Farmer livelihood practices and the forest transition in Africa

December 19, 2015

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 »


Approaching invasive species in Madagascar

March 13, 2015

While a number of plants, animals, and insects in Madagascar have been called ’invasive’, the topic of invasive species has until recently received less attention here than in other island contexts. Some species, often alien to Madagascar and introduced by humans, have expanded their range rapidly and have had both negative and positive effects on landscapes, on native biodiversity, and on livelihoods. Examples include the prickly pear (raketa), the silver wattle (mimosa), and, recently, the Asian common toad (radaka boka). Building on a conceptual approach, my recent paper (link; pdf) in the journal Madagascar Conservation and Development emphasizes the importance of inclusive and deliberative site- and population- specific management of invasive species. The paper analyses three separate concepts commonly used in definitions of invasion: the origin, behaviour, and effects of particular species.

The three components often used in defining invasive species. Different definitions emphasise different components.  Source:  Kull et al. 2014 (supplementary online material)

The three components often used in defining invasive species. Different definitions emphasise different components. Source: Kull et al. 2014 (supplementary online material)

It places these concepts in their broader social and ecological context, with particular attention to local perspectives on invasive species. My co-authors and I illustrate these concepts with numerous Malagasy examples from the literature and our own experiences. Read the rest of this entry »


Biodiversity conservation in a developing country: new book

May 9, 2014

I’ve finally received my copy of the new edited book Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar, edited by Ivan Scales of Cambridge University. This will be a fantastic resource for scholars of Madagascar new and old, as well as more broadly. It includes chapters on a full array of topics: on biodiversity, palaeoecology, and archaeology, on the measurement and causes of deforestation, on environmental politics, policies, programs, and projects, and on different economic development-and-conservation solutions, often (but not always) from a political ecology perspective, broadly construed.

Cover of Scales 2014 Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar

Highlights for me in the book – which also has two of my own chapters – include: Read the rest of this entry »


Why we can’t say Madagascar is 90% deforested

April 25, 2014

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.

Slash-and-burn tavy clearing near Andapa, Madagascar © 1994 C. Kull

Slash-and-burn tavy clearing near Andapa, Madagascar (photo by C. Kull)

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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 »


Pyric phases in Madagascar’s longer-than-presumed prehistory

August 7, 2013

An exciting archaeological find by Bob Dewar [1] 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 [2], suggests four thousand years of people living, burning, cultivating, shaping, transforming, and developing the island’s environment, instead of around two thousand [3]. From a pyrogeography perspective, Dewar and colleagues make an important point towards the end of their paper: Read the rest of this entry »