Treesisters has been funding the reforestation of coastal forests (primarily dry deciduous forest) near the city of Mahajanga in western Madagascar since October 2017. The project is led by Eden Reforestation Projects, one of our valued reforestation partners. The restoration site is located on a cape, on the western end of the Bombetoka Bay, opposite of the city of Mahajanga (which is located at the other end of the bay). The site is approximately 25 square kilometers; hence approximately the same size as Frankfurt Airport in Germany.
The regrowing forest will form the northwestern end of the greater Mahajanga Green Belt, with the southeast end meets the Ankarafantsika National Park (2 hours by car from Mahajanga).
For TreeSisters, the project represents an opportunity to expand one of the world's richest and most distinctive tropical dry forests, to the benefit of critically endangered plants and animals. It is also a great opportunity to test forest-based economic development at a large scale. Through the 'employ to plant' methodology, villagers start noticing changes at all levels, including the ecological benefits, such as improved fisheries. For TreeSisters, this immense relief is perfect ground for communities transition to different relationships with the forest and trees. It is crucial in a country where reforestation is a matter of survival, as Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world.
What does the forest look like?
When walking in a dry-deciduous forest of western Madagascar, it's surprising to discover the trees are not particularly tall (10 to 15m maximum), and lianas are quite common. The forest floor is heavy with leaf litter, and thus there is limited grass understory.. The climate is tropical with temperatures up to 33°C, with a prolonged dry season. Hence, the trees shed their leaves in order to conserve water (to limit evapotranspiration) during the dry season between May and October. Dry deciduous forest are associated with sedimentary stones, mostly limestone and sandstone, but also lavas (including basalts & gabbros) and chalks (on the coastal areas) (refer to Geology map). The sandy and or calcareous soils, means litter decomposition is not as fast when contrasted with more humid climates, which explain the abundance of leaf litter.
Adaptations to the arid climate of the region includes thorny species to retain water along with enlarged trunk species such as 'Pachycaulie', baobabs and Pachypodiums. (i.e. thick-stemmed and un-branched or little-branched). (Map image: Location of the project area (adapted from figure in Andrianavalona, T. et al. 2015)
Western Madagascar's dry, deciduous forests have suffered greater levels of deforestation than the more well-known island's humid eastern forests. (1) Western coastal Madagascar was originally covered with dry-deciduous forests but an estimated 97 percent has been destroyed. (2) Today, only three percent remain scattered in small isolated fragments. These fragments are highly vulnerable as pressure remains very high. According to the National Office for the Environment, the forest extent in the province of Boeny decreased by 41%, from 361,881 hectares in 2005 to 213,094 ha in 2015.
Forests have been replaced by impoverished tropical grasslands. Loss of trees and humus, over nutrient-poor soils, have led to decreased soil fertility (even leading towards soil sterility). During the rainy season, soil is being washed away resulting in erosion patterns called gullies. Soil is moved by streams all the way to the ocean, cluging the costals ecosystems and undermining fisheries. Madagascar is literally 'bleeding' which is even visible on here. (Distinctive Pachypodium spp. occur on the drier, calcareous soils (c)TreeSisters/Lauriane Cayet-Boisrobert.)
Wildlife, Plant & Tree Species
While the number of species is not as high as in Madagascar's eastern humid forests, the dry-deciduous forests of western Madagascar are characterized by the exceptionally high concentration of unique plants and animals that are only found within this region. (2) Through evolution, since the island separated from the mother continent 'Gondwana' 165 million years ago, most of the species became very distinctive, such as the Lemuriform primates (commonly known as lemurs) and in particular in Western Madagascar.
Several species of baobab trees, alongside Madagascar rosewood, ebony and other precious woods can be found in this type of forest. Some of these species are protected, but unfortunately subject to illegal logging and trade. The forest remnants have become so fragmented that species struggle to thrive. Increasing destruction and fragmentation of the dry, deciduous forest, leads to irreversible loss of species, genus and even families. According to the National Office for the Environment, the pressure on biodiversity in the Boeny region is "alarming". (Coquerel's sifaka (Propithecus coquereli) are endemic to western Madagascar and endangered as reported by IUCN (c)TreeSisters/Lauriane Cayet-Boisrobert.)
