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Can land titles save Madagascar’s embattled biodiversity and people?

  • Through its Titre Vert or Green Title initiative, the Malagasy government is opening up a path to land ownership for its most vulnerable citizens in the hopes it will help tackle hunger, internal migration, and forest loss.
  • The state is using the initiative to lean on potential migrants to remain in the country’s deep south, where five years of failed rains have left 2 million people hungry, instead of migrating north, where they are often blamed for social tensions and for destroying forests.
  • This March, the Malagasy government started work on a Titre Vert enclave in the Menabe region, a popular destination for migrants from the drought-hit south, to dissuade them from clearing unique dry forests to grow crops.
  • Critics say the government is holding people back in a rain-starved region without providing enough support; in Menabe, backers of the project hope to provide ample assistance to get migrants out of the forests and onto their feet.

AGNARAFALY and MENABE, Madagascar — For Soja and his family, who escaped starvation bred by drought, the December rain hammering their corrugated metal roof should be welcome. But rains are a mixed blessing even in this parched region. The downpours turned the Agnarafaly camp for drought-stricken families into a swamp, flooding the shelters.

A flooded shelter at the Agnarafaly camp.
A flooded shelter at the Agnarafaly camp. Image by Malavika Vyawahare / Mongabay.

Agnarafaly, in the rural commune of Ifotaka, lies on the border between Anosy and Androy, two regions hit hardest by the drought gripping Madagascar’s deep south, or Grand Sud. Policymakers and experts blame internal migration from the arid south for everything from rising insecurity and social tensions to devastating forest loss in one of the planet’s most biodiverse places.

The Malagasy government established the Agnarafaly settlement under its Titre Vert, or Green Title, initiative, an attempt to find a lasting solution to a complex problem.

By providing a desperate few with the essentials­ — a roof over their heads and a slice of land to till — the government is leaning on potential migrants to remain in the south. In regions where migrants are already present in large numbers, Titre Vert settlements aim to soothe conflicts with locals and safeguard rapidly disappearing forests.

“You have sheep, goats and poultry. All your cultivation plots are equipped with drip [irrigation] systems,” Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina said, speaking at the inauguration of the Agnarafaly settlement in May 2021. “The aim is to ensure your livelihood so you will not depend on any aid but will develop your own socioeconomic capabilities.”

Livestock is not the scheme’s most attractive feature. If occupants can successfully cultivate their piece of land for five years, they become eligible for land titles. It’s a boon like no other in a country where most people share deep ties to the land but don’t enjoy legal rights to it.

Rajoelina first promoted green titles under the Madagascar Emergence Program (PEM) as a way to tackle a host of problems that plague the island nation — from unemployment to food insecurity. Titre Vert is currently being rolled out in five regions, and the government plans to extend it to other regions, tailored to local needs. The first Titre Vert project started up in Antsirabe, the capital of the Vakinankaratra region, in 2021, where youth were given provisional access to land to rear livestock or poultry.

This March, the Malagasy government started work on another Titre Vert enclave in the Menabe region, a popular migrant destination just outside the drought zone, with the support of USAID. This iteration of the Titre Vert scheme seeks to accommodate migrants instead of holding them back in their natal lands.

Is a green title the way to save Madagascar’s unparalleled biodiversity and its people?

Green title, orange village

A photo of the Agnarafaly camp model tweeted by President Andry Rajoelina
A photo of the Agnarafaly camp model tweeted by President Andry Rajoelina.


Agnarafaly camp after December rains. Image by Malavika Vyawahare/ Mongabay.

Madagascar’s south is naturally arid, but rain failures in recent years, apparently triggered by both natural shifts and human-induced climate change, are producing more persistent droughts.

For residents in the Androy, Anosy and Atsimo-Andrefana regions, the dry season drags on for 10 months a year, and the brief wet season brings less than 600 millimeters (24 inches) of rain.

