A fast-growing tree and a banana tree serve as nurse plants for local forest species.

Forest gardens in Madagascar: Oases of hope

Local leaders transform fortunes through agroforestry

By Tahina Roland Frédéric, 2023 Dryland Restoration Steward and co-founder, Taniala Regenerative Camp. All images courtesy of Tahina Roland Frédéric.

A morning coffee with Bendray and his family. From left to right: Bendray’s brother-in-law, me (Tahina), Bendray’s youngest son, Bendray and his wife.

Every morning, when I’m in Lambokely, the same ritual unfolds in my friend Bendray’s family and in other households in the village. We start a wood fire and place a wok over it to roast caramelized coffee with sugar.

Bendray always tells me: “With a lot of sugar, the coffee becomes very strong, giving us energy to work.” Young and old alike drink their share of this precious beverage in small Malagasy enamel metal cups.

Madagascar is a large island inhabited by a population of various origins, giving it a rich cultural diversity. It also features abundant biodiversity in terms of both species and ecosystems. This richness partly stems from the island’s varied climates, shaped by its diverse geography.

Lambokely is a village located in the Menabe region, a semi-arid area in west-central Madagascar. “Menabe,” which translates to “the Great Red,” now lives up to its name:  its rivers have turned red with laterite, which is a sign of significant soil erosion.

A satellite view of the Tsiribihina River, a watercourse in the Menabe region that flows into the Mozambique Channel, taken from the International Space Station.

The Menabe region is globally renowned for its Avenue of the Baobabs and Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, the smallest primate in the world. However, its exceptional biodiversity is under threat due to deforestation.

No coffee plants currently grow in the village of Lambokely. Instead, coffee is imported from more humid regions of Madagascar, making it the most expensive commodity in the village, even more so than rice, cassava or corn, which are the staple foods in the community.

In this semi-arid region, working conditions are challenging. Bendray always says: “Coffee is our fuel.” In the morning, local residents only have a cup of coffee for breakfast, giving them the energy to carry out their morning tasks. Lunch and dinner consist of boiled cassava or corn and, when there’s money, rice with cassava leaves or other leafy vegetables. Coffee is served as a dessert to power them through the day.

But while coffee provides the local people with energy, it also impoverishes them because it is the most expensive commodity in the village, and they already live in precarious conditions.

Locals in Lambokely take a short break while waiting for midday coffee.

The community of Lambokely is largely composed of displaced individuals from even more impoverished regions. Many of them fled the far south of Madagascar to escape drought and famine, moving to areas with employment and income opportunities.

Their decision to move to Menabe was no coincidence. The region is home to a vast forest, which is coveted due to slash-and-burn agriculture, a traditional technique that displaced people have adopted to survive. Although this farming system is widely embraced across the Global South for its simplicity and low economic cost, it has detrimental effects on natural forests.

After the forests have been freshly cleared and burned, corn is the main crop to be initially planted, benefiting from the fertility of the ashes and charred wood. It doesn’t require weeding, which reduces the workload for farmers. However, the soil quickly becomes depleted of nutrients, especially as the ashes are washed away by rain and weeds start to proliferate. This makes the land less suitable for growing corn after two to three cycles, and it is converted into peanut fields instead.

Meeting members of the community. From left to right: Bendray’s brother-in-law Safirisoa, Bendray, Bendray’s daughter Tsarameny and me (Tahina).

Bendray’s brother-in-law recently settled in Lambokely. “Where we come from, our forests are already depleted,” he says. “Here in Menabe, the forest seems inexhaustible.”

But the Menabe forest is in fact declining, and Lambokely is a prime example. Once upon a time, where this village now stands was an almost untouched forest. It was only in the early 2000s that the first few settlements appeared. Then, starting in 2013 came a rush for the “green gold” – the Menabe forest.

When they were grown for subsistence, corn and peanut cultivation required only limited space to meet local consumption needs. But as market demand grew, they turned into cash crops, leading to a surge in deforestation through slash-and-burn agriculture. Large-scale migration from the south to Menabe quickly devastated the forest, giving rise to the village of Lambokely.

A forest plot is transformed into a corn crop after having been cleared and burned.

Yet the village has developed within the Menabe Antimena Protected Area. Created in 2015 to protect forests in the region, this protected area has not achieved its mission due to multiple factors.

In particular, communities have found ways around conservation rules in the protected area by establishing informal rules on the ownership of cleared forest land. Locally, it is accepted that the first person to clear the forest is recognized as the owner of the land.

In Lambokely, forest clearance is referred to as “cleaning” – as if the forest were garbage to be disposed of. The local community has gradually pushed the forest further and further away from the village, leaving it now nestled in a desolate landscape of degraded land, charred trees and a few baobabs.

The view from Lambokely, illustrating the degraded landscape with dense smoke from a burned forest in the distance.

Bendray’s family is originally from the far south of Madagascar and came to work in sisal fields that were once located in a village near Lambokely. As a third-generation migrant, he has witnessed the rapid transformation of Lambokely’s population and landscape. Bendray was first introduced to agroforestry practices in 2020, and he is now the head of the Taniala Regenerative Camp association in the village.

Bendray taking care of natural regrowth on a field by applying FMNR- Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration.

Bendray is a firm believer in the potential of farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) in Lambokely and works to promote this approach among local farmers. However, he often finds them reluctant. As one farmer reasoned: “If we let trees grow back on our fields, our land could become a forest, and then the Forestry Administration might deprive us of the use of our land.”

There is a level of distrust around agroforestry because it involves planting trees in fields, and the farmers initially showed little interest in planting non-edible trees when the Taniala Regenerative Camp started operating in the village. However, within a year, their perspective changed as they discovered the regenerative agroforestry forest garden we had created on a demonstration plot on our site.

We combined tree planting with vegetable crops and the villagers’ usual crops, notably including peanuts, which currently serve as the main source of household income. Their lives are shaped by the cultivation of this crop and depend largely on its success. The popularity of peanut cultivation lies in its ability to be carried out on already degraded land where the forest has long disappeared. Unlike corn, it does not involve the destruction of new forests.

An overview of our forest garden, which blends vegetable cultivation with tree rows.

On our forest garden plot, trees have been deliberately selected to provide a high level of diversification, with fruit trees, local forest trees and fast-growing biomass trees all featured. They are arranged side by side in a row and at high density, following the model of natural forest stratification. The goal is to transform barren fields into a cultivated forest that enriches the soil and sustains the local community through agriculture – producing food while restoring the ecological services of plots threatened by desertification. The demonstration plots serve as concrete models for teaching this technique.

Bendray’s local friends have been encouraging him to experiment with coffee cultivation in the forest garden system. They are genuinely fascinated with the idea of growing coffee locally. As an integrated member of the local community, Bendray aims to raise awareness and motivate his fellow villagers to adopt these practices – thus sowing the seeds of change in the minds of his community. 

From exploitation to the death of the forest and soil, we at the Taniala Regenerative Camp are awakening their interest in creating healthy forests and fertile soil. As Ilya Prigogine once wrote: “When a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence within a sea of chaos have the capacity to shift the entire system to a higher order.”

All over the world, and in Lambokely too, forest gardens represent oases of coherence in the midst of a chaotic ocean of deforestation, desertification, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, poverty and climate change. These are oases that we must cultivate.

Article tags

agricultureforestslandscape restorationrestoration

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