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Illegal corn farming menaces a Madagascar protected area

Just a few baobab trees remain standing in a part of the Menabe Antimena Protected Area near Kirindy village that was forested a few years ago. Image by Pierre Koval.

Just a few baobab trees remain standing in a part of the Menabe Antimena Protected Area near Kirindy village that was forested a few years ago. Image by Pierre Koval.

  • Deforestation within Menabe Antimena Protected Area, a large swath of unique dry forest ecosystem on Madagascar’s west coast, has increased dramatically in recent years.
  • Slash-and-burn agriculture is the primary driver. Unlike in most places in Madagascar, it isn’t done for subsistence farming but to plant corn, a cash crop traded by a powerful local elite.
  • Conservation groups have teamed up to organize raids that have resulted in a number of arrests, and are making inroads into the corn distribution networks.
  • So far, however, only impoverished laborers have been held to account, many of them new arrivals to the area who have fled drought in southern Madagascar; none of the well-connected backers of the deforestation have been touched.

MENABE, Madagascar — As the plane starts its descent toward Morondava, a city on Madagascar’s west coast, it crosses the Tsiribihina River. From here, almost all the way to Morondava 70 kilometers (44 miles) to the south, stretches the Menabe Antimena Protected Area, 2,100 square kilometers (812 square miles) of protected dry forest mixed with human activity.

I count 13 forest fires from my window, and another handful as we move into the protected area. As the plane descends further, the air suddenly thickens with smoke. For a few minutes, it’s a white-out. The flight steward confirms it is atmospheric pollution from the fires that have been raging for the past few months.

Slash-and-burn clearing, whereby existing vegetation is cut down and torched before crops are sown, is widely practiced in Madagascar. July to November is peak season for fires as people prepare land for the December-to-March rainy season. In Menabe Antimena, however, slash-and-burn isn’t done for subsistence farming but to plant corn, a cash crop traded by a powerful local elite.

Corn sprouts at an illegal plantation inside Menabe Antimena’s core conservation zone. Image courtesy of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Corn needs very rich soil, which makes recently burnt forest the ideal ground. Volahy Anselme Toto, director of the Menabe program at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, explained how it works: a farmer burns a patch of forest and grows corn the first year; after harvest, the farmer burns the patch again and grows corn for a second season, but with lower yields; the third year, the farmer moves to a new patch for corn and uses the old patch to plant peanuts, another cash crop but one that tolerates poorer soils. After a couple of peanut harvests, the farmer abandons the land.

As a result, deforestation within Menabe Antimena has increased dramatically. Between 2000 and 2009, deforestation was around 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) per year; by 2014, it was 4,000 hectares per year. At that rate, Durrell forecasted [pdf] that one-third of the forest would be lost by 2020. 2017 and 2018 were catastrophic, however, with a record number of fires, and Durrell now predicts the loss could be as high as 44.9 percent in 2020 and 83.1 percent by 2025.

Map shows forest loss inside the Menabe Antimena Protected Area in 2009 (click here to enlarge). Image courtesy of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Maps show forest loss inside the Menabe Antimena Protected Area in 2017 (click here to enlarge). Image courtesy of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Map shows a forecast of how much forest could be lost by 2020 (click here to enlarge). Images courtesy of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Raids and arrests

Like many biomes across Madagascar, the dry forest of Menabe Antimena is unique. It is one of the last blocks of its type, with high levels of biodiversity and many of its species regionally endemic and threatened. Two animal species are even endemic to the protected area: the Malagasy giant jumping rat (Hypogeomys antimena) and the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae), both listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Durrell, headquartered in Jersey in the English Channel, has been working on the conservation of key species in this part of Madagascar since 1997 and was instrumental in the creation of the protected area in 2006. Faced with the unprecedented level of destruction, the organization decided to act in 2017. “We thought, ‘If we do nothing, in five years’ time, there will be nothing left to protect,’” Toto told Mongabay.

A Malagasy giant jumping rat (Hypogeomys antimena). The species is found only in the Menabe Antimena Protected Area. Photo courtesy of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Durrell joined forces with Fanamby, the Malagasy organization in charge of the protected area, and local authorities. The partners obtained funding from the U.S.-based World Resources Institute (WRI) to monitor forest loss and organize raids in strict conservation zones to catch illegal deforesters and destroy their camps.

The raids have had some success: they’ve resulted in the arrests of more than 40 people since starting in 2017. Some were acquitted but the majority got prison sentences of three months to two years, and fines ranging from $55 to $1,400.

