Protecting the rainforests of Madagascar
Satellite technology has taken
giant leaps forward in recent years. Today, we can see Earth from
space more sharply than ever, and satellite images of various kinds are available to more people than ever – often, for free. Anyone connected to the internet today can study faraway places like a mysterious island in the Indian Ocean known for its unique rainforest species – called Madagascar. This huge island, about twice as large as Finland, is home to more than 20 million people. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Nine out of ten of its citizens live on less than two dollars a day. Its rainforests, however, host a wealth of species of immeasurable value to us all. About 80 percent of Madagascar’s animal and plant species can only be found here; and many of its forests are on UNESCO’s world natural heritage list. But in recent decades Madagascar’s forests have been shrinking alarmingly. With the population growing rapidly, there is an urgent need for farmland. People still practise slash-and-burn agriculture, repeatedly clearing forests to create new fields. Mining is also expanding, and there is plenty of demand for
valuable timber and other resources. Estimates of the rate of forest loss vary greatly, depending on how deforestation is measured; but the gravity of the situation is indisputable. During his lifetime, Nasoavina Christin, President and founder of the forest protection NGO Mitsinjo, has seen thousands of hectares of forest turned into wasteland or scrubland around Andasibe, his home village in Eastern Madagascar. When I compare the situation to 40 years ago, when I was a small boy, things are very different now. In my area around here, and towards Ramsar wetland protection area in Torotorofotsy, or near the forest station or the national highway… All this was covered with forest when I was a small boy. This story of vanishing forests is sadly familiar from around the world. But here in Madagascar the global consequences of forest loss are particularly severe. In fact it is very difficult to compare Madagascar to other countries because of its biodiversity. When talking about the loss of just one hectare here, for example, in that small area you can have even hundreds of tree species; whereas in another country on that same hectare you could have perhaps just one species. The forests of Madagascar are home to about five percent of the world’s known animal species. There are nearly as many plant species here as on the entire continent of Europe. Madagascar’s fauna includes hundreds of endemic frog species, about half of the world’s chameleons, and many more unique reptiles and mammals – not to mention about 100,000 species of insects and other invertebrates. Madagascar’s most emblematic animals are lemurs. More than a hundred species live only here; and none are found anywhere else in the world. But most of Madagascar’s lemurs are today endangered. The loss of rainforests speeds up global climate change, which
makes them an important bargaining chip in international climate negotiations. Countries like Madagascar could significantly benefit from global climate policies. International funding could help them to restore their forests, and at the same time improve the welfare of their people. One such mechanisms is the REDD Programme, which stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation”. Researcher Harifidy Ratsimba belongs to Madagascar’s national REDD committee. But many obstacles must be overcome before Madagascar can take advantage of such opportunities. The challenge is to create a good map, but also to have the map regularly updated – that means, for example, every three years or every five years. This update will allow you to have an idea of the changes in the forest. This is where a Finnish-Russian team has stepped in, to share their experiences with forest experts in Madagascar. Mapping methods previously developed by the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation for surveying forests in Northwest Russia use modern satellite technologies combined with old-fashioned field surveys. Similar methods are now being applied where reforestation schemes are planned in Madagascar. The staff of local Malagasy NGOs might only have slow internet connections, but they have plenty of expertise on local species. This surveying method facilitates the monitoring of reforestation in the long run, which has often been problematic for reforestation projects in Madagascar. In climate initiatives such as REDD+ and carbon trading, one crucial element is monitoring after actions have been realised. It’s not enough to simply reforest or protect an area; it’s also essential to monitor how long-lasting the impacts are. The most natural partners for this work are local groups, trained to enable them to contribute to databases. Methods must be simple and reliable enough to ensure that real conclusions can be drawn. The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation launched the Manondroala project, which combines reforestation and forest monitoring, in 2011, with financial support from Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The local partner organization in Madagascar is an NGO with many years of experience of reforestation in a severely fragmented forest area east of the capital Antananarivo. As many as 150 local tree species are grown in Mitsinjo’s tree nursery. The Manondroala project aims to plant at least 27,000 seedlings each year – adding up to more than 80,000 trees over three years. The first step is to prepare the soil: for this, we need humus, sunlight and sand. We also need mushrooms that function together with the plants in