Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fire on the Mountain

Last week, I traveled with the WWF agents and volunteers south to the village of Bevata, about five hours inland from Vangaindrano, to mark the official transfer of forest management rights and responsibilities to the three local VOIs. Our two days in town were replete with meetings, speeches, drinking, and dancing until dawn. Nevermind that the management transfer didn’t actually take place. See, there was some sort of mix-up in Farafangana, so the necessary signatures weren’t where they needed to be in time. WWF will be going back to mark the actual transfer at the end of October. Still, it was one hell of a party.

As I walked down to join the festivities on the second night, though, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the irony of the situation. There we were—conservationists, development professionals, VOI officers, and community members—celebrating a purportedly improved system of natural resource management while the hillsides around us burned.

It’s the dry season here in southeast Madagascar, which means the air is laden with smoke and the land glows red after dark. This is partly due to the continued practice of tavy, or slash-and-burn agriculture, but more commonly because of doro-tanety, or intentionally-lit brush fires used to clear dry grasses from the savanna. Cattle herders burn the hills and wait for the rains to come, then graze their zebu on the fresh, soft grass shoots that come up. That night in Bevata, I counted six separate brush fires on the surrounding hillsides. Between Farafangana and Vondrozo, the landscape has changed to a patchwork of charred and barren fields. I’ve biked through clouds of smoke as fires lap up to the roads around town. And the hillside below my house was crackling and popping two days ago.

Mention slash-and-burn agriculture in the conference room of any North American- or European-based NGO, think tank, or international development organization (let alone in any environmental or political science classroom), and you’re likely to get a visceral response. Slash-and-burn is bad, we’re taught. Not just bad. Really bad.

And for all intents and purposes, that generally holds true. But the situation is a bit more nuanced than those of us sitting in classrooms or conference rooms usually realize or acknowledge. In a previous post, I mentioned reading The Eighth Continent, in which Peter Tyson has this to say about the practice in Madagascar:

“Tavy farmers clear-cut and burn a hillside in order to plant hill rice. They can farm that hillside for about three years before the soil’s nutrients are exhausted; they must then leave that hill fallow for at least fifteen years before it becomes profitable again to repeat the process of cutting, burning, and planting…When the population was low and the forest stretched as far as the eye could see, tavy was actually an efficient use of resources…Since [Malagasy] farmers cannot afford modern agricultural equipment or products, tavy is the only way they can tease life out of their nutrient-poor soils.”

He goes on to cite French development economist Jean-Louis Guillaumet, who says, “this type of agriculture is well adapted to the environment for farmers with limited technical means. Fertilization by ash, fallow with forest regrowth, and the forest in turn rebuilding the soil is a simple and judicious natural process. This system of traditional agriculture gives maximal yield for minimal human effort. Only when the human effort is subsidized by dead forests of the coal age, in modern oil-based fertilizers and herbicides, and oil-run machinery, can we achieve more yield per man-hour than the peasant who uses live forest as his subsidy.”

Both Tyson and Guillaumet overreach in making these arguments. Tavy is not the only alternative to heavy machinery and chemical fertilizers. For example, as a PCV, I’ll be teaching permaculture gardening and improved crop cultivation techniques, along with the use of compost and attentive water management. But tavy is certainly one of the easiest alternatives, and as Tyson and Guillaumet point out, it can be an efficient— and even sustainable—use of resources.

Except that it isn’t. While Madagascar doesn’t suffer from the gross overpopulation that many developing countries are experiencing, the population has still grown (and is projected to continue growing) significantly—past the point where people were few and the forest stretched past the horizon. Farmers don’t let the land sit fallow for fifteen years once they’ve gotten their harvests; they slash and burn until the soil is utterly depleted, then switch to using the land for grazing. After the repeated practice of doro-tanety, it becomes essentially impossible for the forest to naturally reestablish itself. And the Corridor recedes a little bit more.

In addition to awareness-raising and agricultural training facilitation, WWF runs a set of forest restoration and reforestation activities with the VOIs. One of the requirements for VOI establishment is delimitation and zoning of the territory falling under the community’s jurisdiction, so from the outset, there are designated areas for these activities. The work suite includes passive restoration (people are prevented from degrading the forest further); active restoration (VOI members clear invasives and plant particular species to improve forest health and biodiversity); reforestation for use (Eucalyptus and Acacia species are planted to establish a sustainable fuel and building source close to the villages); and permanent reforestation (endemic species are planted to expand the Corridor and/or reconnect forest fragments). I plan to assist WWF or independently implement projects falling under each of these categories with my partner VOIs, though I’ve heard and read some things that make me a little wary of promoting Eucalyptus and Acacia. If anyone has comments or advice on the topic, I’m all ears.

I’ve always associated the smell of wood-burning fire with pleasant and comfortable experiences—camping and the cabins at Koke‘e, wandering the great outdoors and sipping whiskey with friends. And that will always be so. But also there will be Bevata, and fire on the mountain.

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