Cynthia Raveloson, interim director of the Menabe area’s regional directorate of the environment ministry (DREEF), said the crackdown is symbolic. “The deforesters, they’re petty criminals,” she said. “They will never be able to pay a $55 fine. Arrests won’t be effective until we catch the masterminds.”

A fire burns, clearing forest to make way for corn farming, inside a strict conservation zone in Menabe Antimena Protected Area. Image courtesy of Fanamby.

Migrants fleeing drought ‘deforest to survive’

The arrests have allowed the authorities to unpick the corn business and who is really behind it. All the people arrested are migrants from Androy, the drought-stricken southernmost region of Madagascar. Although there has historically always been migration from Androy to western Madagascar, the flow increased dramatically in the last few years, driven by the desperate situation in the south and the promise of a quick buck in Menabe.

Lambokely, a sprawling village at the heart of the protected area, perfectly illustrates the situation. In 2001, there were 64 people in the village; in 2018, the population had swollen to an estimated 20,000, although no one knows for sure because migrants don’t register with local officials. Just 500 people there were registered to vote in the presidential elections that took place in late 2018.

The village lies amid a desolate landscape of barren earth and scorched trees, the only visible forest that of the strict conservation zone on the horizon to the northeast. Zafimamy, the vice president of the village association, himself an Antandroy (person from Androy), said that problems started five years ago when arable land ran out. “People come to cultivate; in the past, they came because they knew someone who had a plot they could share,” he said. “Now there isn’t enough land anymore; it’s understandable that people deforest to survive.”

The burned remains of a former forest stretch to the horizon near Lambokely village. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.

Anthonio Rafiringa, a development and conservation manager at Fanamby, said Antandroy are renowned for being hard workers, which is why so many end up as labor for hire. They’re also unsentimental about the forest. “There is no forest where they come from,” he said. “They think: ‘there is plenty here, it’s not this little patch that’s going to make a difference.’”

The system is well organized. Deforesters are paid 50,000 Malagasy ariary (about $14) per deforested hectare. They live in very basic shelters, deep inside strict conservation zones, and usually head back home to Androy at the end of the season. Traders sometimes even pay for the migrants’ travel from the south. Many also cultivate corn on the fringes of Menabe’s three strict conservation zones, with seeds provided by the traders; although cattle grazing is allowed in these areas, cultivation isn’t. “Migrants have become the workforce of deforestation,” Raveloson said.

An aerial survey carried out in November 2018 by the NGO World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which works to conserve mangroves in Menabe Antimena, shows that the rate of deforestation is much higher within the strict conservation zones than in the rest of the protected area, especially the area north of Lambokely. “It is clear communities prefer to go straight to the strict conservation zone without fear of repercussion,” the report concluded.

Deforested land north of Lambokely village. The area was once part of a strict conservation zone in Menabe Antimena Protected Area, but has since been downgraded. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.

Bribery and threats

In total, DREEF, Durrell and Fanamby have identified around 20 traders who are actively supporting and directly benefiting from corn grown within the protected area. “They are all elected representatives and notables,” said Raveloson.

The Antandroy have strong solidarity ties, and Fanamby staff suspect that long-established communities are helping, or at least condoning, the new arrivals pitching up in the forest. They think that some village patrols — local groups set up to report illegal activities, which Rafiringa called “our eyes and ears in the forest” — have been bribed by illegal deforesters. “We don’t know who to trust anymore,” he said.

One forest guard, whom Mongabay is not naming in order to protect his safety, said that during a raid near Kirindy village, a deforester was caught but the raid team was then set upon by the local community. “First, they offered us a bribe; then they intimidated us,” he said. “The military just wanted to accept the bribe; people in this area are armed.”

Illegally-cut logs seized in the protected area sit at the office of the environment ministry’s regional directorate in the city of Morondava. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.

The situation is similar to one brewing in Bongolava Forest Corridor in the country’s northwest,where corn farming has overwhelmed a poorly resourced protected area. Last June, armed  farmers, angry over the arrests of people for illegally clearing forest, destroyed the offices of the nonprofit that manages the protected area and the homes of the group’s coordinator and a local government administrator.

The raids in Menabe Antimenahave ruffled powerful feathers. The forest guard said he and his colleagues have received death threats. They’ve also come across shrines designed to intimidate them. But he was defiant. “I am not scared; the law should be applied to everyone,” he said. “We need to secure the forest and show it’s protected. At the same time, there should be activities that create employment for the community.”

