- Rice paddies have become silted up around Ankarafantsika National Park in northwestern Madagascar. To survive, local residents are forced to illegally exploit the forest’s natural resources.
- To reduce their dependency on the forest, local communities are planting the versatile bamboo species from Asia to make charcoal and restore watersheds.
- Although the exotic bamboo species can be used to protect the forest and watersheds, scientists raise concerns about the ecological impacts of its use.
ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — Ankarafantsika, a primary forest in Madagascar’s northwest Boeny region, is the site of a vicious cycle where declining livelihoods and its environmental impact aggravate one another. Rice paddies, which form the base of local communities’ income, are silting up due to logging in the protected forest, pushing impoverished locals to turn further to the forest to make a living — causing more silting.
To protect the forest, locals have come together to grow exotic bamboo from Asia as a source of charcoal instead of the trees in Ankarafantsika, hoping to protect surrounding watersheds.
The Boeny region is home to Madagascar’s second biggest “rice bowl” and the Ankarafantsika National Park, where logging is illegal. As the silting of the rice paddies has a considerable impact on communities, they’ve had no choice but to illegally exploit the forest’s resources to make charcoal and earn some money, locals told Mongabay. However, as the forest dwindles, the alluvial plains and the Betsiboka River which feeds their paddies, silt up.
“Unfortunately, it is these same communities around the park that are destroying the forest. As their rice fields have silted up, they have turned to other activities,” says Jean-Yves Razafindrakoto, director of the Valiha Diffusion, a reforestation association in Madagascar.
Between 2000 and 2021, the Boeny region lost 117,000 hectares (nearly 290,000 acres) of tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch. According to Razafindrakoto, Ankarafantsika’s main forest — one of the region’s biodiversity hotspots — has suffered losses of up to 70%.
Ankarafantsika National Park is one of the last refuges of some of the world’s rarest species, such as the Madagascar sea eagle (Haliaeetus vociferoides) and the Mongoose lemur (Eulemur mongoz), both endemic to the island and critically endangered according to the IUCN.
With the help of Valiha Diffusion, 8,500 pots of bamboo were planted over a total of 21 hectares (nearly 52 acres) during the first planting session in December 2022. By using these plants as a source of charcoal, the initiative aims to maintain the banks of the Betsiboka River and the watersheds, to reduce the silting up of the rice paddies.
The plantations are spread over four different municipalities around the park and around a hundred locals benefit directly from the project.
“Many of us used to eat only cassava for every meal, but today we can have rice or corn, while providing education for our children,” Joel Ramanangasoavina, a local resident, tells Mongabay. The 50-year-old has two nurseries which supply Valiha Diffusion and function as its local point of contact in the area.
The choice of bamboo is based on local communities’ demands, who have seen the benefits from previous reforestation projects carried out in the region. In addition to growing quickly and reducing erosion, “you can make a lot of things with bamboo; charcoal, tools, furniture – you can even make a pickle dressing with the shoots,” says Ramanangasoavina.
One hectare of bamboo can yield up to 1,000 bags of charcoal per year, worth 35,000 Ariary ($7.76) per bag. In comparison, conventional charcoal is worth an equivalent price, for around 25 kg per bag. As well as being more efficient and less messy to burn, bamboo charcoal is more profitable for producers. The beneficiaries of former bamboo plantation projects have observed this profitability.
The sale of bamboo charcoal has already reduced pressure on the forest, according to the locals.
Created in 2021, Valiha Diffusion supervises projects while local communities are responsible for planting and harvesting bamboo as well as manufacturing and selling charcoal. In exchange, the association donates 5% of their sales. Monitoring is also carried out by community organizations, with periodic observation by the association.
Quentin Lukacs, co-founder of Valiha Diffusion, highlights bamboo’s ability to restore degraded ecosystems. Although, some scientists are skeptical of this claim, Lukacs maintains that “times change, and you have to adapt.”
A solution with ecological risks?
Valiha Diffusion plants bamboo on farmers’ land, after agreeing a contract with the farmer to exclusively grow the tree. The other plantations are on formerly state-owned forests and land. So far, locals have not reported any particular problems, although a study by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) indicates that land security related to reforestation projects is sometimes a source of conflict in the Boeny region.
The locals are planting three exotic species of bamboo: Bambusa bambos, B. vulgaris, and Dendralamus Giganteus.
According to Sylvie Andriambololonera, researcher at the Missouri botanical garden in Madagascar, these species are particularly effective for preserving watersheds. They also have good potential for carbon sequestration of 94 to 392 tonnes per hectare (about 232 to 968 tonnes per acre) according to research from the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR).
She also warns of their invasiveness, especially for B. vulgaris. Although the three species are not scientifically considered invasive, their ability to quickly take over a lot of space worries scientists.
“It has to be grown away from agricultural activities otherwise the rice paddies will be submerged very quickly,” she said. She also believes that plantations can invade the forest without being at a minimum distance of at least one kilometer (0.6 miles).
Ankarafantsika farmers say they are able to mitigate the risk by planting the plantations at least 1.5 kilometers (nearly one mile) away, assuring bushes are five meters (nearly 17 feet) apart from one another and surrounding the plantations with an 80-centimeter-deep canal once the bamboo has reached adulthood (in 3 to 4 years). Firebreaks are also planted.
Naina Nicolas Rasolonjatovo, head of the reforestation department at the Valbio centre, recommends spacing the bushes 10 to 20 meters apart, otherwise the B. bambos will form gigantic, dense, compact clumps as they naturally do.
“There’ll be no space left to set foot in there!” he says. Bamboo is also particularly quick to stir up fire, which can be dangerous as the region is frequently affected by bushfires. There were 15,731 fire alerts reported there during the last bushfire season (end of June to beginning of December 2022) according to Global Forest Watch, which may affect reforestation areas.
Ultimately, bamboo-based reforestation provides several benefits for communities and what scientists call “oriented reforestation.”
“On the other hand, if we’re talking about a reforestation project that’s also ecological, I’m not entirely convinced,” says Rasolonjatovo.
Banner image: Locals planting bamboo a few kilometres from Ankarafantsika National Park. Image courtesy of Valiha Diffusion.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at the major forest and conservation trends coming out of 2021 and 2022 with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Butler, and IUCN senior program officer, Swati Hingorani. Listen here:
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