The tantsaha, or farmers, of highland Madagascar lost one of their most empathetic interlocutors in late 2015: the geographer Hervé Rakoto Ramiarantsoa. In his books and articles, Hervé investigated the lives and landscapes of rural Imerina, Betsileo, and Tanala country from the farmer’s perspectives. His wonder and respect for the farmer’s techniques, their intricate reworkings of canals, soils, and paddy fields, was as strong as a farmer’s polished wood angady spade. Read the rest of this entry »
In what situations do the practices of small-scale family farmers lead to increased tree cover, particularly on a continent better known for land degradation and deforestation? Research on the “forest transition”, a pattern where net deforestation is replaced by a net gain in forest cover, has so far avoided much mention of Africa. In contrast, it is historically documented in western Europe, eastern North America, east Asia, and seemingly underway in parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia. This research tends to focus on factors such as economic modernisation, rural abandonment, urbanisation, or even globalisation as driving forces of the forest transition. Two recent studies I contributed to focus instead on Africa – one in West Africa, one in Madagascar – and on transitions brought about by rural farmers. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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.