- In Madagascar, the August-to-December bushfire season wreaks havoc on the southwest and west of the island.
- Dry Forest, a young Malagasy NGO, is attempting an extreme form of reforestation to save the forest in Kirindy Mite National Park.
- In addition to the bushfires, the NGO faces many other challenges linked to local poverty.
BELO-SUR-MER, Madagascar — The situation was dire in Kirindy Mite National Park during a visit in November 2022. The previous year, a huge tract of forest had been ravaged by fire and was struggling to recover; towering baobabs were still standing, charred and leafless. And just the month before, fires also burned 45,000 young trees planted across 60 hectares (148 acres) in another part of the park, reducing to ash all the work of the NGO Dry Forest’s first reforestation campaign, of 2020-2021.
“It took almost 15 days to completely put out the fire there!” said Hamill Harrisson, referring to the most recent fire. Harrisson is Dry Forest’s executive director and a native of Belo-Sur-Mer, a rural commune in western Madagascar near the park, where the NGO is headquartered.
“We helped put out the fire at the time; a lot of different kinds of animals perished in the fire,” Armand, a salt harvester in the village of Antsira in Belo-Sur-Mer who has planted trees with the NGO, said with sadness. (Like many Malagasy people, Armand uses a single name.)
A small, isolated commune that looks like paradise, Belo-Sur-Mer is located 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the town of Morondava. Residents watch as one of their greatest treasures, the forest of Kirindy Mite National Park, gradually goes up in smoke year after year.“It was a huge forest before and look how they’ve destroyed it!” said Paul Zafy, a man in his 60s living in Antsira, the salt village, who also plants trees with Dry Forest.
To deal with this accelerated biodiversity loss, Dry Forest, a Malagasy NGO launched in 2019, aims to revive the burnt areas of Kirindy Mite’s forest from its cinders. It’s a tropical dry deciduous forest ecosystem typical of the Menabe region, and is home to endemic and critically endangered animal species, such as Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae) and the red-tailed lemur (Lepilemur ruficaudatus).
Kirindy Mite National Park spans approximately 120,000 hectares (297,000 acres). Between 2001 and 2020, the park lost about 19,000 hectares (46,950 acres) of forest cover, nearly three-quarters of it due to uncontrolled fires, according to Global Forest Watch. Dry Forest aims above all to save baobab trees (genus Adansonia), of which six species are endemic to Madagascar and three are in danger of extinction. These trees are significant in Malagasy culture due to their unusual, almost supernatural appearance, as if they have been planted upside down.
You might call the attempt to restore the deforested parts of Kirindy Mite a kind of extreme reforestation, so great are the challenges: In addition to fires, Dry Forest is also contending with local poverty, land clearing, illegal logging, cattle destroying the young trees, and an influx of migrants from the south putting increased pressure on scarce resources.
An area plagued with difficulties
In the peninsula of Belo-Sur-Mer, just outside the park’s boundaries, sits the rural commune’s main village of the same name, where Dry Forest’s headquarters are located. During the rainy season, the village is nearly cut off from the rest of the country, but it has always adapted.
Most residents make a living from constructing and selling dhow boats. In recent years, however, the rural commune has become extremely impoverished, creating a vicious circle obliging communities to exploit the forests more and more. According to Harrisson, in good times, the most vulnerable people in Belo-Sur-Mer earn only 5,000 to 10,000 ariary (around $1 to $2) a day from their small businesses of fishing, hunting and woodcutting.
In villages outside the park, people practice shifting agriculture, growing maize and root vegetables. In Madagascar, each year the agricultural season is preceded by a bushfire season (from August to December). Many farmers use fire to prepare their fields. Sometimes the fires get out of control and have dramatic consequences for the forests and wild animals living there.
During the 2022 fire season, the island nation recorded a large number of fire alerts: 186,884 between early August and late December, according to Global Forest Watch. The most significant outbreaks were around mid-October and impacted several protected areas and reforestation areas. The most intense fires were observed on the west and southwest side of the island, not far from Kirindy Mite.
Despite these figures, bushfires are far from the leading cause of deforestation for the island as a whole. Global Forest Watch estimates that in 2021, Madagascar lost 235,000 hectares (580,700 acres) of forest cover, 97% of it due to shifting agriculture.
The forests of the Menabe region and their baobabs have been facing increasing threats for decades, leaving little room for hope. The situation in Menabe Antimena, a protected area about 100 km (60 mi) north of Kirindy Mite, is critical. This forest could disappear entirely by 2050 if the current rate of deforestation for agriculture continues, according to a scientific study.
A three-phase plan
In this alarming context, Dry Forest’s main objective is to restore the deforested areas of Kirindy Mite forest. It’s a difficult goal, but Jérémy Ranjatoelina, president and co-founder of the NGO, said he’s committed to fighting for future generations. “One day I can tell my children: at least I tried,” he said.
