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.