Every failed rainy season is a gut punch for communities here. By the end of 2022, five years of failed rains had left more than 2 million people hungry and nearly 500,000 children acutely malnourished.

Soja’s extended family of 13, including his and his brother’s children and grandkids, came to the Ifotaka commune in 2021. They walked four hours from his native village in the Androy region, crossing the Mandrare River to the border with the Anosy region. Here, part of a group of more than 100 other families, he was given a one-room shelter in Agnarafaly.

At the camp, rows upon rows of shelters are spread across 200 hectares (500 acres). Around 160 households were living there by 2022 but the aim is to settle 2,000. Each household is allocated a land parcel of 0.1 hectares (0.25 acres), the size of two basketball courts, within the settlement. The distinctive orange color of the dwellings has earned the enclave the name Orange Village.

Soja, who is in his 40s and like many Malagasy uses one name, told Mongabay he did not consider leaving the south because it was too expensive. Others do make the journey north in search of food and work, staggered over days, weeks, sometimes months. Tolagnaro, a mining city on the eastern coast and capital of the Anosy region, and Morondava, the capital of the Menabe region, are popular destinations.

The International Organization for Migration expects the exodus from southern Madagascar to continue as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change.

Soja, extreme right, and some members of his family living at Agnarafaly camp.
Soja, extreme right, and some members of his family living at Agnarafaly camp. Image by Malavika Vyawahare/ Mongabay.

Out of control’ migration, runaway forest loss

Some estimates suggest that more than half the Menabe region’s population is already made up of migrants, but there is no up-to-date official count. The regional strategy on migration drawn up by the government warned that since 2015, when an El Niño event began exacerbating water stress and the food crisis in the south, migration from Androy has “gotten out of control.”

Menabe is home to the Menabe-Antimena Protected Area (APMA), one of the last remaining bastions of the country’s unique coastal dry forests. The government created the protected area as it exists today in 2015, covering 210,312 hectares (519,692 acres), encompassing existing forest parcels that are increasingly fragmented as green cover shrinks.


Forest cover change in Menabe-Antimena Protected Area.
Forest cover change in Menabe-Antimena Protected Area. Original maps courtesy of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Entire villages exist inside APMA. To reconcile their needs, APMA was designated a Category V protected area under the IUCN classification scheme, which means communities can live and make sustainable use of forests within the buffer zone but not in the core protected area.

But the incessant influx of migrants has made the situation untenable. With no traditional claims to land, and a heavy reliance on slash-and-burn agriculture, the migrants, both old hands and newcomers, are more dependent on the woodland than the local populations — and vulnerable to exploitation.

Maharombaka, 75, left the Androy region as a young man and spent most of his life in and around APMA. He said he moved around in search of suitable land.

“I left because of the drought in the south, but conditions are tough in Menabe too,” he told Mongabay. “There isn’t always enough to eat. I don’t eat sometimes, so my grandchildren are fed.”

Andranomena Sud village, where the septuagenarian now lives and works as a sharecropper, sits just outside Andranomena Special Reserve. The reserve forms part of the core of APMA, where no human disturbance is permitted.

Maharombaka with his grandchildren in Andranomena Sud village.
Maharombaka with his grandchildren in Andranomena Sud village. Image by Malavika Vyawahare / Mongabay.

Species, big and small, unmade by human need and greed

The dry forests of the Menabe region are some of the most unique and imperiled in the world. Around half of APMA’s green cover has vanished in the past 15 years. Forest loss spiked in 2017 in both the buffer zone and the core. In 2020 alone, 13,000 hectares (32,100 acres) of forest in the protected area disappeared. That’s an area the size of 18,000 soccer fields.

The Menabe region lies to the west, beyond the shadow of the rainfall deficits bedeviling the deep south. The soil is sandy, and rainfall is scant but sufficient to support dry deciduous vegetation.

