Mada­gas­car hills stripped bare as lo­cals seek land

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

“Last time, I burnt a section about that big,” says Mi­hareta Laivoa, point­ing to a par­cel of land about the size of a foot­ball field, as the farmer ad­mit­ted to hav­ing destroyed for­est to make way for his crops. “I don’t own a piece of land in the val­ley, so I have no choice,” ex­plains the 41-year-old fa­ther in a re­mote cor­ner of Mada­gas­car. “With­out this, I wouldn’t be able to sur­vive.” But the im­pact of de­for­esta­tion on this south-east­ern re­gion of the African is­land na­tion has been dev­as­tat­ing.

In a coun­try­side stripped bare by decades of burn­ing, only a few un­touched, green moun­tain crests bear wit­ness to the for­got­ten splen­dor of the area. “Ten years ago, there were still forests on most moun­tain­sides. To­day, there are hardly any left,” says Jean Doine Raife­tra, mayor of the Ranomafana com­mu­nity, whose 22,000 res­i­dents live scat­tered across sev­eral vil­lages. In Ranomafana, on the edge of a UNESCO World Her­itage site and na­tional park, res­i­dents sur­vive al­most ex­clu­sively on sub­sis­tence farm­ing.

From a rut­ted patch of land, long plumes of white smoke can be seen curl­ing into the sky as the for­est is burnt to make way for arable land-a prac­tice the lo­cals call “tavy”. But as forests are destroyed, vi­tal wa­ter sources stream­ing down from the moun­tain dry up. In a cruel catch22, farm­ers-un­able to suf­fi­ciently ir­ri­gate their crops burn even more land in search of fer­tile soil.

‘Farm life will van­ish’

From a hill­top over­look­ing his vil­lage, Jean Realy points to his parched rice paddy be­low. He could once ex­pect to pro­duce eight or nine sacks of rice a year from that field. This year, he’s fac­ing a dry sea­son. “Be­cause of de­for­esta­tion, the (wa­ter) source has dried up. In the 1980s, by Septem­ber we had wa­ter as high as your hip,” he says. Stand­ing in his paddy now, his feet are bone dry.

He’s re­ly­ing on the rains-al­ready scarce in this re­gion-to avoid go­ing hun­gry. With an an­nual bud­get of just 100 ari­ary (about three US cents) per res­i­dent, Ranomafana does not have the ca­pac­ity to de­fend the en­vi­ron­ment against ‘tavy’. So a con­sor­tium of NGOs, in part­ner­ship with the French Devel­op­ment Agency (AFD), have established a pi­lot for­est con­ser­va­tion project in the re­gion. Launched in 2008, the 4.0-mil­lioneuro ($4.5-mil­lion) plan has brought to­gether about 20 vil­lages to cre­ate a zone of hun­dreds of hectares where de­for­esta­tion is strictly for­bid­den. “With­out the for­est, there are so many as­pects of farm life that will van­ish,” says Matthieu Baehrel of the non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion EtcTerra.

The mes­sage to farm­ers is that fail­ing to pro­tect the forests up­stream means a drop in agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity down­stream. “Once this con­cept catches on, it be­comes eas­ier to change things,” says He­lene Gob­ert, who heads up AFD’s ru­ral devel­op­ment and en­vi­ron­ment projects in Mada­gas­car. The forests are also a tar­get for vil­lagers who use the wood to build and cook, so work is like­wise fo­cus­ing on show­ing how re­for­esta­tion projects can be used to raise stan­dards of liv­ing.

“Thanks to ‘re­for­esta­tion’, we don’t have to go look­ing in the for­est for wood or build­ing ma­te­rial,” says res­i­dent Ma­monjy as he hacks away with his ma­chete at a grove of aca­cia and eu­ca­lyp­tus trees re­planted in his vil­lage in 2012. Still, in a re­gion the size of France where nine out of 10 peo­ple live be­low the poverty line, the chal­lenges are enor­mous.

“The mes­sage has be­gun to sink in and we’re start­ing to see the re­sults... (but) we’re talk­ing about chang­ing men­tal­i­ties about things that have been prac­ticed some­times for mil­len­nia,” says Baehrel. The thing about trees, adds Gob­ert, is that they take a long time to grow and the pos­i­tive ef­fects are not im­me­di­ately vis­i­ble. “We need projects that last if we’re to have any hope of mak­ing a real dif­fer­ence,” she says. —AFP

ANDASIBE: This file photo taken on Septem­ber 18, 2008 shows men load­ing sacks filled with char­coal unto a truck. —AFP

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