If stated often enough, a fact becomes truth. That seems to be the case with the oft-repeated figure that “Madagascar has lost 90% of its original forest cover”. The problem, as Bill McConnell of Michigan State University and I point out in a letter just published in Science magazine, is that this fact cannot be proven.
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.
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 . 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 . 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 . 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  traces the history of the idea of state forests, and how it was constituted dialectically with customary rights: Read the rest of this entry »
An exciting archaeological find by Bob Dewar  and colleagues suggests the presence of hunter-gatherers on Madagascar around 4000 years ago, which essentially doubles the length of the history of Madagascar’s human settlement. Their discovery, published in PNAS , suggests four thousand years of people living, burning, cultivating, shaping, transforming, and developing the island’s environment, instead of around two thousand . From a pyrogeography perspective, Dewar and colleagues make an important point towards the end of their paper: Read the rest of this entry »
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.
The prehistoric dynamics of fire, vegetation, and humans in Madagascar are still not resolved, though one might get a different impression from the simplified narrative told to galvanise conservation action. Clearly, humans visited, hunted, and eventually settled the island over the last several thousand years, and lit the vegetation on fire throughout. But what kinds of fire, in what kind of vegetation, how often, and with what impact? Charcoal and pollen in lake sediment cores and archaeological digs have informed most of our recent scientific understandings of fire history on the island. Perhaps further answers and hypotheses can be found from innovative botanical, remote sensing, and modelling research being done in Africa. Most striking perhaps – in the face of all the alarmist discourse about the menace des feux de brousse in Madagascar – is how unimpressive Madagascar’s fires appear in any remote sensing image that includes neighbouring Africa (this one is taken from Archibald et al. 2010 in the International Journal of Wildland Fire).
It is usually the rich and unique endemic vegetation of Madagascar that gets all the attention from tourists, biologists, and conservationists. Yet the species that humans brought to the island also deserve attention as plants emblematic of human history and as builders of societies and environments. What would the island be without rice, litchi, and vanilla? What would the highland landscape be like without eucalypts, apples, and jacaranda? Some of the new plants cause problems by becoming too successful (the stories of prickly pear, water hyacinth, pine, or various crop field weeds are instructive), but many have contributed to the landscapes of the island – as the raw materials of peoples’ lives; as colours, fascinations, smells, and sights; as memories and emotions; and even as habitat, perches, and food for lemurs, bats, and endemic birds. An article that I’ve just published together with several colleagues seeks to analyse this new flora, which we catalogue in a lengthy inventory – the first of its kind in 80 years.
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.
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 »