Drivers of deforestation
Before diving into the project details, let's understand the problems causing the deforestation. The majority of the people from Madagascar (the Malagasy) live from small-scale traditional agriculture (zebu, subsistence and cash crops) (3) and small-scale fishery. Everywhere in Madagascar (including western Madagascar), a traditional form of swidden agriculture (commonly known as 'slash-and-burn') is practiced in addition to settled forms of agriculture such as rice paddies.
Burning to Cultivate Land
Fire is an integrated part of land use in Madagascar that is governed by deep socio-cultural traditions. It signifies prosperity and tradition. Moreover, it is a cost-effective way to clear lands with no equipments required. Farmers cut down trees and shrubs and set the drying vegetation on fire which fertilize the soil with nutrients and clear all understory small vegetation. They can then cultivate cleared lands for one to several years depending on soil fertility and weeds closing. Then, they either re-burn the land to clear weeds or move elsewhere to prepare the ground with fire again. This enables the land to rest during a fallow period which can vary from 3 to 10 years depending on land use duration. (4)
Animal Trade Capture Methods
Fire is also used to hunt lemurs for bushmeat. Fire scars are even found inside the Ankarafantsika National Park, and can be seen on GoogleEarth. Hunters set the surrounding grasslands on fire to capture and sell them alive. For many ethnic groups, eating large lemurs is a traditional taboo or 'fady'. (5) But some species of lemurs, such as the brown lemur, are hunted and sold to the market. Although the lemurs are endangered animals, they are still hunted due to problems faced in poverty such as poor health and child malnutrition. (6)
Population Increase & Agricultural Development
Historical political choices, increasing population, and poverty, have contributed to the clearance of significant portions of western Madagascar's dry deciduous forests. The French colonial government which ruled over the country from 1896 until 1960 encouraged large-scale commercial agriculture in order to make the fertile plains of the western Madagascar profitable. Prior to this, the region was mainly under pastoralism use with low swidden agriculture. They also encouraged migrant labours to settle in western Madagascar which had an impact on the regions' demographics.
Forest were cleared to make room for cash crops, which would be marketable and taxable. This entailed settled agriculture such as irrigated rice in the floodplains and elsewhere maize and beans. Today, impoverished rural households are surviving from subsistence swidden agriculture and have no other means to survive other than cutting down trees for firewood, making charcoal and for selling timber. This practice has had tremendous negative impact on the dry deciduous forest. Today, households are undermining the last frontier forests, and even extracting the adjoining mangrove forests for charcoal and timber extraction. Big mangroves estuarine systems are also under conversion to small to aquaculture (rice and fish farms) such as here. ((c)TreeSisters/Lauriane Cayet-Boisrobert. Subsistence cultivation of rice fields and cattle grazing, In the buffer zone of Ankarafantsika National Park (created in 2002).)
Peculiarity of the project
The project is dedicated to restoring and preserving habitat for wildlife, both for plants and animals. The project also enables the reintroduction of critically endangered wild animals (in addition to rare plants), some of them rescued animals who will eventually find a home at the TreeSisters-funded restoration site.
Animal Protection, Conservation & Re-Wildling
This ultimately contributes to the conservation of exclusive, endangered animals and plants still living in the area. Moreover, reintroduction of wild animals accelerates the recovery of the regrowing natural forest. Brown lemurs are great seed dispersers because their manure boosts natural regeneration of forest in addition to planting activities. ((c)TreeSisters/Lauriane Cayet-Boisrobert. Brown lemurs (Eulemur fulvus) live in a small forest pocket on the project's restoration site. Keeping their population in shape may be critical to the regeneration of the forest as they are considered excellent seed dispersers.)
Rescued Animals & Back from the Brink of Extinction
Reintroduction actually came as a natural choice to Eden Reforestation Projects. In recent years more and more rescued animals were being brought to them (e.g. reptiles such as the Madagascar ground boas). Furthermore, a group of university professors and students, part of one of a 'The search for lost species' expedition, found a chameleon species (Furcifer voeltkowi), thought to be extinct, on the TreeSisters' funded forest restoration site on Spring 2018. This particular species hasn't been seen for the past 100 years!
