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To feed a growing population, farms chew away at Madagascar’s forests

Men and women spend hours sowing rice seedlings and ploughing the land. Photo by Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor for Mongabay.

Men and women spend hours sowing rice seedlings and ploughing the land. Photo by Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor for Mongabay.

  • In Madagascar, farmers are cutting down forests and burning them to make way for rice cultivation.
  • The practice is traditional but now illegal because of the harm it causes to natural areas. Many species are already threatened with extinction due to forest loss.
  • With the country’s population expected to double by 2060, the pressure is likely to intensify.

SAVA REGION, Madagascar – Squatting barefoot in a field of mud on the outskirts of Marojejy National Park, easing rice seedlings from the earth, Paul Tiozen shrugged out one of Madagascar’s most pressing conundrums: how to get more rice? He looked bitter.

“Rice is the source of Malagasy life. It’s so difficult to work the rice, because we need the shovel, and water to work it. I need more land. I have a big family, so I need more. What I want is half a hectare,” he said.

Therein lies the catch. Madagascar’s population is about to boom. The International Futures center at the University of Denver estimates that by 2060 Madagascar will have close to 60 million people, up from 25.5 million today. And yet, only 1.2 million hectares of land are used for rice cultivation, a tiny proportion of the island’s total size. To feed its people, agricultural productivity must rise.

Rice farmer Paul Tiozen says he needs half a hectare of land to grow enough rice for his family, more farmland than he currently has. Photo by Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor for Mongabay.

But population growth in this largely rural and agrarian country is giving birth to a piece-by-piece land grab of plots, often in the worst possible way for the environment. In the hilly tracks off the mountain road to the town of Andapa in the country’s northeastern Sava region, one can see the plot problem written onto the sides of hills and around the corners of dirt roads. Farmers have slashed all the trees in certain areas and set fire to the land in their scramble to turn forests into fertile rice farms.

This classic application of “slash and burn” agriculture to clear mountainous areas for farming is known locally as tavy. After burning off the vegetation, farmers mix the nutrient-rich ash into the soil, which allows them to cultivate rice well. But the benefits are short-lived. Not only does tavy yield less rice than more productive and sustainable legal forms of rice farming, but it ultimately leads to nitrogen depletion in the soil. After initial cultivation, farmers must leave the plot fallow, often for more than five years, before planting rice again. Worse, the loss of trees irreversibly harms the soil. With no roots binding it, the ground erodes and fertility disappears. It creates an exhausting cycle. In time, the farmer gives up on his or her tavy patch and moves on to new land, speeding up the cycle of poverty and destruction.

An illegal tavy clearing near the city of Sambava in Madagascar’s northeastern Sava region. The remaining vegetation will be burned and the former forest converted to a farm. Tavy often causes such bad soil erosion that the land is rendered useless. Photo by Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor for Mongabay.

“They do it at the same place two or three times. So after they do it there’s no fertility in the soil. You can’t plant anything. And they move to another part of the forest. So the expansion is really bad for the protected area,” explained Manantsoa Andriatahima, a landscape manager with the international NGO World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Madagascar.

Tavy has long been illegal, but it still goes on.

Madagascar with Sava region outlined in red. Map courtesy of Google Maps.

Lost landscapes

Madagascar holds some of the most beautiful and unique landscapes on earth. The whole of tropical Africa has less than 35,000 species of plants and at least one third of them live only in Madagascar. Animal species found nowhere else on Earth find refuge in its jungles: the blue-billed helmet vanga (Euryceros prevostii), the camouflaged leaf-tail gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus), and dozens of iconic species of lemurs, to name a few.

Those species lived undisturbed until roughly 2,000 years ago. Since mankind arrived then, 90 percent of the original forest cover has gone; 40 percent of it disappeared in the last 60 years alone. While the pace of destruction has arguably slowed, Global Forest Watch found that 2016 was the second-worst year for forest loss in the last 15, with nearly 400,000 hectares cut down. Island-wide statistics on tavy are hard to come by, but scientists regard the practice as a main cause of the island’s ongoing deforestation.

For the most part, it is unprotected forests that are at risk, places outside of national parks where nature and mankind co-exist with little enforceable regulation. As those landscapes are lost, the animals in and around them become threatened: 90 percent of all lemur species on the island are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

But the hunger for rice, coupled with aggressive tavy, is pinning nature back into smaller and smaller pockets.

A lowland streaked tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus), a resident of the Sava region. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Carrot or stick?

The government has been aware of the problems with tavy for years, and has tried numerous potential solutions. It says it has invested in research, better fertilizers, and irrigation, all to improve the farming productivity of land already cleared, along with outlining a strategy to make more land available for rice cultivation.

It has also tried encouraging people to protect the forests. According to the World Bank, between 1996 and 2004, it rolled out 1,248 Community Forestry Management (CFM) units, administrative areas in which local communities manage their own forests. The idea is to give communities the right to make decisions about tracts of land and to reap the rewards from the natural resources there. Earlier pioneers of this model hoped CFM would be more popular than protected national parks, as it would allow people to continue to use local forests and, theoretically, improve their livelihoods. NGOs and government officials were tasked with making sure the areas were used in a sustainable way.

