Rural development and landscape transformations in highland Madagascar

September 10, 2013

How did forty years of rural development, population growth, and conservation action transform the landscapes of highland Madagascar? My recently published [1, 2] analysis of a region-wide sample of air photos from circa 1950 and 1991 document several key trends: crop fields, settlements, and exotic trees are replacing open grassland, while irrigated rice is expanding at the expense of wetland and riparian vegetation.

Farmhouse among the intensively cultivated rice terraces of Betafo, west of Antsirabe

Farmhouse among the intensively cultivated rice terraces of Betafo, west of Antsirabe

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Recognising community rights in ‘political forests’

August 31, 2013

Indonesia‘s courts recently recognised community forests (or customary ‘adat‘ forests) as distinct from state forests (i.e., government land). This is a landmark decision, as shown in an excellent analysis by Elizabeth Kahurani [1].  It overturns a presumption that the state is first and foremost the guardian and manager of forests, and vests more rights in local communities.  In the context of south-east Asia, where states have a poor history of protecting forests (especially in ways that respect local indigenous people), this is an important victory. In contrast, here in Fiji and in much of the rest of the Pacific, the situation is quite different:  most land (and hence forest) is ‘native land’ and belongs to traditional village structures.  Revenue from logging goes to the iTaukei land board and the villages (the forest service just overseas licences), also two state owned companies grow pine and mahogany on leased native and crown land [2]. In Madagascar, the situation is different again.  The presumption of unoccupied land (hence, forests) as state domain comes first, and most significant areas of forestland have been demarcated as parks, reserves, or classified forests.  Since the mid-1990s, neighbouring communities may gain use and management rights to some forest areas, but the forest is still fundamentally the state’s [3]. Rural social movements are much weaker than in Indonesia, and the conservation lobby (which usually tends to favour state control) is stronger, in relative terms.

Indonesia’s decision can be read through the Nancy Peluso and Peter Vandergeest’s ideas about “political forests”.  Their article in Journal of Asian Studies [4] traces the history of the idea of state forests, and how it was constituted dialectically with customary rights: Read the rest of this entry »


Disaster risk reduction: a decade of global effort comes home

May 10, 2013

As the international development community gears up to renew a global plan for improved ‘disaster risk reduction’ from 2015 (the ‘post-Hyogo’ framework), it is striking to reflect on how central the idea of disaster risk reduction has become in the development industry.  Boosted in no small measure by attention to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and in tandem with efforts at climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction has been a dominant theme over the past decade.  In my own world, it appears everywhere I look

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Melting pots of biodiversity

March 20, 2013

What happens when you combine human labour, introduced plants, and particular societal histories and structures in a certain tropical landscape?  You end up with anthropogenic or cultural landscapes – the “matrix” in current ecological jargon – such as the domesticated forests1 of southeast Asia, the tree gardens of Caribbean or Pacific islands, the shambas of Africa, the rice terraces of Madagascar.  Despite their aesthetic and cultural attractions, these smallholder farming landscapes are directly or implicitly critiqued by many – for not being as productive as modern industrial agriculture, for trapping people in rural poverty, and for taking up space at the expense of natural habitats.  In two recent papers with French collaborators, I argue instead that such landscapes can be sustainable sources of useful products, can facilitate vibrant and resilient rural communities, and can be resilient contributors to the functioning of local and global biophysical systems.

Kull et al 2013 Melting pots first page

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The geopolitics of Madagascar’s environment

January 8, 2013

Who controls Madagascar’s flora, fauna, and landscapes?  How, and for whom, are its forests, grasslands, and waters governed?  Over the past three decades, Madagascar’s local environments have become more and more internationalized – subjected to western worldviews and gazetted into protected areas with foreign funding.

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The Third Wattle War: environment versus development?

December 12, 2012

Are Australian acacias planted overseas miracle plants for rural development, or are they the worst kind of environmental weeds?  The battle lines appear rather stark at times.  At least when one reads environmentalist Tim Low’s rebuttal to a critique that Jacques Tassin and I wrote of his views.  We thought our statement to be tempered and tried to build a reasonable case for responsible use of exotic agroforestry trees (see also previous blog).  But Low calls us “in denial about dangerous aid”, flogs a misplaced example about mesquite in an argument about acacia, all the time preaching his argument to the converted in the journal Biological Invasions.   Read the rest of this entry »


Against “the global south” and other development euphemisms

April 2, 2012

As a geographer, I feel obliged to register a complaint about the proliferating and geographically criminal use of “the Global South” to refer to what others call poor countries, the developing world, or the Third World.  To any resident of Australia or New Zealand, the expression jars.  It must do the same to those in Chile, Argentina, or South Africa who look north at relatively poorer places.  And what about where poverty and deprivation are a northern phenomenon (politically-divided Korea, culturally-divided aboriginal Australia and Canada)? Read the rest of this entry »


Mozambique through Malagasy eyes

September 8, 2011

Mozambique rarely appears in the worldview of people in Madagascar, despite straddling the same latitudes just across the water from each other. Yet the two countries have much in common, as I discovered on a recent road trip with Priya Rangan to gather botanical samples and stories about baobabs.

A big baobab near the ruins at Sungo, downstream from Tete, Mozambique

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The ‘natural resource rush’ and rural social movements in Madagascar

March 30, 2011

Today’s attention-grabbing environmental issues in Madagascar are certainly different than a decade or two ago.  At the time, deforestation and biodiversity conservation dominated attention, and social justice researchers worried about how the establishment of new parks and forest-use regulations affected rural communities living off the land.  Today, we add to these concerns a burgeoning litany of events representing a globalization of Madagascar’s environment: we read about agricultural ‘land grabs’, booms in gem mining reminiscent of the Wild West, the actions of international mining companies in exploration and major mining projects, land potentially sequestered for biofuels or carbon sequestration, illegal exploitation of tropical hardwoods, and the refocusing of biodiversity conservation towards reducing deforestation carbon emissions via the REDD+ process.  Barry Ferguson calls these new trends a ‘natural resource rush’ in his excellent blog posting.

The social justice impacts of these trends are as yet unclear.  They can provide benefits, but, given history in Madagascar and elsewhere, they have the potential to be problematic: farmers losing access to ancestral land, farmers unwillingly moved into low-paid wage labour, social divisions exacerbated by elite capture of the benefits of foreign projects. What surprises me is the apparent lack of rural social movements in a position to contest, shape, and negotiate with such trends, projects, and events.  Read the rest of this entry »


Field study trip to South Africa

March 23, 2011

For the fifth time since 2004, earlier this year I travelled to Mpumalanga province, South Africa, to co-lead a field study program with my colleague Priya Rangan of Monash University. Two dozen students from Australia, and each day a new fascinating topic and field site visits.

Some links:  My photos from 2011 [no longer available, sorry]    Field studies class website       Facebook group of field studies alumni