The spiny forest and its people
It was inspiring to see the universalities of life in this place that looked nothing like my Canadian home. Play and laughter are staples of life everywhere, anyone venturing to Madagascar should remember this. Never be afraid to be silly or to make children laugh; it is the simplest way into people’s hearts. Do not underestimate the connections that can be built during a simple game of ‘duck, duck, goose’.
These joyous, energetic children who touched my heart and guided me through this experience face a tough future in the spiny forest of South Western Madagascar. The spiny forest ecoregion is home to a plethora of endemic species. It is a marvel of the natural world and an irreparable ecosystem of tremendous importance to the thousands of rural villagers who depend on it for food, shelter, medicine and tradition. Sadly it is under great threat due to ongoing deforestation caused by a huge and increasing demand for charcoal in the city of Toliara. The problem is compounded by major droughts and crop failures. Virtually all household cooking in the city of Toliara is fueled by charcoal, a troubling yet presently necessary industry that WWF is working very hard to stabilize and regulate. Rural villagers have traditionally relied on subsistence agriculture to support their families. However, climate change is causing increases in the intensity and durations of droughts, leaving farmers little choice but to abandon their wilted crops and to turn to cutting down the forest to produce charcoal to earn a living in the urban market. This is not a lucrative endeavor for the farmers. Over and over again we heard the lament of the charcoal producer, “there is no rain, we cannot farm, we must feed our families”. Villagers recognize the damage that deforestation is causing and are eager to find ways to save the forest, an important component of their tradition and life. Although the present trajectory is grim the work of WWF and the SEESO (synergie d’energie et l’environment dans le sud ouest) project, of which I was a small part, promises to stabilize the charcoal industry and prevent future forest losses. This is being accomplished in many ways: firstly, by establishing nurseries and encouraging villagers to plant plantations of trees for use in future charcoal production; secondly, by organizing charcoal producers into associations and regulating the supply chain which involves education at the village level; and finally, by implementing regional legislation to encourage the enforcement of this new system of charcoal production.
It will certainly be a long and arduous road to recovery for the spiny forest and its residents. Farmers will have to work to find new ways to grow their crops or positive alternative sources of income. However, I am confident that the people of the South West, with the continued support of WWF (and many other valiant NGO’s and the Malagasy government) are up to the task. I am reminded of a school we visited several times in the community of Tsihanisiha. On our first visit, a brutally hot and sunny day, the director of the school guided his 60 students in the proper technique to plant young trees. All through the afternoon we worked tirelessly with these children, some as young as five, and planted over 200 trees in their school yard. The children rushed to fetch water from a nearby drainage and diligently watered each sapling. There was a real sense of pride among the kids. We returned a few weeks later to find a tragic site. Only about a dozen saplings remained. Drought killed some, goats grazed on others and rains from a cyclone which hit the east coast of Madagascar (the only significant rain we witnessed during the three month rainy season that we lived in the spiny forest) had in an ironic twist of fate drowned the remaining trees. Yet the children and their director proudly took us around to show us how they had protected the dozen trees that remained. They had enclosed them in little tee-pees of sticks to protect them from goats. They excitedly outlined their plan to plant even more trees at the first opportunity. The children were all confident that their bad luck could be overcome with more hard work. It was apparent that everyone had a vision of a treed and shady school yard.