(Furcifer Rhinoceratus, listed as Vulnerable by IUCN, with an estimated extent of occurrence of 13,771 km² in Northwestern Madagascar where its habitat continues to decline due to slash-and-burn agriculture, cattle grazing and logging.)
Therefore, Eden Reforestation Projects developed a "Nature Center" which will soon include a breeding program for Furcifer voeltkowi. As stated, the goal includes reintroducing this species and other throughout their original habitat range including the regrowing forest funded by Treesisters. The Nature Center has already saved several highly endangered radiated tortoises that were going to end up in a cooking pot, or sold on the black market for the illegal pet trade. The center is also taking care of 'tenrecs' (Malagasy Hedgehog) found in the markets and also destined for the cooking pot.
Villagers, farmers, fisherfolks, and particularly women, are employed to grow, plant and guard dry deciduous tree species. To Eden Reforestation Projects, one key element to successful reforestation in western Madagascar is that: "you have to benefit the local population. People who are suffering the impact of deforestation are living in extreme poverty because of the connection between the land and the local community." They call their approach the 'Employ to Plant' methodology. Reforestation helps with poverty relief and people build a relationship with trees so they value forests and become stewards.
Expected environmental outcomes
The project aims to restore approximately 2,500 hectares of (primarily) dry-deciduous forests but also a fringe of mangroves along the shore, resulting in the planting of approximately 6,250,000 trees. Over time, the two vegetative systems will become a continuous ecosystem, and ultimately connect to the other projects part of the envisioned green belt. In this regards, Eden Reforestation Projects has been restoring endangered mangrove estuarine systems along the western coast since 2007, with TreeSisters sponsoring sites within the Kalamboro Estuary since 2015. Eden Reforestation Projects has also been reforesting the forest within Ankarafantsika National Park with Ecosia and other partners search engine since 2016. (Project site extent (5x5km) and lemur estimate it can support.)
Expected Socio-economic outcomes
The project begins with providing the poorests of the poors with a consistent income, and a sense of accomplishment. It subsequently benefits their families as confirmed by sociological interviews conducted with hundreds of villagers. Over 1,000 "Eden children" are now receiving an education for the first time. Prior to employment, the parents could not afford the tuition fees. The dignity of employment helps families escape the circle of poverty, which often include debt relief and indentured servanthood.
What is the restoration method?
It is a true reforestation project that primarily replants pioneer dry deciduous species native to Madagascar. Pioneer species enable the fastest path to restoring the land. After the pioneer species restore the canopy, natural regeneration then "kicks in" and a more diverse and mature forest emerges. Regrowing natural forest takes time. While the first regrown forest will remain in a transitional, the secondary stage will require decades, but ultimately, the restored forests will reach maturity.
The project plants pioneer species, such as Albizia mainaea which is native to Madagascar, as well as species with larger distributions such Albizia saman, which can shade large areas. The project focuses on planting endemic trees, such as Dalbergia chlorocarpa, with high rates of seeds production and high potential of natural regeneration.
The project also plants 10% "agroforestry trees" to meet the long-term sustainable needs of the villagers. Species include Papaya (Carica papaya) and Manga (Mangifera indica). Planting occurs during the rainy season which happens from October to April in western Madagascar.
(The last 2 wild specimen of subspecies Adansonia Madagascariensis boenensis at Ankarafantsika National Park. (c)TreeSisters/Lauriane Cayet-Boisrobert.)
The reforestation site
This land has been historically devastated by tree cutting and high frequency fires. The site is visible here from an old lighthouse which provides a panoramic view on the TreeSisters' funded restoration site. The restoration area is inhabited. It is a wide open flat area covered by tropical secondary grasslands, which dominates, with very scattered palm trees. A fringe of forest is found along the escarpments of the cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. The land is riddled with numerous soil erosion gullies or ravines, occurring adjacent to the escarpments of denuded former forestlands. This is accelerated with water runoff, as water is no longer able to infiltrate fully into the ground.
Eden Reforestation Projects works locally through a community-based association, which supports several villages getting organized and engaged to operate nurseries, plant trees, clear off weeds, make compost, site's maintenance, etc. The villagers are providing all of the reforestation work. While the land is government controlled, there is a commitment to co-management with local communities. The ultimate goal is to transition the land into a protected area as part of the greater Mahajanga Green Belt Project.
