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Madagascar is Burning: Meet the Conservation Heroes Working to Bring the Forests Back

If I were to ask you to picture the landscape of Madagascar in your head, what images first come to mind? Never-ending rainforests? A paradise unspoiled by man?

These images may be the Madagascar that once was, and the Madagascar we are hoping to have in the future, but it is not the Madagascar of today. Today, Madagascar is a country on fire.

An overhead view of a slash-and-burn fire raging across Madagascar's forests.

An overhead view of a slash-and-burn fire raging across Madagascar’s forests. Photo courtesy of WWF Madagascar.

It is estimated that as much as 90% of the country’s original vegetation has been destroyed, the biggest culprit being slash-and-burn agriculture. It is no wonder then, that most of Madagascar’s unique and endemic flora and fauna face extinction, with lemurs being the most threatened with extinction group of mammals on Earth.

But what exactly is slash-and-burn agriculture? And what is being done to save and even bring back the forests? To start answering these questions, we need to travel back about 2,000 years ago, when man first arrived on the island of Madagascar.

The history of slash-and-burn agriculture in Madagascar

Slash-and-burn agriculture is a method of cultivation in which existing vegetation is cut down and burned off before new seeds are sown, typically used as a method for clearing forest land for farming. The two main types of farming that involve slash-and-burn in Madagascar are rice and cattle. Land is cleared and burned for production of rice paddies or for land for cattle grazing.

The after effects of slash-and-burn. Photo by Nirina Rakotoharisoa

The after effects of slash-and-burn. Photo by Nirina Rakotoharisoa

Around 2,000 years ago, man first arrived to the island of Madagascar via boat. Some came from southeast Asia, and others from mainland Africa. These two peoples brought their distinct cultures with them, and today, the Malagasy people are a combination of these cultures. Along with their culture, these first people also brought with them farming and land cultivation practices of their respective homelands: rice paddies from southeast Asia, and cattle from Africa.

The country has never been the same since. As Madagascar has to this day remained a non-industrialized nation, these farming practices have continued, as has the slash-and-burn practices that make this farming possible. New reasons to burn the forests have also emerged in recent times, including burning trees to make coal for cooking fuel.

Now, only 10% of Madagascar’s original forest cover remains, and the devastating effects this has on the wildlife and people of Madagascar continue to grow each day.

The effects of slash-and-burn on Madagascar’s wildlife and people

One of the most obvious effects of slash-and-burn agriculture is the loss of habitat for Madagascar’s native wildlife. It is well documented that habitat loss is the number one cause of 94% of all lemurs species currently facing extinction. But many other native species in Madagascar also suffer from extreme habitat loss, including fossas, tenrecs, geckos, and many bird species.

Unlike the forest destruction in the Amazon rainforest of South America, which is industrialized, large-scale destruction of big tracts of land, the destruction of Madagascar’s forests is local, and small-scale, but much more widespread throughout the country. The result is an epidemic of fragmented forests throughout Madagascar. Fragmented forests can literally slice through lemur populations, cutting off lemurs’ access to food sources, disrupting their normal migratory routes, and blocking access to mates. With lemur populations trapped in a confined forest area, populations can bottleneck, and the lack of genetic diversity in populations can cause severe damage to the hope of a future of genetically healthy and diverse lemurs in Madagascar.

Eroded soil, another effect of clearing forests for land cultivation. Photo by Nirina Rakotoharisoa

Eroded soil, another effect of clearing forests for land cultivation. Photo by Nirina Rakotoharisoa

Slash-and-burn has many unintended consequences to the Malagasy people themselves as well. Clearing of trees exposes the soil on the ground to much more rain than it was ever intended to take on. This causes extreme soil erosion, making the land no longer farm-able, and uninhabitable for man or animal. The soil erosion also causes massive run-off into the ocean, negatively affecting the health of the fish, which in turn creates a big problem for Madagascar’s fishing industry.

Deforestation is also a leading contributor to global warming/climate change.

Deforestation contributes more carbon to the atmosphere than all the world’s cars and trucks combined.

15% of global carbon emissions, in fact, come from deforestation. Without trees to breathe in carbon dioxide that we breathe out naturally and produce unnaturally, the carbon stays trapped in our atmosphere, forming a heat blanket that is warming our planet at an alarming rate.

Conservation heroes assemble

Without hope, people fall into apathy. There is still a lot out there worth fighting for. Luckily, there are many great conservation heroes who are providing that hope, and fighting each and every day to protect the forests that remain in Madagascar, as well as bring back much of what we have lost.

Eden Reforestation Projects leading the way in reforestation of Madagascar

Eden Reforestation Projects is the largest reforestation group in Madagascar. They have been working in Madagascar since 2007, and their efforts have resulted in the planting of over 77 million dry deciduous and mangrove trees in the last 7 years alone. They aim to plant billions – yes billions – of trees in Madagascar in the next decade.

One of Eden Reforestation Projects' tree nurseries. Photo courtesy of Eden Reforestation Projects.

One of Eden Reforestation Projects’ tree nurseries. Photo courtesy of Eden Reforestation Projects.

The overwhelming majority of the tree species grown are endemic to Madagascar’s western regions and virtually all of the species grown are native and essential to the well being of the lemur species that inhabit the dry deciduous forests. Their most notable lemur habitat partner is Ankarafantsika National Park; the organization has a full nursery operating within the confines of the National Park with plans to greatly expand operations in the years to come. They also partner with the Antsanitia Resort where they currently operate their largest nursery and project sites. Hundreds of hectares have already been planted and/or protected and the survival rate of saplings is high.