symbiosis, providing nutrients for each other. This large chameleon is a Parson’s chameleon. We work together with animals, such as this chameleon, instead of using pesticides. Chameleons eat insects that would otherwise destroy the tree seedlings. This is part of the ecological restoration process. The remaining patches of natural forest serve as the last refuges for many animal and plant species. When animals of a species live trapped in just a small fragment of forest, their population becomes genetically impoverished. This makes it hard for them to recover from diseases, or cope with the impacts of human activity. For this reason Mitsinjo particularly tries to restore ecological corridors connected to surviving patches of more natural forest. Forest corridors help animals like this diademed sifaka, which lives in the project area – and is one of Madagascar’s most endangered lemurs. As the lemurs thrive, the surrounding forests will also benefit, since they spread the seeds of rainforest trees in their droppings. In addition to planting and growing native tree seedlings, another important part of restoration work is to eradicate alien tree species. This is a eucalyptus tree. It’s not native to Madagascar, but comes from Australia. It’s a big problem when it comes to restoring natural forests, because it spreads rapidly with the wind. If eucalyptus is planted on a hillside, it will soon take over the whole area around. Eucalyptus also grows really fast, so its seedlings can easily out-compete those of other trees. Out in the forest, the expert Mitsinjo mappers note many observations. Can signs of logging be seen in the forests? What kinds of animals and plants live there? How many alien species are present, and how thick are the trees? All this information is then fed into a database, which can be analysed together with satellite images. The idea is ultimately to make a comprehensive and detailed map of the belt of rainforests running down Eastern Madagascar. We have worked in teams of three, where one of us takes the GPS coordinates, while the two others use tape to mark out an area of ten by ten metres. When we know which tree species exist in any survey area, we can use satellite images to identify other areas that resemble the area, and then put them all together in one category. This helps us a lot. Using the map we can then see which areas are well protected, and which are badly degraded. We can then judge where restoration is needed, and which areas might still be home to lemurs, for instance. In Russia, similar co-operation on mapping in recent years has greatly helped local organizations in their dealings with the authorities. In Madagascar the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation is also keen to strengthen local civil society. This supports democracy; but it also enables the authorities to work together with local NGOs and benefit from their improved expertise when it comes to monitoring forests, which can be very challenging with very limited resources available. This way for local communities to monitor their own forests using simple methods doesn’t aim to replacing effective forest governance, but it could support it in many countries. If this method works in Madagascar, it could serve as a model for several other countries in Africa, for example, wherever forest officials are struggling to tackle forest fires and illegal logging. The need for people to coexist sustainably with natural forests is a crucial issue today. Answers are being sought both at local level and in major international conferences. It’s difficult to get people to abandon slash-and-burn culture, for instance, without giving them opportunities to adopt new farming methods or livelihoods. When you talk about the sustainability of forest management it’s always difficult, because most of the time people will say: “Yes, it is good to protect forests, but what can we do?” Because sustainability means 10 years after today, or 20, or 50 or 100 years… But they need to look for something to eat today and tomorrow. So there is also always a gap of interests between people. One of the challenges of the REDD mechanism, in my view, is how to create incentives for local communities. If they don’t get more incentives for sustainable forest management, for instance, they will just keep on doing the same. Mitsinjo provides training for local people in more sustainable agroforestry methods that can replace slash-and-burn agriculture. The association also works to provide alternative livelihoods in ecotourism, and co-operates with schools on environmental education. Poverty makes it hard to meet both today’s needs and tomorrow’s. But the President of Mitsinjo is sure that this new mapping and monitoring method represents a significant step in the right direction. Forests in Madagascar and many other parts of the world are a vital precondition for human survival: Without them, the groundwater will disappear, erosion will wash the soil away, and the climate will become unpredictable, making agriculture impossible. Sometimes, when I think about the future of the forests, I am sad. But sometimes, I hope and believe that people can change, and begin to understand the importance of the forest. When we have more money, we can plant a bigger area, but if we don’t have money, we can plant just maybe one or two hectares, maybe half a hectare. But it needs to be in good condition, and the monitoring and planting have to be done well, so that the planted trees will continue growing and not die – that’s important. If we continue that for 50 years, think how many hectares it will amount to per year, and how much the forest cover will increase. That is my long term vision.