"Enough food to protect lemurs"
Rice fields not only shape the country’s landscape but the grain is first and foremost an important source of calories and the staple food for most of the population. Reportedly, an individual could eat over 120 kilo of rice a year.
And the population is growing. At present, there are 20 million people on the Big Island but by 2025 the population is expected to double. Malnutrition is already common in the country, but if the demand for rice fails to be met, the situation could easily turn into a food crisis. How can a nationwide catastrophe be avoided without using more land and destroying more forest?
Ivohibe is a small town in the Ala Atsinanana , the eastern humid forest of Madagascar. It lies between Andringitra National Park and Pic Ivohibe Special Reserve. If you are imagining a town in the middle of lush green forest you are wrong. Most of the trees have been cut down a long time ago to make space for rice fields. Only a few remnant trees can be found on top of steep mountains and in narrow valleys.
The town counts 40,000 inhabitants and most of them are rice farmers - “mpamboly vary”- as they say in Malagasy. Hunger is common and the people are poor, trying desperately to make a living on their rice fields. But things are changing, thanks to the implementation of a new system to grow rice, called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI).
"I am proud to be part of such an innovative project. SRI has the potential to alleviate poverty among the local population while preserving the biodiversity," says Patrick, a technical trainer at WWF.
"SRI is very simple," he says. "You have to plant the young rice plants when they have 2 leaves only. But the most important part is to put a single plant in each hole and to leave 30 to 40 cm (12 to 16 inches) between the plants. This way, the plants grow better and produce more rice. And last but not least, don’t drown them; rice is not an aquatic plant!"
Initially farmers were sceptical, as the SRI method is different to how rice farmers traditionally plant their crops. They normally would germinate the seeds and let them grow for a month before planting a couple of them in one hole, each hole being no more than 10 cm (4 inches) apart from the next one.
Randriamanantsoa Philbert is the president of an association of rice farmers in Ivohibe. He is unmarried and has no kids. Not because he doesn’t have a loved one, but because he still needs to save a lot of money before he can say yes to his fiancée. This was maybe the reason that encouraged Randriamanantsoa to give SRI a try.
He attended one of WWF's training sessions last year to learn how to plant rice the SRI-way. He then started with 30 acres of field. A couple of days ago, he brought in his first yield.
“I have yielded 9 tons of rice per hectare while the normal yield would never have been bigger than 2 tons, maximum!” he says, beaming with pride. “During the next season I want to plant more acres according to SRI. Based on what I planted on my first fields, I hope to yield 14 tons per hectare next year like a friend of mine did.”
Patrick from WWF admits that it takes a while to convince farmers – and their wives. He knows of a case where the wife packed her bags and went back to her parents when her husband started SRI. "You are going to kill the whole family!" she shouted. But her husband’s field yielded three times more rice than with the traditional method. And so she came back, with a joyfully smile on her face. Having experienced the benefits of SRI he agreed to become a so called “pilot farmer,” to raise awareness among his neighbours.
The WWF staff in Ivohibe is quite happy with the turn of the events. With the newly founded association of 37 members willing to share their experiences, WWF has taken an important step in implementing SRI practices in the region and hopes to start an avalanche, a rice revolution.
The positive impacts on the environment can already be seen. Thanks to SRI, people in and around Ivohibe have started abandoning the burning of agricultural waste. Instead they make compost which they use for their vegetable gardens. With a bigger yield, they don’t have to cut down more forest for land use. Finally, they have money to plan reforestation activities. With a full stomach, they can think ahead, envisioning how to protect their richness.
Linking conservation and development
Recognizing the need to act against poverty, the heads of all WWF offices in Africa gathered last January at the shore of Lake Naivasha in Kenya. They had always realised the difficulty to address environmental issues on a continent where millions are still lacking food.
The Lake Naivasha Statement acts as a reinforcement of the work that WWF has been doing in Africa for decades already. In Madagascar, WWF has been working with communities for 47 years, focusing on improving livelihoods, both in the eastern humid forest and in other regions of the country.
"Our experience in poverty alleviation is huge and we are ready to take the lead on this within the WWF Network," says Niall O’Connor, Regional Representative of WWF Madagascar and Western Indian Ocean Programme Office (MWIOPO). "Our staff in the field is trained to do conservation work without forgetting the human perspective. It is so nice to see a community getting healthier and wealthier. And nature benefits from that too."
On the Big Island, the SRI method even rallied the traditional Mpanjaka, King of the Bara people. At 80 years old, the well respected leader - still an active rice farmer - started planting rice the SRI way a year ago. "I have always been interested in conserving the forest and planting trees. Thanks to SRI, my yield is much bigger and I have more time to dedicate to reforestation activities," he says.
With shining eyes and a smile on his lips, the wise man adds: “He who has eaten enough will protect the lemurs.”