Over millions of years, this unique ecology and Madagascar’s isolation (it is the oldest island in the world) gave rise to species with singular adaptations. Six of the world’s eight species of baobab — some of the grandest trees on the planet — are found in APMA. Some rise to 30 meters (100 feet) with girths to match. Their bottle-shaped trunks are fibrous and spongy, adapted to hold water, helping the trees survive prolonged dry spells.

Charred land inside the Menabe Antimena Protected Area.
Charred land inside the Menabe Antimena Protected Area. Image by Malavika Vyawahare / Mongabay.

Many of these majestic trees, hundreds of years old, have survived the test of time. Despite this, forest fires that flare up inside the protected area during the dry months (most of them started by humans trying to clear land) can bring down even the sturdiest of baobabs.

These forests are also home to the world’s tiniest primate, the critically endangered Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae). During the dry months, these fist-sized creatures enter a torporific state, tempering their daily activities to conserve energy. M. berthae is an endemic species, one of thousands of species found only in Madagascar. Its habitat is limited to two dry deciduous forests inside APMA: Kirindy and Ambadira.

Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur
These forests are also home to the world’s tiniest primate, the critically endangered Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae). Image courtesy of Matthias Markolf/University of Göttingen.

Recent surveys suggesting the mouse lemur’s habitat has shriveled sent further alarm bells ringing among scientists and conservationists. Primatologists are still investigating the reasons for the lemur’s retreat. These shy nocturnal mammals tend to shun forest edges. Forest degradation, dwindling food reserves, and changing predator pressure could explain their absence from former haunts.

There is more clarity on why the green cover is receding: tavy, or slash-and-burn agriculture. This cultivation method involves clearing forests with fire and planting on the cleared patch for two or three cropping seasons until the soil fertility decreases. Farmers then move on to another patch, leaving behind acres and acres of degraded landscapes.

Over the past decade, two cash crops, in particular, have come to replace the threatened dry forests: maize and peanuts.

Maharombaka grows rice, cassava, sweet potato and maize in his fields. He described a sharecropping arrangement in which he gives up half his produce in exchange for permission to till the land, but declined to share the name of the party he struck the deal with. He said he did not cultivate inside APMA’s core zone but did make charcoal from trees he felled there to survive the lean periods. Wood charcoal is used by 90% of Madagascar’s people, both in rural and urban areas, to cook. It is a mainstay of rural economies — to the detriment of forests.

A bag of charcoal ready to be sold at Andranomena Sud village in Menabe.
A bag of charcoal ready to be sold at Andranomena Sud village in Menabe. Image by Malavika Vyawahare / Mongabay.

A government report published in 2021 described a network (including unnamed elected officials) that backs agricultural expansion inside APMA and sponsors the inflow of migrants. The report found that operators who bring in people also claim a share of their produce at unfair prices.

Maize demand from La Réunion, a French overseas department that is a maritime neighbor of Madagascar, is feeding the expansion, the 2021 report noted. Peanuts are bought mainly by Chinese collectors, though their final destination is unclear.

Women shelling peanuts at Lambokely village inside Menabe Antimena Protected Area.
Women shelling peanuts at Lambokely village inside Menabe Antimena Protected Area. Image by Malavika Vyawahare / Mongabay.

Previous investigations suggest there are multiple other benefactors of this trade, both domestic and international. But efforts to trace the supply chains to their final distributors and retailers yielded scant results, with little political or social appetite to bring influential backers, shadowy intermediaries, or even downtrodden cultivators to book.

For this booming industry, uprooted communities in the south are fertile ground for recruiting labor. There are 18 major ethnicities in Madagascar that are dominant in different parts of the country. Maharombaka, like Soja, belongs to the Antandroy or Tandroy, the ethnic group dominant in the Androy region.