To achieve this, Dry Forest is following a three-phase plan. The first phase concerns the restoration of Kirindy Mite’s forest ecosystem. The NGO finances this reforestation through a sponsorship system: for every $4.50 donated, Dry Forest plants, with help from paid volunteer villagers, one baobab and five other indigenous trees. It also distributes useful tree species to residents living outside the national park.
To grow the trees, Dry Forest maintains three nurseries with a combined capacity of 100,000 saplings per year. Including the nursery workers, the NGO now has eight employees. During its last campaign, in 2021-2022, the NGO planted 64,000 indigenous trees (including 2,600 baobabs) inside the park’s forest. It also planted 20,000 useful exotic and fruit trees in village zones and donated 10,000 trees to local residents.
The NGO plants only native trees in the national park, with an estimated survival rate of 35%. This figure excludes the area restored in the 2020-2021 campaign, where the October 2022 fire eradicated the 45,000 young trees. After this setback, the NGO decided to focus on a single reforestation area, the one it planted during the 2021-2022 campaign.
In its nurseries, Dry Forest plants the three species of baobabs native to the Kirindy Mite forest: the giant baobab (Adansonia grandidieri), the za baobab (A. za) and the fony baobab (A. rubrostipa), which is endemic to the southwest and west of the island. The NGO also managed to germinate three Perrier’s baobabs (A. perrieri), the rarest baobab species in the world, native to northern Madagascar.
The second phase of Dry Forest’s plan involves guarding areas restored by the communities; the NGO implemented it in April 2023. Ranjatoelina proudly announced that they’d secured the funding necessary for this phase, something to celebrate after all the NGO’s setbacks. This phase will include more careful monitoring of the reforestation area, as well as technical monitoring of results such as growth rates and sequestered carbon.
The plan’s third phase is a program to promote non-timber forest products, but this hasn’t started yet. The NGO plans to target baobab fruit, which is considered a “superfood” and would command high prices in both the domestic and export markets. The aim is to fight poverty within local communities: Instead of being excluded from the park, communities would have free access to non-timber products as an economic alternative. Ranjatoelina said this conservation strategy, although common elsewhere, is new to Belo-Sur-Mer.
The synergy of these three phases will be the key to Dry Forest’s success if they come to fruition, according to Ranjatoelina, as they involve working extensively with local communities (another strategy he said is new in the region).
“There isn’t really a motivation for conservation on the community side,” Ranjatoelina said.
He said he’s counting on the idea that integrating local people into tree-planting programs and giving them a source of income will encourage them to protect the forest, because they’ll be able to take pride in it. The NGO, whose staff — apart from the administrative volunteers — are all from the local area, also carries out social actions to encourage locals not to cut down trees.
According to Dry Forest’s field agents, the reforestation season is a big event for local people, with a party and banquet when men return from the forest after several days preparing the area and planting trees. The NGO has also built wells and a community playground for the Belo-Sur-Mer public primary school.
Restoring a delicate ecosystem
Dry Forest plants each baobab alongside other indigenous trees, such as Cordyla madagascariensis (anakaraka in Malagasy) and Cedrelopsis grevei (katrafay). This technique aims to reproduce the original ecosystem, while promoting competition between species to encourage their growth.
Studies from other countries have also shown that associations of native trees have more carbon sequestration capacity than those of non-native trees. Yet many reforestation projects in Madagascar favor the exotic acacia because it grows fast and quickly provides local people with useful wood.
Dry Forest’s planting methods are based on scientific documentation but above all on Indigenous knowledge. According to Ranjatoelina, local communities know planting techniques undocumented by scientists, such as which soils best suit each tree species.
Dry Forest uses the most popular planting method of spacing trees about 1 meter (3 feet) apart. Onja Hariveloniaina Razanamaro, a University of Antananarivo researcher specializing in baobabs, also suggested planting fast-growing native species (known as pioneer species) on the edge of the restoration area, to protect the most fragile and slow-growing native species from fires and other severe conditions.
Although the NGO aims to avoid introducing new species to the forest by only planting non-native trees in village areas, this can be risky. The Kirindy Mite forest ecosystem is so delicate that planting exotic species (such as acacia) too close to forests, even in village areas, could harm it, according to Razanamaro.
“It’s dangerous because acacia trees absorb a lot of water,” Razanamaro said. According to her, native Malagasy species are fragile and can’t compete with this kind of species: Acacia melanoxylon is on the IUCN list of the world’s 100 most invasive species.
