Good Food is GREAT for Conservation



Posted on 25 February 2011  | 
Learning to grow eggplant, tomatoes, and a Malagasy lettuce called "petsay" in Maroangira.
© Christa SzumskiEnlarge

Holistic conservation has nothing, yet everything, to do with the rainforest.  During our three-month placement in southeastern Madagascar we were responsible for touring a series of seminars that were focused on food:

·         How to efficiently grow rice using SRI techniques

·         How to grow novel crops such as beans, peanuts, and garden vegetables (zucchini, eggplant, carrots, and cucumber, to name a few)

·         How to cook nutritionally complete meals

As a bit of a foodie myself, I was thrilled to tour this seminar series but eventually begged the question – what, exactly, does this have to do with the rainforest?  In coming to Madagascar I had assumed we would be involved with more traditional conservation work like building tree nurseries (although we certainly did plenty of this too!).  Some open-minded brainstorming enlightens the link to how good food is great for the rainforest.
 

The Situation

The Malagasy are poor; one of the poorest countries in the world.  Every day is an effort and often a struggle to provide food for their families; especially in between growing seasons.  Malnutrition and starvation are rampant, and if you have ever been hungry – I mean, really hungry – you will understand how hard it is to focus on much else when your physiology is raging at you to find something to eat.  Hunger and poverty, undoubtedly, lead to desperate measures.  In the case of the Malagasy, they are compelled to continue slash-and-burn practices (known as tavy) on their rainforest to make way for more cattle-grazing pasture and rice crops to feed their families.  It is a system that they have used since humans first arrived on the island which is effective in the short-term, but inefficient and highly destructive in the long-term.

The result is a vortex perpetuating deforestation out of a demand for food.  And who can blame them?  Imagine you are a Malagasy living in the Vondrozo Corridor: you live in the same village that you were born in, with your parents, your six brothers and sisters, and your own family of eight children to care for in addition to actively looking out for the well-being of your neighbours.  This last point pays tribute to fihavanana, a defining element of Malagasy culture whereby sharing and helping those in your community is of the utmost importance.  Now you are faced with a drought.  In a community of 200 people, you know your rice crop will not yield enough without the rains to feed everyone.  What else can you do but enlist the only tool you know to alleviate this horrific pressure – clear another acre of rainforest for rice crop.  It is a modest parcel to sacrifice, and you know it will get you through.  Next year you find that the land your father cleared 20 years ago has become terminally fallow and will no longer yield any crop anymore.  Your kids are getting older, stronger, and need more food to fuel them as they join you in the rice paddies as keen apprentice farmers.  You need just a little more land …

Now blow this scenario up to the length of a generation, or several generations of farmers.  These one-acre sacrifices become substantial chunks of fragmented, damaged, and missing forest.  Changes in forest cover lead to erosion and loss of fertile topsoil, they dry out water sources and, ultimately, alter the climate leading to more frequent droughts, failed crops, and more hunger.  The cycle continues.

Here is where Holistic Conservation comes in: 

WWF in Madagascar is working with rural communities to optimize both food availability and the nutritional quality of their food without the need to clear more rainforest.  Sharing SRI (System for Rice Intensification) farming techniques is a pivotal step to overcoming the pull of the deforestation vortex.  By contrast to traditional farming techniques, SRI eliminates the stunted growth of overcrowded rice crops from root competition and helps each individual plant grow to its most fruitful, healthy form.  There is some resistance to adopting these techniques: by simple schematic reasoning (see the diagram on the right), it is hard to fathom that SRI could possibly be more productive than traditional methods. 

But those “pilot farmers” that have tested the technique on small parcels of their land have boasted yield increases three-times that of traditional methods!  We hope that a few success-cases throughout the countryside will lead to mass adoption of SRI practices, for we know that neighbours respect, trust, and share with each other by way of fihavanana.

Beyond SRI, WWF is bringing seeds and seminars on novel crops that villages might grow in a vegetable garden to round out their diet.  Beans and peanuts add a cheap and robust source of protein to the primary diet of rice, while other vegetables such as carrots, zucchini, and eggplant provide essential vitamins and nutrients to their diet.  With a well-rounded meal plan comes improved energy and endurance which in turn contributes to productivity in the fields, in relationships, and in school. 

Ambodemanga was the first village I visited alongside Kuni and Sergio.  Our charismatic WWF agent in sustainable agriculture, Donne, presented the basic method for growing red kidney beans to a packed schoolhouse of over 60 people.  Several minutes into our presentation an elderly gentleman raises his hand with a look of growing concern on his face.  He apologizes profusely for the interruption and admits that he would love to grow these ‘red kidney beans’, but what, exactly, were they for?  This anecdote stands testament to two things: 1) the incredible eagerness of rural communities to learn and adapt; and 2) the need for truly holistic programming on the part of non-profit aide. 

With the WWF, this need was addressed as we entered the kitchens of rural communities to share with them preparation techniques for the novel crops to make delicious and nutritious meals.  We became nearly fluent in Malagasy at describing how to incorporate the three food groups into a dish:

·         Sakafo mavo – The “yellow” group, representing sources of carbohydrate like rice, cassava, and potatoes

·         Sakafo mena – The “red” group, representing sources of protein like chicken, beef, peanuts, beans, and eggs.

·         Sakafo maitso – The “green” group, representing sources of essential vitamins and nutrients like bananas, mangos, tomatoes, carrots, and zucchini.

Our personal favourite dish was a delightful cake called Gena Gena, made from kazaha, akondro, voanjo, atody, sy siramamy.  Cassava, bananas, peanuts, eggs, and sugar.  If you care to try it out yourself, check out our video!

The communities we visited in the Vonodrozo Corridor were already well aware of the value and necessity of their rainforest; after all, they are wholly reliant on its natural resources for day-to-day subsistence.  As the extent of the forest diminishes, they are becoming aware that something has to change.  For example, we often noticed bizarre forested-hilltops in otherwise deforested regions.  Here, the rainforest had been preserved because it was recognized to be a source of water that would dry up without protection from the trees.   Evidence of these environmental acknowledgements and efforts give me hope that these communities will whole-heartedly adopt and adapt the sustainable living principles we shared with them to suit their needs and guide their future development.  With improved food security, they will have the time for contemplating other things, like the role of the rainforest to their communities and protecting their culture and natural treasures for future generations. 

Learning to grow eggplant, tomatoes, and a Malagasy lettuce called "petsay" in Maroangira.
© Christa Szumski Enlarge
Tending the rice fields in Vohimary Nord.
© Christa Szumski Enlarge
Bamboo forest cleared by "tavy" in the Vondrozo Corridor.
© Christa Szumski Enlarge
Water scarcity becomes a problem of paramount proportions during dry spells, forcing locals to hike upwards of several hours just to fetch clear water.
© Christa Szumski Enlarge
Schematic comparing traditional rice farming practices to SRI farming techniques. By this reasoning the benefit of SRI is counter-intuitive which might be why there is still resistance to adopting this new method.
© Christa Szumski Enlarge

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