Tsimanova Nazaire Paubert, a political anthropologist and entrepreneur who runs a radio station in Ambovombe, Androy’s capital, said Tandroy are singled out in discussions about migration.
Tsimanova Nazaire Paubert, a political anthropologist and entrepreneur who runs a radio station in Ambovombe, Androy’s capital, said Tandroy are singled out in discussions about migration. Image by Malavika Vyawahare /Mongabay.

Tsimanova Nazaire Paubert, a political anthropologist and entrepreneur who runs a radio station in Ambovombe, Androy’s capital, said Tandroy are singled out in discussions about migration. They suffered many decades of political and economic marginalization, rooted in their long struggle to maintain autonomy from the Merina rulers of the central highlands and the French colonizers who came after.

After Madagascar’s independence in 1960, faced with recurring droughts, the Tandroy started migrating north in large numbers. In urban areas, the migrants have limited opportunities and end up in low-paying jobs as domestic workers, day laborers, or factory workers.

Migrants to the countryside face one big obstacle: access to land. To avoid conflicts, landless migrants often move into areas unclaimed by the locals. Forested areas are primarily on government land, either co-managed by communities, under direct government supervision, or managed by nonprofits. “They say, ‘This land has no owner. This is our land. We are going to cultivate here,’” Paubert said.

However, with no legal claims to the land, and finding themselves foul of the law inside protected areas, they live precarious lives.

Map showing main migration routes out of southern Madagascar. Map created by Rémy Canavesio reproduced from Stratégie Régionale De Gestion Des Migrations Région Androy 2022 – 2026.

A model with potential and problems

Throughout the country, the Malagasy state’s presence on the ground is thin. Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries when it comes to national revenues and per capita income; more than three-fourths of the population falls below the World Bank-set poverty line of $2.15 a day. Much of the road network in rural areas is unpaved and unusable in the rainy season. Most villagers don’t have access to functioning public health services, education, or grid electricity. Financial poverty is one big reason why the management of national parks and other conservation areas on the island nation is often funded by and delegated to nonstate actors.

Within Menabe-Antimena Protected Area, distinct forest parcels are managed by different organizations, including the local NGO Fanamby Association, the paragovernmental Madagascar National Parks (MNP), the environment ministry, and the international nonprofit Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

APMA managers have long wrung their hands over the migrants arriving in the thousands every year and populating villages in and around the protected area. Since 2020, there has been a concerted effort to address the challenges of internal migration, and Titre Vert is part of that.

In Menabe, the government is setting aside 6,140 hectares (15,170 acres) in Bezeky, a settlement outside the borders of the protected area, as a Titre Vert enclave. Initially, it is expected to house 500 families who currently live inside APMA’s core zone. They will each be given a shelter, livestock and 2 hectares (5 acres) of land to cultivate. The settlement is expected to open its doors to migrants in September.

USAID has offered enthusiastic support for the Menabe iteration of the Titre Vert program, given the alarming forest loss. “It provides livelihood opportunities for climate change migrants who have illegally settled inside the Menabe Protected Area,” Anne Williams, mission director of USAID Madagascar, told Mongabay on a call.It is voluntary resettlement, Williams said, adding that outreach is ongoing to encourage migrants inside the core protected area to move out.

At Bezeky, there are plans to provide a health center, a school, water for daily use, and electricity for the migrants and the 300 or so households already present there. But a lot of the effort will be directed toward supporting migrants and local communities to practice more sustainable and settled agriculture.

“If someone wants to produce corn and other crops because the markets require it, it isn’t something we can do anything about,” Williams said. “We want to make sure the maize is not being produced inside the protected area.”

A baobab tree felled by fire.
A baobab tree felled by fire. Forest fires that flare up inside the protected area during the dry months can bring down even the sturdiest of baobabs. Image by Malavika Vyawahare / Mongabay.

At the same time, USAID, through other projects in the Menabe region, is promoting crops like sorghum as an alternative to maize, which guzzles a lot of water and depletes soil quality. The agency plans to do the same in the upcoming Bezeky settlement.

