21 July 2013

Of rice and timber

We were invited into the living room of the President of the fokontany, or municipality, where we would spent the next few days before heading back to our house in Maroantsetra. After two weeks spent visiting three villages in order to try to understand a bit about the diversity of livelihoods and forest management and use surrounding the newest and largest of Madagascar’s Natural Parks, this introduction to our fourth stop of the trip was notable. First of all, the fact that it had a living room was notable. The house itself, though larger than others we had visited, was not unlike the houses of the wealthier residents of various villages. It was made from hardwood from the forest surrounding the village,rather than raffia or bamboo, with a corrugated metal roof brought up river 6 hours by canoe from Maroantsetra, the main port and city in this corner of the island. We sat on furniture made of precious hardwood, the first sofas we encountered. In the corner stood two 2m long forestry saws and in the back room were goony sacks filled with unhulled rice, from the last crop to be harvested. Aside from farming, which is nearly everybody's first occupation, the president also works construction, building houses for residents of the town, buying his wood from residents who harvest it from the forest they have rights to, passed down through the last 2 or 3 generations or newly acquired.

The second set of sofas we saw were at the house of the man who owns the machine that hulls the rice. Most people in the surrounding area, and throughout much of Madagascar rely of large mortar and pestles to hull their rice little by little and sell what they can in the hulled form. In this town, though it costs a bit to use, people have access to a hulling machine, run on a generator with diesel brought up river again by canoe. In return for 50 ariary (2.5 cents), they receive rice that is fit for consumption and ready to be rebagged and either eaten or shipped back down on the canoes to Maroantsetra where it fetches about 400 ariary more per kilo than the unhulled rice.

The one person we met that didn’t see himself as a farmer first was the school teacher of this town. He had grown up in the area and had returned to teach there after studying. His wife runs a store in the front of their house to provide the necessities for everyday life in the village. In addition to the teaching and selling incomes, he also works as a carpenter, buying planks and rounds of hardwood trees from local loggers to fill his commissions for beds, chests and yes, sofas.

Ambodihazomami is well endowed with rice paddies and only recently have they began also cultivating the slopes surrounding the village.

The above anecdote illustrates a number of aspects of the political economy of rural life here. A utilization of the forest for both commercial and subsistence purposes that is fueling both a local market for luxury goods and a transformation of agricultural technology that is allowing for export to the administrative hub. As apparent in the above photo, this town is surrounded by a significant amount of rice paddy. It was interesting to talk with folks about the changes in land use over time. I was told that up until about 20 years ago they had only planted rice one per year and that it sufficed. But as population has grown and inheritances of rice paddies being divided between the children has shrunk them, they moved to planting twice per year. As of three years ago or so, they began also farming rice on the hills, which requires cutting the trees and burning the soil. One of those that I talked to, who makes a living from timber, thinks that people should be trying to improve their techniques of paddy rice farming instead. And others worry that there just isn't enough land, and that the new protected area to their North will have to be used by the next generation.

This situation stands in contrast to the two other villages we visited during this mission, which had began working with the conservation NGO in charge of the protected area to create community managed conservation zones to act as a buffer. Neither of them had as much paddy land, being in narrower valleys. They both had extensive use of the hillside for rice farming such that the immediate slopes surrounding the villages were mostly cultivated rather than left as forest. In both villages they are no longer longer permitted to harvest timber for sale, and have to request permits to cut wood for their houses and to do agricultural clearings. In exchange, if they are diligent in their work, the conservation NGO provides development assistance in terms of latrines, metal roofs for schools, and nice, wood-paneled, metal roofed buildings for offices. There is some vanilla and cloves being grown and sold in all the villages but in a number of ways there seems to have been a basic trade off of timber for conservation in these two.

The hills around Andaparaty have been more heavily cultivated. The land in the foreground is newly returning to fallow.

At the end of our first mission, we have learned a great deal about the diversity of uses and economies related to land and the forest in this area. Eli, my field assistant, Gerandine, our camp steward, and I are spending the week caring for gear and doing data entry before heading out tomorrow for another few weeks of visiting villages. On the first mission we piloted household surveys to understand livelihoods strategies, perspectives on conservation and knowledge of forest use rules. We also talked to a number of community and conservation leaders to begin stratifying communities based of governance systems. On this next trip we will continue with that work while piloting forest use transects and vegetation plots. Next year then, when our survey effort really cranks up, we should be able to connect livelihood strategies and land use institutions to levels and types of forest use.

19 July 2013

Hard evidence of 2000BCE settlement of Madagascar

Unfortunately, nobody yet seems to have picked up this story, and I'm in no position to do it justice, but it needs mentioning. The paper is behind a firewall so until somebody decides to to some science journalism on this (where's the press conference?), I guess you have to trust me.

Chert flakes from one of two sites in N. Madagascar. From Dewar et al. 2013.

While there has been some hints previously at pre-iron age settlement, this is the first unequivocal evidence. This rewrites Madagascar history.

The settling and subsequent ecological transformations (levels of deforestation, causes of holocene defaunation) of Madagascar have long been contentious and murky issues, it has been received wisdom for decades that Madagascar was settled not earlier than 500 CE. and that the first settlers were most likely from Indo-polynesia.

Dewar and associates have just published a paper relating archaeological finds at two sites in the north, where they have found stone tools dating back to 2000 BCE.
"The stone tools from Ambohiposa and Lakaton’i Anja are unlike anything reported from Madagascar. The small assemblages were discovered in sites and contexts indicative of intermittent occupation by small groups engaged in foraging."
This is a huge find that calls into question perceptions of the destruction that humans have wrought on Madagascar since it was first colonized. This is big. If humans had been living on the island for 2500 years or more before large lemurs and birds began going extinct, then it wasn't simply a matter of humans showing up in Eden and wrecking paradise. Complex shifts in modes of production, climate and trade require further unraveling.

