Landscape change, stakeholder demands for ecosystem services, and resulting trade-offs in north-eastern Madagascar

Trade offs, Madagascar, Conservation, Agriculture development
Village in north-eastern Madagascar, near the Ambatovaky Special Reserve: a clear division may be seen between forest, in the background, and agricultural land, in the foreground. Photo: Zafyson Hasina Randrianasolo, Etc Terra

Around the globe, tropical forests are vanishing and vital ecosystem services are being lost. On Madagascar’s east coast, rainforests are disappearing mainly because of deforestation by small-scale farmers looking for land on which to grow rice and cash crops like clove and vanilla. International nature conservation organizations have long sought to protect these forests. But their aims differ from those of the local population, leading to conflict over what development in the region should actually entail.

Our project aims to achieve a more integrative, regional-level understanding of landscape change dynamics in north-eastern Madagascar, going back as far as 1995. We seek to identify the links between landscape changes and diverse stakeholders’ land use practices and demands for ecosystem services. The project results are intended to provide a basis for negotiations between stakeholders, leading to more sustainable regional development.

A mix of research methods

The project combines remote sensing, spatial analysis, extensive field surveys, and an array of social science methods. Among other data collection methods, we have interviewed individual households about their land use activities and related constraints, conducted timeline exercises with village elders to better understand people’s perception of landscape changes, and created social village maps to triangulate results. In collaboration with the ESAPP programme, we also conducted a regional-level survey of external stakeholders, their activities, and demands for ecosystem services. This was done in collaboration with three long-term partners of CDE in Madagascar: SAVAIVO, Médiascope, and the Forestry Department of the University of Antananarivo (ESSA-Forêts). All project results will be shared via an online database used to inform discussions in a regional stakeholder workshop.

Deforestation and agricultural development on Madagascar’s east coast, from 1995 to 2011

Where have forested landscapes decreased? Where has shifting cultivation (for rice) decreased and irrigated rice production increased? Where has agricultural use of land risen while leaving the forest intact? Compare the two maps below to find out.

Forest change in Madagascar

Left: In the southern part of today’s Makira Natural Park, new rice fields were established causing deforestation between 1995 and 2011 (Zaehringer et al. 2016). Right: By contrast, in the Masoala National Park, rice fields were abandoned and secondary vegetation regrew between 1995 and 2011. Along the western boundary of the park, researchers have observed agricultural intensification characterized by more irrigated rice production and less shifting cultivation (Zaehringer et al. 2016).

The study region, which roughly corresponds to the administrative area of Analanjirofo, is currently dominated by mixed rice production systems in which irrigated rice production outweighs shifting cultivation. Nevertheless, shifting cultivation remains present to some extent across more than 80% of the study region (in terms of land area). Further, over 80% of roughly 1,200 households interviewed in 45 villages continue to rely on shifting cultivation to meet at least part of their subsistence rice needs. Indeed, despite government sanctions and intense efforts by conservation actors, shifting cultivation is far from being eliminated across the landscapes of north-eastern Madagascar. At the same time, even outside the protected areas, small patches of forest remain scattered throughout the region, providing many benefits to local populations.

Different claims on forest services

The border between the Makira Natural Park (left) and agricultural land (right) is clearly visible. Photo: Julie Zähringer, CDE

Half of the households interviewed in the region use forestland to gather various important forest products, including wood for construction, palm leaves for roof coverings, medicinal plants, honey, and lianas for making rope. The other households stated that they had no forest nearby, or that they had lost access to the forest due to protected areas. Many households have replaced the products they used to obtain from the forest with products obtained from fallow land, which are an important part of shifting cultivation. However, access to such products is becoming increasingly difficult: as agriculture intensification increases and shifting cultivation declines, areas of fallow land are becoming scarce.

A large percentage of the households interviewed also claimed to value the forest for the regulation of water supplies (needed to irrigate rice fields), the regulation of the microclimate, protection from cyclones and erosion, and provision of a habitat for animals. For many, the forest is also culturally important. This illustrates that local land users are highly aware of the value of the forest. The fact that they still proceed to cut down trees shows how sensitive the trade-off is between their need for maintenance of ecosystem services and their need to expand agricultural land and ensure their access to food staples, namely rice.

Woman, age 28

“The park makes our lives difficult because we cannot collect the primary materials we need anymore, for example, to weave mats.”

Man, age 70

“The park is a big problem for us because we lost our right to cut the forest for cultivation of hill rice, and we don’t have enough irrigated rice paddies.”

Man, age 34

“The forest is our source of water, even if the weather is very dry, there is always water flowing.”

Woman, age 50

“The forest provides a habitat for different animals.”

Discussions with all parties involved

Our results show that it is possible to intensify local agriculture, moving away from shifting cultivation and towards more irrigated rice production, while at the same time protecting forest areas. The key remaining question is whether it is possible for all local land users to benefit from such intensification, or whether some will inevitably lose out and slide deeper into poverty due to lack of access to irrigated rice fields. Further, there are already major imbalances between various actors’ claims to forestland and related ecosystem services. Efforts are needed to bring these actors together and encourage them to discuss and work towards common goals and strategies. Through its R4D project “Managing Telecoupled Landscapes”, CDE is working to initiate such processes both in Madagascar and in similar contexts in Laos and Myanmar.

Project duration: 2012–2015 (completed)

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