Eden’s approach to restoration and protection efforts begin with their nursery and reforestation leadership training center that they affectionately call “The Hands in the Dirt Training Center” (HDTC) located in Mahajanga. The HDTC, as the name implies, emphasizes practical training so that their reforestation managers gain valuable hands-on experience in nursery seedling management and effective reforestation techniques.

Fire prevention is also key to the mission of Eden Reforestation Projects. They protect their reforestation sites by surrounding them with fire breaks and by hiring emergency fire prevention crews.

Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership reforestation

Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP) is another leader in reforestation efforts in Madagascar. They undertake programming in west and southern Madagascar. The MBP also undertakes reforestation initiatives in the areas where it is working to distribute fuel-efficient cook stoves in northern Madagascar.

Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership volunteers planting trees. Photo courtesy of MBP.

Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership volunteers planting trees. Photo courtesy of MBP.

The MBP’s largest reforestation programming is based in Kianjavato and is called the Education Promoting Reforestation Project (EPRP). This program’s success is based on the fact that seeds which have passed through a lemur’s intestinal tract grow better than seeds that haven’t; by collecting the seeds in lemur poop, the MBP has been able to plant over 60,000 trees. Moving forward, the MBP hopes to plant one million trees and restore Kianjavato’s fragmented forest landscape. In December, they made progress toward this goal by starting double plantings. This means that they will have 4 planting events every week with 2000 trees each, accumulating to 8000 trees a week, with a goal of half a million trees a year.

Centre ValBio putting trees back where they belong

Reforestation at Centre ValBio has been a mainstay of the field station since its founding. Working with landowners in the periphery of the park, The centre has established reforestation plots on private land as well as a demonstration agroforestry plot which has vanilla vines growing on native trees for support. The Centre ValBio also undertakes educational outreach aimed at teaching the value of trees, not just for animals, but for clean water and erosion control as well. 

Centre ValBio's tree nursery. Photo courtesy of CVB.

Centre ValBio’s tree nursery. Photo courtesy of Centre ValBio.

The reforestation program only uses trees which are native to the region, the seeds for which are gathered from within Ranomafana National Park and germinated in a tree nursery. There are 29 tree species being planted at the nursery. These trees include trees which are important sources of food for lemurs such as the Ramy tree and Rotramena. Other trees also are important for traditional medicinal use, while some are sources of timber for buildings. At present, the tree nursery at Centre ValBio has about 5000 seedlings, roughly half of which are ready for transplanting for reforestation. The seedlings are grown in small black poly bags in a mixture of soil and compost – made from food waste generated at Centre ValBio. The seedlings are exposed to the elements from the time of germination, which also enables them to be hardened from the beginning.

The team makes trips out to previously reforested areas for weeding and cleaning, and to monitor the survival of transplanted seedlings. These post-establishment site treatments increase the survival rate of the seedlings by removing competitors.

Wildlife Conservation Society’s carbon credits program

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) collaborated with the government of Madagascar to establish Makira National Park, which protects one of the largest and biodiversity richest remaining forests in Madagascar. Parks such as these hold huge potential to keep carbon locked up where it belongs. Intact forests also mop up further carbon dioxide through continued growth, partially counteracting emissions from other sources.

WCS also generated carbon credits that are sold on the global voluntary market. These sales create a sustainable source of financing that contributes important resources to the implementation of ecological resistance. Ecological resilience is enhanced both through protection of remaining forest against illegal clearing, and through restoration of forest corridors between degraded blocks of forest both within the park and between adjoining blocks of forest in the landscape that allow wildlife the opportunity to move in search of resources as altered climatic regimes impact their habitats.

Revenues from sales are used to incentivize local communities that successfully participate in conservation activities through grants for community development projects, such as infrastructure or technical training programs that implement climate-smart agricultural practices, enhance agricultural output, and expand livelihood options.

The results of this program have included a doubling of household incomes in villages around Makira National Park, an avoidance of the loss of 23 square miles of forest between 2005 and 2013, and over 700 acres of new forest established to increase connectivity for highly endangered lemur species.

Saint Luce Reserve protects valuable lemur habitat

The Sainte Luce Reserve protects some of the very last parts of coastal forest in southeast Madagascar. The reserve protects some of the most critically endangered micro-habitat in the country and this includes several endangered palm species, Dypsis saintelucei and Beccariophoenix madagascariensis.

In 2010, the reserve began a reforestation program that succeeded in planting 2,200 individuals of D. sainteluci and 800 individuals of B. madagascariensis. Given that the total known populations of the two species in the wild are, respectively, approximately 300 and 900 individuals, this was a massively positive step towards their conservation.

What can you do to help?

Even if you are not one of the heroes working on the ground in Madagascar to plant new trees, there are still many simple things you can do at home to be a conservation hero and help protect Madagascar’s forests, no matter where you are in the world.

One thing you can do is donate money to one of these conservation organizations. Many of the organizations will tell you how much money it would cost to adopt one tree (and it is usually not very much at all!). When that tree grows in Madagascar, you can know you personally are the reason that tree may one day be used by a lemur for food or to raise its family.

Another thing you can do, that is also very yummy, is to buy Madagascan vanilla and/or chocolate. Vanilla and cocoa farming are two sustainable farming practices in Madagascar. Vanilla and cocoa beans are shade-grown crops, meaning they need trees to grow, as opposed to having to cut down trees to grow them. By purchasing vanilla and chocolate from Madagascar, you are supporting this sustainable farming, helping to make it a viable economic alternative for farmers who currently participate in slash-and-burn.

The only way we will truly move the needle when it comes to the environment is the bottom line.

We all have the power to be conservation heroes, as long as we care a whole awful lot. Thank you to the heroes out there fighting to ensure a future for lemurs, and all of Madagascar.

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