What's the role of women?
It is important to note that female empowerment is a primary objective for Eden Reforestation Projects in Madagascar. The organization helped to finance the Sarobidy Women's Center. Sarobidy means " precious" in Malagasy. The Center provides prenatal, birthing and postnatal care in Mahajanga. The TreeSisters project employs at a minimum 60% female villagers, therefore greatly directly benefiting the women and their families. Often working with Eden Reforestation Project is the first cash paying job ever with a consistent income.
Eden Reforestation Projects has noticed in other of sites of western Madagascar where they have been using the same 'Employ to Plant methodology', that the employment of women has led to positive impacts on hundreds of children and family members. Many women and girls have escaped indentured servanthood and even prostitution. A majority of women launched some form of micro-entreprise, which further strengthens a sustainable future. (© TreeSisters/Lauriane Cayet-Boisrobert. Newborn baby boy at the Sarobidy Center. One of the projects supported by Eden Reforestation Projects' work in Madagascar.)
What will happen next?
The project's sustainability is the responsibility of the local people and the local Government. Adjacent communities are given the opportunity to restore adjacent forests and experience similar positive outcomes. The wildlife rescue center will help curb illegal hunting of endangered bushmeat. Moreover, Eden's Nature Center provides an education center as a public library and arboretum for University students. Further, with the Centers close proximity to Mahajanga, the TreeSisters' funded project sets the premises for ecotourism development, which will welcome local and international visitors to witness forest restoration and wildlife reintroduction.
History and Future of the project
This is a new project. The first planted seedlings in 2017 were provide from a tree nursery in Mahajanga. The TreeSisters funded nursery was constructed in 2018, with the seedlings to from the new on-site nursery to be planted beginning January 2019.
2017: Project started on Oct 2017. 2017-2018 annual plan: plant 30,000 dry deciduous seedlings and 170,000 mangrove propagules along the the Western side of the degraded mangrove estuary system.
Here is the annual organization plan that Eden Reforestation Project follows:
April: tree nursery construction and maintenance (clearing, fencing,, etc.)
May: Fire breaks construction, compost production; seeds collection
June: community awareness/sensitization meetings, fertile soil procurement
July: seeds collection and filing tens of thousands of polybags with soil
August: seeding the polybags.
September - December: weeding and watering the seeded tubes.
January until March: planting activities in full operation.
Watch a video about how the project collects the seeds.
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Written by Lauriane Cayet-Boisrobert
Published 29 March, 2019
Photos are courtesy of Eden Reforestation Projects
Lauriane Cayet-Boisrobert is our Reforestation Manager. She develops and manages our reforestation projects portfolio. She started by co-developing TreeSisters' forest strategy and project selection process. Lauriane is passionate about the many cultures on Earth. She tries to live in harmony with the Earth; so the Earth must stay wild and generous to us all. She feels deeply sad when the Earth is been abused at all prices, and mostly at the expenses of the people who rely on it.
(1) Whitehurst, A et al. 2009. Land cover change in western Madagascar's dry deciduous forests: A comparison of forest changes in and around Kirindy Mite National Park. Oryx. 43: 275 - 283. Available here.
(3) Slash and burn agriculture involves the clearing of a forest land or bush by partially or fully and setting it on fire.
(4) OTTERSTROM, S. 2006. Isle of Fire: The Political Ecology of Landscape Burning in Madagascar. University of Chicago. Chicago. Journal of Ethnobiology. 26: 332-334. Available here.
(5) Jenkins R.K.B., et al. 2011. Analysis of Patterns of Bushmeat Consumption Reveals Extensive Exploitation of Protected Species in Eastern Madagascar. PLOS ONE 6(12). Available here.
(6) Borgerson, C. et al. 2016. Who hunts lemurs and why they hunt them. Biological Conservation 197:124-130. Available here.
(7) Trees cultivated/domesticated on farms among crops, which procure multiple non wood tree products uses including fruit, gums, fodder or medicines, natural fertilizer, wind break, soil retention, fuel when collecting branches, etc.