Dry Forest mistakenly planted two A. melanoxylon saplings in the reforestation zone during the 2020-2021 campaign. Both trees thrived and grew almost 2 ms (6.5 ft) tall in just a few months. In comparison, young baobabs planted at the same time were between 30 and 60 centimeters (1 and 2 ft). The NGO removed the two exotic saplings and readjusted its reforestation protocol to avoid the making same mistake again.
A future full of pitfalls
Bushfires are one of Dry Forest’s biggest challenges. Although the baobabs’ incredible ability to regenerate allows them to withstand annual fires for 15 years in a row, they need to reach a certain age before acquiring this ability.
“Fire management is a major vulnerability that discourages many institutions,” Razanamaro said. In January 2023, the Belgian reforestation NGO Graine de Vie, one of the most active NGOs in Madagascar, announced a sharp reduction in its activities due to fires and the alleged incompetence of the Malagasy authorities to control them effectively.
According to Belo-Sur-Mer locals, fires are caused by both farmers practicing slash-and-burn agriculture as well as herders camping with their zebu cattle and lighting fires at night. Historically, Belo-Sur-Mer natives didn’t typically practice slash-and-burn agriculture, as their livelihoods were based on fishing and boat construction. The practice would have been introduced by immigrating ethnic groups and is exacerbated today by migrants from the south fleeing aridity and famine in their native lands.
Even so, Dry Forest’s nursery workers, who grew up in Belo-Sur-Mer, said they’re used to seeing forest fires in the region and that the fire in the NGO’s reforestation area is no reason to be discouraged.
But the challenges don’t end there. Acts of vandalism and illegal logging have appeared in the Dry Forest reforestation area. Young plants were dug up along with their soil sheaths, while trees dozens of meters tall, or up to 40 ft, were found freshly felled with an axe. On site, one can see illegal operators transporting wood from inside the park and fleeing at the first sight of cars, presumably fearing the park’s eco-guards.
The zebus, introduced illegally into the park, also cause damage by trampling the saplings or grazing on their leaves. Fresh zebu tracks can be spotted near the young baobabs. Zebus can also spread the seeds of invasive species in their droppings. Harrisson said zebus introduced Catharanthus roseus, a herbaceous plant that’s non-native in Kirindy Mite yet grows throughout the Dry Forest restoration area.
“We’d like to go and monitor the reforestation area ourselves, but if we go there, we’ll be turned away,” said Zafy, the sexagenarian from Antsira. Before the second phase of Dry Forest’s plan was implemented, only employees of Madagascar National Parks, the quasi-governmental agency that manages the park, had permission to enter it without special authorization. However, you rarely see security guards there, according to Zafy.
The issue of land tenure security is also a big challenge for locals planting trees with Dry Forest. The limits between village zones and the park aren’t clearly demarcated, and locals sometimes don’t have the right to plant in certain zones.
However, few of the trees planted on their land survive, as most of the village land is too salty and arid. As a result, it’s very difficult to convince locals to stop exploiting the forests, which are an important source of income.
“Biodiversity is a real asset, but you can’t really live off it, it doesn’t feed you,” says Linjasoa Nantenaina Rakotomalala, technical adviser on landscaping and forests at the NGO INDRI, which has published a reforestation guide with the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development.
“When the rainy season comes, our activity stops and it’s very difficult to survive,” said Armand, the Antsira salt harvester.
When the rain submerges the salt marshes of Antsira, his whole village is forced to abandon the salt harvest and rely on other activities. For the moment, their only option is to continue cutting into what remains of the forest.
Between bushfires, illegal logging and local poverty, the future of Dry Forest and the safeguarding of Kirindy Mite are uncertain. Despite these challenges, Dry Forest staff remain upbeat and maintain a firm belief that their project will succeed thanks to a strong will.
“We believe very much in determination and in taking small steps every day, in fighting small battles and winning small victories daily, to try to advance toward a greater cause or objectives that are bigger than us,” Ranjatoelina said.
Banner image: L’Allee des Baobabs, or the Avenue of Baobabs, a famous spot outside Morondava, the nearest town to Belo-Sur-Mer. Image by Nirina Rakotonanahary for Mongabay.
Zinner, D., Wygoda, C., Razafimanantsoa, L., Rasoloarison, R., T. Andrianandrasana, H., Ganzhorn, J. U., & Torkler, F. (2013). Analysis of deforestation patterns in the central Menabe, Madagascar, between 1973 and 2010. Regional Environmental Change, 14(1), 157-166. doi:10.1007/s10113-013-0475-x
Longley-Wood, K., Engels, M., Lafferty, K. D., McLaughlin, J. P., & Wegmann, A. (2022). Transforming Palmyra Atoll to native-tree dominance will increase net carbon storage and reduce dissolved organic carbon reef runoff. PLOS ONE, 17(1), e0262621. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0262621