaran (India), Wildlife Conservation Film Festival (United States), Eco Cup (Russia), Krakow Film Festival (Poland), International Environmental Film Festival (Argentina) or famous Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (United States) which is the most important film festival on the theme of the environment in the world.
Baobabs between Land and Sea has been screened in more than 60 countries and won 25 awards including Special Prize of the Jury of Matsalu International Nature Film Festival (Estonia), First Prize of Sondrio International Documentary Film Festival on Parks (Italy), Best of Show of ITSA Back to Nature Film Festival (United States), First Prize of Terra Festival (France) or Natur-Pack Prize of International Film Festival Ekotopfilm – Envirofilm (Slovakia). All the prizes and projections in festivals are an extraordinary opportunity to make the audience aware of the urgency to save the giants and environment of Malagasy people.
I am currently preparing a second film on the baobab trees of the north of the island of Madagascar and in particular on the two rarest species Adansonia suarezensis and A. perrieri. This second documentary is ‘in the can’. I shot the images in November 2014 during an expedition by canoe between the cities of Mahajanga and Diego Suarez. In the coming years, I would like to visit the last portion of west coast that we have not yet explored, between Morondava and Mahajanga. I also plan to fly a para-motor tandem and film extremely remote and inaccessible baobab forests. We have work for at least another ten years.
Our unique voyage in Madagascar allow us to discover exceptional landscapes, fantastic nature, but mostly to live extraordinary moments with the people we meet. The Malagasy people live according to rhythm of natural elements and traditions. They nurture the sense of the sacred, of sharing, of community. Core values to me. The ideal to discover Madagascar is to speak the language, have an activity to be involved in society! Participate in a development project, teach, make music, photography… It strengthens ties with the country and its people. The more one takes one’s time the more the island delivers. Hence the famous Malagasy word “mora mora” which can be translated as “quiet calm”.
To learn more about the gorgeous film Baobabs Between Land and Sea, check out the official website.