INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — Located in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of East Africa, Madagascar is the “fourth-largest island” globally and one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Madagascar is home to about “7,000 plant and animal species” that one can only find in the island’s rich tropical rainforests, but the nation is also a leading country when it comes to deforestation. With more than 50% of Madagascar’s population living in poverty in 2019, locals in need of fertile soil for farming are rapidly destroying Madagascar’s rainforests in order to feed their families and make a decent living. To combat this, some organizations are working to introduce sustainable farming in Madagascar in order to increase crop yields for locals while preserving the rainforests and biodiversity that make the island so unique.
Sustainable Farming and Poverty
Biodiversity is not only important for maintaining a healthy natural environment but is also critical for the sustenance and well-being of humanity as well. Without the help of pollinating insects, there would be no fruits or vegetables to sustain local human populations. A biodiverse natural environment provides clean, oxygen-rich air for all organisms as well as water and leads to the natural replenishment of fertile soil to support the growth of other plant species.
In Madagascar, people living in rural areas often lack access to medical care centers and must travel long distances to seek health care services. For this reason, many people rely on the rainforest to supply them with natural remedies and medicines. The rainforest also provides rural dwellers with resources for “food, shelter, firewood, medicines, fiber, resin, construction, household implements and clothing.” Madagascar is currently one of the world’s most impoverished nations, with a GDP per capita of only about $499 in 2022. As Madagascar’s rainforests continue to shrink, so does the availability of these important natural resources, making it even more difficult for people to overcome poverty. Introducing sustainable farming in Madagascar may provide locals with an escape from this cycle of hardship.
The Need for Sustainable Farming
In Madagascar, the primary farming approach is a slash-and-burn method called tavy. The process of tavy involves cutting down a section of forestry and then burning it in order to plant rice. After the farmer harvests the rice, farmers are unable to use the plots for up to 20 years while they wait for the natural vegetation to regrow in order to provide more nutrients as fertilizer for the next slash-and-burn cycle when farmers will plant new crops. When farmers plant these too soon, they risk exhausting the soil and creating permanently infertile, nonarable land.
Roughly 64% of Madagascar’s employed population relies on agriculture as a livelihood, according to 2019 data. Poverty combined with growing population numbers makes it very difficult for local farmers to wait the full 20-year period for re-growth, resulting in vast wastelands and a constant need to clear more of the rainforest to make room for new farming plots. According to recent studies, “less than 15% of Madagascar is now covered in natural forest, and within the last 60 years, forest cover has decreased by [more than]40%.”
However, teaching sustainable farming in Madagascar could be the key to preserving the remaining rainforests while simultaneously increasing harvest yields for local farmers.
Sustainable Farming and Poverty
Ny Tanintsika is a community-based organization that means “Our Land” in Malagasy, the national language of Madagascar. The organization developed the Endemic Trees for Sustainable Agroforestry program in 2017 with the aim to minimize deforestation, educate locals on more sustainable farming methods, protect biodiversity and reduce poverty among locals.
Part of Ny Tanintsika’s sustainable farming education program involves encouraging locals to include endemic (native) tree species on their plots to preserve soil fertility. Since the project’s creation, approximately “800 households have planted [endemic]trees on their farms.” Furthermore, the program has taught farmers better seed collection methods and how to establish tree nurseries. Between 2018 and 2019 alone, Ny Tanintsika helped plant 35,000 endemic trees and continues to spread these progressive methods of sustainable farming throughout Madagascar.
To many farmers in Madagascar, the tavy method of slash-and-burn farming is a cultural practice that passes down over generations. Unfortunately, the persistence of this practice will eventually deplete the land of all nutrients and make successful farming impossible if Madagascar does not introduce more sustainable methods. The growth of sustainable farming in Madagascar is effectively working to preserve the island’s beautiful rainforests while also increasing food security for all.
– Hannah Gage