At its heart, the problem of Menabe Antimena is one of poverty and development: the forest is the last resort for people who have nothing else. “People are not in a place where they can listen,” said Raveloson, adding that efforts to explain that deforestation risks bringing on drought, are no longer effective.

“In Madagascar we have a saying: ‘Better to die tomorrow than today.’ For them, it’s better to earn 50,000 ariary today, no matter how,” she said.

Toto explained that when the region’s two largest employers — sugar factory Sucoma and prawn farm Aquamen — shut down in the mid-2010s, thousands of people lost their jobs. Local rice production has also struggled, a combination of growing water scarcity and irrigation infrastructure falling into disrepair. “All these people ended in the forest,” he said.

Workers rest at an Illegal camp inside the protected area’s core conservation zone. Image courtesy of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

A holistic approach

Fanamby and Durrell have also tried to put pressure on corn buyers. Although the supply chain is opaque and complex, with multiple buyers, the main markets for Menabe Antimena’s corn are thought to be animal-feed producers and the brewing industry.

STAR, the national brewer, which is owned by the French beverage company Castel, denied any involvement in an email. In response to queries from Fanamby, STAR pointed out that it buys its corn from suppliers in the city of Antsirabe and town of Miandrivazo, outside of the protected area.

Tiana Andriamanana, Fanamby’s executive director, said her group is working with STAR to identify all the players in the supply chain. “We need proofs before we can accuse,” she said. “We want to work with STAR so that they can help us replant in Menabe Antimena and also raise awareness amongst their suppliers.”

Members of a village patrol, equipped with smartphones to log incidents of deforestation. Image courtesy of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

After years of overlooking the situation in Menabe Antimena, top government officials are finally taking notice. On Dec. 7, Prime Minister Christian Ntsay met with conservation organizations and members of the government to discuss the protected area. Following the meeting, the prime minister approved a large-scale raid to crack down on illegal plantations in strict conservation zones. Eighty armed personnel took part, resulting in three arrests and the destruction of illegal corn plantations and camps.

The prime minister also asked Fanamby to press charge against the 20 high-level perpetrators identified by DREEF, Durrell and Fanamby. Given the sensitivity of the names on the list, however, Andriamanana said the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, which oversees protected areas and is the legal owner of the land, should be the one to do so.

Richard Lewis, director of Durrell’s Madagascar program, cautiously welcomed these developments. “We feel a bit ‘Cassandra’ about it: we’ve been shouting about this for two years and by the time everyone got into gear, [the fire season] was over,” he said. “But the fact that it ended up in the prime minister’s office, that has got to be a good thing.”

Law enforcement has been a difficult choice for Durrell. “We are so far out of our comfort zone,” he said. “[The raids] have been a real moral dilemma for us. These are poor people.”

In the short term, Durrell and Fanamby plan to carry on securing Menabe Antimena’s strict conservation zones, and Durrell staff are keen to start replanting deforested areas. Lewis said it’s also essential that they plan now how they will tackle the next fire season, which will start in July. Stakeholders including Durrell, DREEF, Fanamby and other NGOs active in the protected area also agree that institutional reforms are required to improve coordination between partners.

Deforestation inside a strict conservation zone in the Menabe Antimena Protected Area. Image courtesy of Fanamby.

In the medium term, the focus will be developing economic alternatives for local communities. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is about to roll out a five-year program called Mikajy that will focus on fire management, conservation management and developing agriculture. This will not only bring a welcome cash injection to the protected area, but also the political clout of an important donor.

Andriamanana added that a holistic strategy to address migration is essential, too. “People say they want to stay, and we have no problem with that,” she said. “We have started mapping potential agricultural areas [within the protected area] but that means people will have to relocate.”

This is where input from authorities such as the Ministry of Population and the Ministry of Land Planning, Housing and Public Works will be crucial, she said. The government must also do more to promote development in the south to stem the flow of migrants.

Back in the forest, however, the forest guard said that dealing with the corrupt local elite is urgent. “[They] are affirming their power and I am concerned that they will lobby the new president to protect them,” he said, referring to Andry Rajoelina, who was recently inaugurated on a pro-development platform. A group of high-profile conservationists published a letter today in the journal Science urging him to uphold the rule of law.

“Even if we arrest everyone in the forest, they’ll just get more people from Androy,” the forest guard said. “The solution is to stop people at the top.”

Banner image: Just a few baobab trees remain standing in a part of the Menabe Antimena Protected Area near Kirindy village that was forested a few years ago. Image by Pierre Koval.

Emilie Filou is a freelance journalist specializing in business and development issues in Africa. She tweets at @EmilieFilou.

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