This Titre Vert project could be considered successful if “the migrants and residents get along, livelihoods improve,” Williams said. “Eventually, fewer hectares of land being deforested will be the ultimate sign.

“This Titre Vert project has great potential for being a model for the rest of the country and globally, too,” she added.

But a 2022 USAID report also documented criticism of “a lack of government leadership” in tackling internal migration. The evaluation cited problems ranging from a lack of will to inadequate resources  for enforcement and corruption, noting that local and regional government officials encourage migration for their own ends.

The report found that the Titre Vert project is “not sufficient to address the scale of the region’s migration issues.”

Tackling the migration problem also presents a Faustian dilemma for the Malagasy state: can citizens be migrants in their own country? Questions about the status and treatment of people displaced by climate-linked disasters are taking on greater urgency as climate disruptions create more and more “climate refugees.”

Madagascar’s Constitution guarantees everyone “the right to move and to settle freely” in the country. “Freedom is a fundamental principle. We don’t have the right to stop them moving,” said a senior official with the local government in Morondava, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “But many newcomers end up staying and settling inside forests.”

“The logic is that when you give them land, the number of those going into the forest will decrease.”

Promises to keep

The ruins of a building bearing a banner for the World Food Programme in the drought-hit south of Madagascar.
The ruins of a building bearing a painted sign for the World Food Programme in the drought-hit south of Madagascar. Image by Malavika Vyawahare / Mongabay.

Whether Titre Vert delivers on its promises depends on follow-through, the experience in Agnarafaly shows.

Soja said the goats and chickens given to families under the scheme less than two years earlier died. “Some animals were felled by disease. Others were stolen. For this cropping season, we sold our utensils to buy seeds,” he said, crouched inside the bare-bones shelter. A few pots and pans were piled in a nook and some clothes hung in the corner on wood poles. Several family members rested on the bare floor behind Soja.

Outside, the rains had submerged the fields. Most families in the camp were dependent on food aid.

“We are going out to make charcoal and sell it so we can eat,” Soja said.

Titre Vert beneficiaries are eligible for titles to the land only if they can show productive use of it for five years and don’t cut down forests. It is unclear how or if the Malagasy government is monitoring this. The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, which is leading the green title initiative, did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

Paubert said the government is holding people back in the rain-starved region by offering the Titre Vert program without providing enough support. The Tandroy, like communities across Madagascar, are deeply attached to their ancestral lands. Many migrants Mongabay spoke to expressed a desire to return but shared a misgiving: Go back to what?

Map reproduced from United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Madagascar Humanitarian Snapshot, December 2022.

While the state can entice those seeking greener pastures with the promise of land, there is little it can do about the climatic upheaval. Cultivation in the Androy region is entirely rain-dependent, and years of drought have wreaked havoc on the local economy. Cattle, the mainstay of people’s social and economic lives, are dying in the thousands every year. Even when rains come, they don’t align with the traditional cropping cycles, adding to the precariousness of life in the region.

“My family in the south, they cannot grow anything,” said Kapaky, a 25-year-old Tandroy man living in Andranomena Sud. “We are looking for a better life, good land to cultivate to feed our families.” Both Maharombaka and Kapaky said they planned to remain in Menabe.

Kapaky, extreme right, with other migrants to Menabe from the Androy region.
Kapaky, extreme right, with other migrants to Menabe from the Androy region. Image by Malavika Vyawahare / Mongabay.

Kapaky visited his relatives in Androy in 2022, and it only strengthened his resolve to stay. “For us, it is difficult, but for them, it is much worse,” he said.

Soja at Agnarafaly said he was also grateful for the refuge. “We will not go back. It’s worse there,” he said of his drought-afflicted ancestral lands across the river. “We want to thank Andry Rajoelina,” he said. “The problem is when it floods, there is no place to sleep.”

Banner image: Villagers traverse the Baobab Avenue on their way to work in the fields. Image by Malavika Vyawahare/ Mongabay.

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