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‘Our diamonds are our forests’: turning Madagascar’s degraded land green again
@FAO/AndryRakotoHarivonyIn Madagascar, calls for urgent action to safeguard its rapidly disappearing native forests are growing.
The fourth-largest island on Earth, it boasts one of the most diverse ecosystems, with hundreds of thousands of flora and fauna species, 85% of which are found nowhere else. Nine out of 10 of these unique species live in forests. Without the forests, they won’t survive.
But Madagascar has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Much of its native forest has been cleared - 45% in the past 60 years alone.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) have joined forces with the country to remedy this situation in the Diana and Boeny regions in the north. The Forests4 Future (F4F) project aims to restore forests and landscapes as well as improve forest governance by 2026. This project is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), implemented by GIZ and works in collaboration with the FAO-hosted Forest and Farm Facility (FFF).
“Before, the region of Diana was green, and there were rich forests with native forest species and introduced cacao trees,” says FAO FFF Facilitator Herizo Rakotoniaina. “Diana used to be a humid zone. But now the landscape in the northern part of the island is severely degraded mainly due to demographic pressure and interventions.”
Philippe Bamigbade, GIZ F4F Project Manager, concurs. “Madagascar, with its rich and unique biodiversity, used to be referred to as the ‘Green Island’,” he says. “However, when seen from the air today, it’s no longer green. It’s red [the colour of its unproductive soil]. More and more, Madagascar is turning red.”
It was a vicious cycle that led to this situation. The local population burnt down the forests to clear land for agriculture. They practiced monoculture, planting one crop only. After a short time, this depleted the soil, yields decreased, and farmers abandoned their plots and moved on, repeating the pattern in a neighbouring area. They would also burn the trees to produce illegal charcoal for a quick sale.
In time, the degraded landscape and poor soils worsened the effects of climate change. Rainfall decreased and seasons became irregular. This drove further land degradation and declining crop yields, leading farmers to rely on firewood production to earn enough to live, destroying more forests in the process.
Population growth is also a problem. Regions in southern and south-eastern Madagascar are experiencing food insecurity and famine, after drought conditions for the past decade. More and more people are driven to migrate from the south to the more fertile regions in the north to survive, putting even more pressure on the land, forests and food systems and often leading to conflict.
But there is some good news. Madagascar has made a commitment under the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100 Initiative) to restore 4 million hectares (ha) of forest landscape by 2030. The F4F initiative, now celebrating its second anniversary, is supporting the government to achieve that commitment.
In the past two years, F4F has restored 285 hectares (ha) of forested landscapes, including mangroves. This is expected to reduce soil erosion, improve biodiversity and increase available water.
In addition, FFF, a partnership between FAO, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and AgriCord, has been collaborating with 4 000 Malagasy small holder farmers and forest producers to incorporate elements of forestry into agriculture. They’ve been building nurseries, cultivating more climate-resilient tree species which are used in reforestation campaigns. They’ve also been supporting women and young people to develop their own nurseries, producing forest seedlings and fruit for sale.
F4F is supporting agroforestry measures and also experimenting with the development of other tree-based value chains to help diversify the small producers’ incomes. Bamboo, Ratan, Vanilla, Mango, Cashew, Mangrove silk and Moringa will be introduced to the producers to generate more income and boost food security. F4F aims to increase the income of 5 820 households by an average 25 per cent.
The work behind the F4F starts at the grassroots level, with the improvement of management plans to restore the ecological and productive functions of degraded landscapes, then supplement the livelihoods of local communities involved in a participatory process.
FFF and F4F are also developing advocacy campaigns to bring about a change of mindset, encouraging a diversity of crops and forest and farm products. They are also facilitating dispute resolution to mitigate the growing conflicts over the use of the land.
Locally, attitudes seem to be changing. In Sadjoavato, a city in the Diana region, locals have been planting trees on 60 hectares of land.
“The local community has been bringing back biodiversity,” Bamigbade says. “The soil is becoming more fertile. Harvests have improved. They have been able to add fruit trees, mango, and cashews.”
The mayor, a woman farmer called Ousseny Zalifa Georgette, told Bamigbade: “We don’t have a gold mine or sapphires or rubies. Our diamonds are our forests. They are changing our lives.”
There continues to be a need to scale up restoration efforts. If the trend of land degradation and deforestation is not reversed now, it is inevitable that the famine conditions in the south will spread north.
Strengthened partnerships for integrated forest and landscape restoration, more funding reaching local communities, more work to build awareness and develop more income-generating activities, and more capacity building are required to make a difference.
However, there is no short-term fix. It could take 30 years to fully change attitudes and longer to turn Madagascar back into the Green Island it once was.