MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — Many may know Madagascar as an animal paradise popularized by the movie franchise of the same name. However, the country is also home to more than 27 million people, most of whom live in extreme poverty. Roughly 75% of the country lives on less than $1.90 a day. Uncontrolled deforestation adds to the decrepit conditions, but a monumental new agreement between Madagascar and the World Bank may be key to reversing years of dwindling rainforests and persistent poverty.
Madagascar faces a double-headed crisis. Its environmental standing is currently very bleak as the significant farmer population burns 80-90% of the country’s land area every year in an agricultural practice called “tavy.” This method entails cutting and burning a portion of the forest, planting rice among the remains, then leaving the forest to regrow with the nutrients used for fertilizer stored in the tree trunks and foliage.
Tavy farming is effective when farmers can leave enough time for regrowth, but Madagascar’s increasing population forces farmers to return quickly, which exhausts the soil and leaves fewer trees and seeds to restore the forest. As a result of decades of tavy farming in a rapidly growing population, only 10% of Madagascar’s forests remain intact with 1-2% of forests destroyed every year.
The environmental implications are bad enough, but the deforestation problem is affecting Madagascar’s population as well. About 80% of the country’s residents are subsistence farmers, meaning they mostly survive solely off of what they can muster from the forests. Already one of the most impoverished nations in the world, extreme poverty in Madagascar affects more than 75% of the population. Living conditions are only worsening every year as fewer food-providing forests remain.
In early February 2021, Madagascar signed an agreement with the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), which grants the country up to $50 million through 2024 for efforts to turn the environmental situation around. The plan seeks to reduce emissions from deforestation, conserve forest carbon stocks and promote sustainable forest management by improving soil quality and preserving water resources on the rainforest-dense eastern coast. With a multifaceted approach to Madagascar’s environmental catastrophe, the FCPF deal addresses forest degradation, CO2 emissions and sustainable agriculture in one swoop.
By transitioning many farmers away from the tavy method, seven million hectares of Madagascar’s lush rainforests will have ample time to regrow after each slash and burn cycle. Furthermore, reducing the amount of forest burned each year will cut carbon emissions by an expected 10 million tons through 2024. This can make a big impact on global warming, which currently torments Madagascar with harsh droughts and dry land. Finally, moving away from tavy farming and toward more sustainable methods and crops will leave Madagascar’s brilliant forests largely untouched by human activity.
Effects on Poverty
With 80% of its population reliant on forests for sustenance, Madagascar’s residents will benefit greatly from the decrease in deforestation expected per the agreement. Most citizens depend entirely on rice as their staple crop and allowing forests enough time to regrow between harvests will increase rice yields, reduce food insecurity and decrease overall poverty in Madagascar.
Farmers who transition away from tavy agriculture can take comfort that the agreement allows Madagascar to continue its efforts in regreening the island and rewarding farmers who assist in forest restoration. The Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development is dedicated to ensuring fairness in the distribution of income generated from regreening. Farmers who participate in these environmental efforts should receive appropriate compensation for their work.
The Booming Vanilla Industry
In addition to new revenue from forest restoration, former tavy farmers can focus their attention on Madagascar’s booming vanilla industry. The FCPF acknowledges that vanilla is one of Madagascar’s biggest cash crops and gives it a large role to play in the agreement. Vanilla is a forest-friendly agroforestry crop, meaning its cultivation does not require the damage or destruction of the surrounding vegetation.
Vanilla is the world’s most expensive spice and Madagascar is the world’s leading supplier with more than 2,000 tons exported in 2019. Recognizing vanilla’s extraordinary worth and potential, the agreement provides funding to build on Madagascar’s vanilla market and distribute the revenue fairly among impoverished farmers.
The Road to Recovery
Thanks to the historical agreement that Madagascar and the World Bank reached, both the country’s environmental and socioeconomic crises appear to be heading for a much-needed recovery. By combining massive efforts to reduce deforestation and promote forest-friendly agroforestry crops, the FCPF deal seems destined to reduce poverty in Madagascar and improve the lives of millions of farmers while revitalizing its world-famous rainforests.
– Calvin Melloh