The average annual income here is $200, meaning most of the 17 million Malagasy live on less than a dollar a day; they are too poor to understand, or care about, their nation's ecological suicide. A large bag of charcoal sells for $30 in the markets of the capital of Antananarivo, and that is incentive enough for many locals to cut down trees to burn for fuel. Millions of others practice an ancient form of slash and burn farming to clear forests for farmland.
As a result, 90 percent of the original forest has been destroyed, leaving hills that quickly erode without a living root structure to hold the earth in place. Large swaths of the land here look like lunar landscapes -- as though someone has taken a spoon to the ground and scooped out large chunks of the dry red earth. When the rains come, it turns rivers here the color of blood.
As the head of Conservation International, Mittermeier spent years watching this country self-destruct. But when Marc Ravalomanana, a self-made dairy tycoon, won a tight presidential election a few years ago, he floated a bold idea to the new man in charge. Take what little forest that remains and save it for tourists.
"We suggested to him, 'Why don't you think about doubling the protected area?'" Mittermaier said. "And he said, 'Double it? I'll triple it!'"
The president has made good on his promise, setting aside millions of acres. But getting people to come visit, and getting their money to locals, are much bigger challenges, and there is constant pressure to sell off the precious commodities that come from this land.
The Chinese have already left their footprints here, looking for natural resources that may help sustain the country's explosive growth. They built a road that passes through the town of Moramanga, and an Asian gazebo remains as testament to their presence here. Sri Lankan gem dealers, famous for their skill in stonecutting, have staked their claim on Madagascar's gems. Some of the world's best are found here: sapphires, rubies, topaz and opals, to name a few. Exxon Mobil and other multinational corporations believe there may also be oil here.
Even the local currency provides a subtle hint on this land in the balance. The 10,000 ariary bill is etched with a likeness of a mine. It's worth ten times more than the one with an etching of a lemur.
But the government insists that its policies will protect this delicate balance -- that it can both develop its economy and preserve the ecosystem here. "The most important thing for Madagascar is very clear," said Prime Minister Charles Rabemananjara. "Growing economic sectors require an environmental policy."
At Fort Dauphin, on the southeastern tip of the country, the mining company Rio Tinto is building an ilmenite mine. The mineral is used to make sunscreen, house paint and car dashboards, and over the next 50 years, Rio Tinto plans to mine $4 billion worth. But they are also planting trees and they promise to leave the land in better shape than they found it.
"You come in, you devastate and you leave -- you can't do that anymore," said Guy Larin, resident director of Rio Tinto's Madagascar mining operations. "Stockholders are people and people care about the environment."