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Reforesting Madagascar’s Highlands: A (Poetic) Lesson From Nature

A scorched hillside (with an existing, older lavaka in the middle) from an intentional forest fire. Photo: Alizé Carrère

A scorched hillside (with an existing, older lavaka in the middle) from an intentional forest fire. Photo: Alizé Carrère

National Geographic Young Explorer Alizé Carrère is researching an innovative method of agricultural adaptation in the Malagasy highlands that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as “lavaka”, literally meaning “hole”, they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic benefits, turning a deforested landscape into one of opportunity, not hardship.

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Deforestation is old news in Madagascar. So, too, is its classic solution, reforestation.

For decades, Madagascar has been the recipient of millions of aid dollars and countless multi-national projects that aim to reduce the wide scale deforestation across the island. The reasons for this unfortunate legacy are myriad, but some of the most commonly sited are the burning of trees to make way for flat crop lands, the belief that slash and burn agriculture returns nutrients to the soil, and the common practice of doro-tanety, the vast burning of hillsides before the rainy season to promote the growth of fresh grass sprouts preferred by grazing cattle.

Small grass sprouts emerge from the ashes of a recently burned hillside. This is the traditional practice of doro-tanetry, the expansive burning of shrubbery prior to the rainy season to promote the growth of young, green grass sprouts for grazing zebu. Photo: Alizé Carrère

Small grass sprouts emerge from the ashes of a recently burned hillside. This is the traditional practice of doro-tanetry, the expansive burning of shrubbery prior to the rainy season to promote the growth of young, green grass sprouts for grazing zebu. Photo: Alizé Carrère

Several agricultural fires ablaze at once in the severely degraded region of Alaotra-Mangoro. Photo: Alizé Carrère

Several agricultural fires ablaze at once in the severely degraded region of Alaotra-Mangoro. Photo: Alizé Carrère

Over the years, reforestation efforts across the country have been met with varied success. This is also due to a number of different reasons, but as is commonly seen in impoverished agricultural areas, solutions that put food on the dinner plate tonight are far more important than those that protect invisible atmospheric layers for a future they may never come to know. Because successful reforestation typically requires time scales conducive to the latter mentality, it’s perhaps not too surprising that these good intentions haven’t all seen the fruits of success.

So the challenge remains. Deforestation and bush fires are still frequent practice, which also further provoke the formation of lavaka.

However, in my last few weeks of field work, I have begun to witness a unique form of natural, and comparatively rapid, reforestation that has captured the attention of farmers across the highlands – and which may offer an important contribution to greater reforestation discourse in Madagascar.

As mentioned in a previous post, lavaka are often re-colonized by natural tree growth processes. When rain makes landfall at higher elevations, it has a natural tendency to follow the crevices of lavaka as it works its way down to valley floors. In the process, seeds, branches, and other forest debris are carried along for the ride, which get deposited in the nooks and crannies on the interior façade of a lavaka.

As farmers have been quick to notice, those seedlings then enjoy a rather healthy existence there in the lavaka. Not only are they protected from the elements, but they receive an abundant supply of water and a consistent replenishment of soil nutrients. As one farmer aptly pointed out, it’s as if the lavaka creates its own mini, self-sustaining forest ecosystem: as the trees inside the lavaka grow and shed their leaves, everything tumbles to the bottom, decomposes, and re-fertilizes the soil cradled within, further enriching the saplings. Because there is then an increasing competition for light, the trees have a tendency to grow much faster and turn out considerably more robust than their exteriorly located counterparts.

Visibly healthier and more robust trees occupying a lavaka. Photo: Alizé Carrère

Visibly healthier and more robust trees occupying a lavaka. Photo: Alizé Carrère

One farmer told me, “We call it the lazy farmer’s work! You don’t have to do much, and the trees turn out much better than others outside the lavaka”.

Farmers have said that in addition to stabilizing the lavaka and helping slow erosion, a dense collection of trees provides an important source of revenue in the way of forest products. Farmers I spoke to greatly encourage and respect tree growth processes taking place in lavaka, sometimes planting their own among those that arrived naturally.

As a result, it is not at all uncommon to see a heavily deforested hillside with hardly a single tree in sight, and then a mature lavaka right in the middle of the barren landscape with lots of thick, lush trees pushing out of it. It can be quite a spectacular sight.

A smaller, older lavaka abundantly populated with trees. Photo: Alizé Carrère

A smaller, older lavaka abundantly populated with trees. Photo: Alizé Carrère

Healthy trees spring out of a lavaka. Photo: Alizé Carrère

Healthy trees spring out of a lavaka. Photo: Alizé Carrère

I find this all remarkably poetic. It’s as if nature has a way of tending to its gravest of wounds first, the rawest and most gaping of cuts on earth’s skin. Much like a scab, the trees and vegetation take over the fresh lavaka, seal and protect the exposed land, and then create a new layer over time. Most importantly, the advantages of this process seem attainable and worthy enough to farmers that they give the proper time and maintenance it needs to successfully manifest.

That’s not to say that the rest of the landscape should be ignored. But reforestation is a lengthy process, and I find a great deal of sense in adopting new approaches that start by incorporating some of these restorative trends on the ground – particularly those produced by Mother Nature herself.

NEXTThe Bitter And The Sweet: Finding Opportunity in the Life Cycle of Erosion

Comments

  1. Marie Noelle Keijzer
    Belgique
    December 15, 2013, 12:57 am

    As Steve Fitch just mentioned, it is possible to do a good job in Madagascar, WeForest together with Eden Reforestation Projects and with Graine de Vie are proving it in different parts of the country. Thank you for sharing this very interesting document and wonderful photos. We need everyone’s support to restore this planet and halt global warming!

  2. Susan Dingle
    Eastern Long Island, NY
    December 11, 2013, 8:53 pm

    Thank you for sharing the story and seeing the poetry of it. The unintentional benefit that may come out of harm done is beautifully illustrated here. Best wishes to you on your continued journey.

  3. worlddemocracy
    USA
    December 9, 2013, 5:26 am

    Madagascar need to be more careful in the deforestation drive.
    The Agricultural Specialists need to paly a more vital role in teaching and education the people of this nation the best practices in Agriculture.
    This cannot achieve overnight but with some time this beautiful land can recuperate its beauty.
    Also the richer country need to help in the economic crisis and stop pay money on consultation fees rather than the people receiving the money they deserve.

  4. Tom
    Ithaca, NY
    December 8, 2013, 7:23 pm

    I am up to date and look forward to what comes next in your exploration of the natural reforestation of the lavaka. Thank you for sharing this new perspective on the workings of nature and how we humans can learn from what unfolds. Is it possible that other massive natural events in the distant past replicate what you now see as the outcome of deforestation?

  5. Jamie Newman
    Brooklyn, NY
    December 8, 2013, 1:04 pm

    Very cool story!

  6. Steve Fitch
    California and Madagascar
    December 7, 2013, 6:45 pm

    The natural regeneration within the lavakas are great, but there is more occurring. For the past six years Eden Reforestation Projects has been quietly reforesting Madagascar. Eden now plants over 1.4 million mangrove trees every month in Mad, and last year we initiated opened four dry deciduous seedling nurseries. It is a modest start, but 300,000 dry decidous seedlings will be planted this year along with central west coast. It can be done. It is being done.