August 28, 2009
DAI’s Erdmann Recommends Scaling Up Greener Agricultural Practices in Madagascar
Madagascar, home to some of the world’s richest biodiversity, must scale up its environmentally friendly agricultural practices in order to save the island’s natural forests and resources, DAI’s Thomas Erdmann advocated this week in Nairobi, Kenya, at the 2nd World Congress of Agroforestry.
Slash-and-burn agriculture, in which forests are razed and burned to create farmland, has been especially damaging to Madagascar, which is losing approximately 5 percent of its natural forests per year. Erdmann explained a no-burning technique that DAI has implemented in Madagascar as an alternative to the slash-and-burn practice that continues to ravage the tropical island’s flora and fauna, 80 percent of which is endemic.
Erdmann, regional coordinator of the recently concluded Eco-Regional Initiatives to Promote Alternatives to Slash-And-Burn Practices (ERI), a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded project, said that Malagasy farmers have favorably reviewed a technique implemented by DAI that builds on a largely forgotten traditional practice known as tavy boka. The no-burn technique was introduced via hands-on training and demonstrations, usually adjacent to traditionally farmed (slashed and burned) hillsides, allowing farmers to compare results.
Under tavy boka, a thick mulch is made from cleared vegetation, and woody, contoured hedgerows are installed. The mulch is finely chopped to accelerate decomposition and evenly spread to suppress weeds and sprouts.
Crops such as rain-fed rice, cassava, and maize are directly seeded or planted in the mulch. Leguminous cover crops such as Mucuna pruriens, cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), and Vigna umbellate are introduced between the hedgerows in the second season; in cases where the soil fertility is poor, cowpeas are planted in the first season. Crops are rotated (cereals and tubers with legumes) and again directly seeded or planted into the vegetative cover.
Farmers establish live fences around tavy boka plots using the multipurpose Jatropha curcas shrub. Depending on growth, shrub hedgerows can be pruned and their biomass used to create mulch in some areas of the parcels. In areas closer to the natural forest, ERI staff encouraged farmers to experiment with planting fruit trees, cloves, and black pepper in the bands between the hedgerows. Such land use can create a permaculture or perennial tree crop buffer zone in areas adjacent to the natural forest corridor.
The ERI Toamasina program established more than 100 tavy boka demonstration and test plots in collaboration with participating farmers. These plots totaled approximately 30 hectares, and more than 350 farmers received hands-on instruction in the technique. Some plots were established on the farmers’ own initiative after the initial training.
Overall, participating farmers reported higher yields (especially for cassava and maize) but also increased labor. Erdmann expects that yields will continue to increase for several seasons before attaining optimal, steady-state levels. Labor should decrease over time as hedgerows establish themselves and cover crops become easier to maintain and re-establish.
USAID has funded conservation and development activities in biodiversity-rich landscapes in Madagascar for more than 15 years. Despite the nation’s recent and sometimes violent political upheaval, Erdmann said the continuation of projects such as ERI is crucial to protect the island's irreplaceable biodiversity and avoid the climate change impact associated with deforestation.
“The fact that ERI was the only permanent, external conservation and development actor in many isolated areas next to biodiversity-rich forests cannot be overemphasized,” Erdmann said. “Support to farmers in these areas via dedicated senior staff, field agents, and farmer technicians must continue.
“If these areas are cut off from external support and links to the outside world, there is a high risk that farmers will revert to traditional, extensive agricultural practices that will result in forest conversion and loss.”