But recent reports suggest that CFM has had little success in stopping deforestation. A 2015 paper in the journal Biological Conservation could not detect an effect of CFM on the rate of deforestation in Madagascar between 2000 and 2010. In a 2015 report the World Bank noted that a confusing regulatory framework, piecemeal law enforcement, and a lack of training and resources meant that many CFM units failed.

Even around national parks, non-tavy rice paddies like this are spreading. This paddy lies just outside Marojejy National Park, where forest once stood. Photo by Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor for Mongabay.

Alongside CFM, Madagascar continues to use protected areas, which now comprise 5 percent of the island’s land, including a stunning array of national parks. These areas cannot be used or farmed by communities unless agreed with the authorities. In its recent submission [pdf] to the standing committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, aka CITES, the government highlights that in early 2017 it began hiring new Judicial Forestry Police officers to “ensure protection against illegal land clearing.”

But Arsonina Bera, director of forestry in Sava, admits that it is hard to stop local people from trespassing into protected areas to take precious natural resources.

“We are rich in forest coverage. But at this point in time, this amount is degrading time after time, day after day, because the number of people is rising,” he said. “If you apply some legislation, the people will come to you and try to create a debate with you, saying ‘Why are you doing this? Our ancestors have used wood for years? How will we live?’ ”

Bera believes that when it comes to stopping the onward march of rice, the carrot is mightier than the stick. He argues that only by engaging and winning agreement from local communities is lasting change possible. “I know the dialect. I know the people. Most of my family live here. I come from here. It is partly an education problem. Most of the people are illiterate. It’s difficult if you try to invent some technology to teach them; that would be very difficult. Better to find a solution by using the local dialect and talking to them,” he said.

Not long ago, he recounted, one of the region’s top officials wanted to send in the military to prevent people from destroying the forest for tavy. “But we stopped him,” Bera said. “We preferred to use the local member of parliament to find a community solution. If you need military or the police, it’s never going to be the best.”

Marojejy National Park, one of the country’s reknowned protected areas. Photo by Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor for Mongabay.

Addressing the root cause

That is why NGOs are increasingly turning to a development approach known as “Population, Health, and Environment” (PHE) that involves promoting conservation in tandem with improving health care and access to family planning for local communities.

“PHE is a holistic approach that reflects the interconnected challenges of poor community health, unmet family planning needs, food insecurity, environmental degradation and vulnerability to climate change,” said Laura Robson, the Antananarivo-based health-environment partnerships manager for the conservation group Blue Ventures, which helps coordinate a nationwide network of organizations that run PHE projects.

But the “P” in PHE is the most controversial of all: population. In a country with deep-rooted Christianity, Catholicism, and Islam, could the idea of sustainable family planning prove unpopular? Robson said the network’s members are committed to providing contraception to communities, but that they respect the rights of people in those communities to make their own decisions. “These PHE initiatives aren’t aiming to bring about any demographic changes but rather to allow couples to achieve their own family planning goals,” she said.

Robson claims this listen-first approach is spreading: the PHE network now involves more than 40 organizations and reaches 135,000 people across Madagascar. It is bringing about some unlikely partnerships. After communities around the Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve in Sava requested increased access to family planning services, the Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF) teamed up with the reproductive healthcare NGO Marie Stopes Madagascar. The latter brought in its trademark “Marie Stopes Ladies” to offer long-acting reversible contraceptive methods, including implants, Robson said. “At the same time LCF is engaging with communities in that area on reforestation, sustainable agriculture training, fuel-efficient stoves, ecotourism development and environmental education initiatives,” she said. The groups hope to create more value for the communities in keeping the forests alive than in burning them down for tavy.

But Madagascar may not have decades to test out approaches like PHE. Its population still looks set to boom, and its forests are fast running out.

Watch Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor’s video about tavy for China Global Television Network’s Africa Live program, which contributed travel funding to this story.

Making rice work

Upon the mountains of Marojejy, groups of men work the forested slopes, offering lemur tracking, trekking, portering, and cooking services to tourists and scientists. But all of them have one thing in common. Even first thing in the morning, there is only one thing on their breakfast menu: rice.

Franco Rajaonarison pours on spoonful after spoonful, until he has a huge, steaming mound. He’ll repeat the ritual at least two more times that day. Some communities even make drinks out of rice. By some estimates, the average Madagascan eats 140 kilograms (309 pounds) of rice each year. Consumption has more than tripled in the last 30 years, and continues to rise.

Later, down by the river, while skimming a stone across the water, he laughs. “When we were children, we believed the number of times your stones bounced off the water would reveal how many cans of rice you’d get by the end of the day,” he said. “We love rice.”

The increased need for rice will put untold pressure on Madagascar’s forests in the years ahead. Because in the next 30 years, tens of millions more Madagascans will come of age. The survival of thousands of hectares of unique rainforest and wooded areas will depend on how they get the food they need.

Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor are East Africa correspondents for the global news agency Feature Story News, based in Tanzania. Their investigations into wildlife trafficking, the ivory trade, poaching and blast fishing have been published by numerous international channels, and their work has previously been nominated for Royal Television Society and One World Media awards. Follow them on Twitter: @danielashby and @lucytaylor.

A baby silky sifaka lemur (Propithecus candidus) in Marojejy National Park. Photo by Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor for Mongabay.


Rasolofoson R.A., et al. (2015). Effectiveness of Community Forest Management at reducing deforestation in Madagascar. Biological Conservation 184: 271-277.

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