Robert E. Dewar, Chantal Radimilahy, Henry T. Wright, Zenobia Jacobs, Gwendolyn O. Kelly, and Francesco Berna. 2013. Stone tools and foraging in northern Madagascar challenge Holocene extinction models. PNAS. published ahead of print July 15, 2013.

Child labor is rife in Madagascar

Just wanted to call attention to this gripping statistic published (apparently) by the International Labor Organization.

According to the Shanghai Daily, in an article about rates of child labor in the mining industry,
"The latest data published by the ILO bureau showed that 28 percent of children in Madagascar ranging from five years old to 17 are working."
I think the stat looks both startling and a bit fudgey - you aren't supposed to work before you are 18 but I bet that stat would be quite different if you looked at those less than 16 yrs. Nevertheless it is a major issue here. It is more than common to see kids in rice paddies, or acting as nannies for their siblings, fetching water and taking care of the house chores, especially young girls.

Child labor has long been a concern for those looking at demographics in the developing world. Madagascar has an incredibly high population growth rate of almost 3% (ranking in the 15 highest growth rates in the world) and 50% of the population is under 18 yrs of age, according to the UNFPA (which also highlights the issues of child marriage). Many economists would link this to the tradeoffs of having more hands to work fields and do chores (especially during times of labor shortage like when the rice fields need to be prepared and planted) versus the costs of feeding and educating them - a very rationalist view, to be sure. The more appealing education looks, the less kids people tend to have. And the more perceived opportunities are available for high school and college grads, the more people are willing to pay to educate their children. With few high schools and colleges in the country, even though school fees themselves are kept low, the costs of sending kids to live in a far off city are not to be scoffed at here.

High child marriage and lack of opportunity (both for education and stable employment) equates to lots of kids who are forced to work - pretty much as simple as that. Of course, there are all sorts of complex cultural and global geo-political reasons why these issues continue to persist.

So though I am certainly no expert on the issue, I find myself drawn time and again, through my concerns with conservation and livelihood, to the issue of child labor. Just another example of how intertwined our social and environmental concerns are.

Anyone have more info on this?

26 June 2013

Locust Plague in Madagascar Continues Unaverted.

First off, Happy Independence Day! 53 Years since Madagascar achieved independence from France in 1960. To celebrate on this blog I want to call your attention to an underreported and critically underfunded crisis that is happening here right now.

I'd always imagined a locust plague, have never witnessed one, to be a huge cloud of millions of locusts that fly through an area eating their way before moving on and soon dying. Crop lost but that's it. Unfortunately, that isn't how these things work at all. Well, you can get the cloud, and it could be up to a hundred miles long, but if the plague isn't fought, if the locusts aren't stopped, they just keep breeding and multiplying and each year the plague continues. It doesn't just end.

Madagascar has been swarmed with locusts since early this year. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN has been issuing warnings since August 2012. They have been trying to raise funds to be able to monitor and eradicate the insects but unfortunately got nowhere near the $11 million they required then.

The swarm has now grown to plague proportions.  According to a recent FAO mission "in parts of the country rice and maize losses due to the locusts vary from 40 to 70 percent of the crop, with 100 percent losses on certain plots." About two thirds of the island is affected, over half its population, and mostly poor subsistence farmers who have no fallback form the loss of their rice harvest. Given a still intransigent strongman in power and political and economic isolation, this problem can't be solved with market substitutes either.

At least today I can say that  Bloomberg and some other international media are finally picking up the story, because the window on keeping this from being a protracted, multi-year devastating tragedy beyond what it already is is closing. "“If we don’t act now, the plague could last years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said. “This could very well be a last window of opportunity to avert an extended crisis.”"

Is the international community going to come to the aid of those in need here, or just go on pretending Madagascar is an uninhabited island filled with talking cartoon animals?

08 June 2013

Dispatches from the Great Island - Take 5

Just a quick post to re-boot this blog.

I arrived in Tana a couple days ago. I will be in Madagascar through August. One more summer to get to know this island (well, as the last two nights reminded me as I was trying to find more blankets - it's winter here)! While I am settling in and waiting for my bags to arrive (hopefully they are two days behind me...) I realized that there is plenty of interest going on that should have been utilizing this space for.

View from my balcony at Niaouly Hotel overlooking the East end of Avenue de l'Independence

Over the last year, I've been settling into a PhD program at Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. During that time I finished up my thesis from Wisconsin and have been a co-author on two papers that stemmed from work around Ankeniheny-Zahamena. Id like to let you all know what that was about, but for an introduction to the field work that was involved, you can see this post. Hopefully, those posts will be able to function as a wonderful epilogue in lieu of the second chapter that never materialized.

I have begun work on a new project that will be in Maroantsetra. You can check out Dr. Chris Golden's website for tons of information about the area and the work that he has conducted there. I'll be collaborating with him and his team to expand efforts to take a deeper look at forest management institutions and access to forest resources.

I made a quick trip there in January with a couple of faculty members. Ill try to update briefly on my initial impressions from this first trip. I will be looking at issues of access to land and forest resources as they relate to conservation, people's livelihoods, and health outcomes. Ill try to provide some real-time impressions of what some of the points of contention are around Makira Natural Park. You can bet that the REDD funding mentioned in that article is going to be one, but I'll be very interested in what local people think on all things forest and farming.

Madagascar's political crises continues - it's high time to get caught up on some links. For a start, you should definitely be aware of the financial consequences, as presented by the World Bank.

That should take us through the summer. If there is anything in particular you'd like to see here, let me know.