The island nation of Madagascar has a dubious accolade: it is the world-leader in deforestation. Now, some of the island’s teenagers have started a farming revolution – working to stop food production from destroying the island’s rich rainforest.
The bridge across the river to Mangabe has collapsed. Probably many years ago. Just a few wooden stumps now protrude from the murky water separating densely forested riverbanks. The only way across is on an unnervingly wobbly canoe.
We crouch low – backpacks at our feet – gripping the sides of that canoe as it is expertly steered across the water. We are less than 100 miles from the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, but this is a stark reminder of just how remote the communities of this protected area are. When we have crossed the river, it is still a two-hour walk to Mangabe village.
We’re going there to meet a group of Malagasy teenagers – young famers who are leading a small but vital revolution – transforming how people farm in order to save their forest.
Almost 9,000km away in Paris, at a glossy, international gathering, scientists and politicians are finalising an assessment on humanity’s relationship with nature. With its somewhat ungainly title, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) will publish a seminal upsum of the ecological emergency our planet is facing; humanity’s impact on the natural world.
Life in the balance
There is little doubt that, worldwide, humanity struggles to coexist with other species that inhabit the planet – even some that we are keenly aware that we need. Biodiversity encompasses pollinating insects we rely on for food, trees and plants that provide clean air and water and the network of life underfoot that keeps soil fertile and productive.
It is the network of life – we depend on it.
The global report due on 6 May has the lofty goal of setting out a path to a more sustainable future. But here in Mangabe, communities live alongside one of the richest, most diverse rainforests in the world. They make their livelihoods entirely through farming; here the link between people and the forest is palpable and inextricable.
“If the forest is lost, many things will be lost,” explains Voahirana Randriamamonjy from the Malagasy conservation organisation Madagasikara Voakajy. The diminutive, unstoppably optimistic conservationist has been working with the young people of Mangabe’s communities for the last three years.
“It’s not just about the wildlife. Without the forest, there will be no clean water for people to drink, the soil will lose its fertility and be eroded away,” he says.
“The forest even provides medicine,” she adds. “It takes hours to walk to a doctor from these villages, so people rely on natural remedies that grow here.”
As well as being our hosts and guides, Voahirana and her team are here to meet with and to train the teenage recruits as part of their “Youth for Lemurs” project. This community-based mission sets out to provide the new generation of farmers with the skills, knowledge and tools to be able to grow their food without destroying the forest.
Traditionally, Voahirana explains, forest destruction and farming go hand in hand. “The old method is often called ‘slash and burn’ – cutting down a patch of forest and setting fire to it. Ash makes a good fertiliser.”
But when the nutrients in the ash are used up, that cycle of slash and burn starts again. “It causes a great deal of deforestation here in Madagascar,” says Voahirana.
That has contributed to a dubious accolade; Madagascar is the world-leader in deforestation. In 2017 alone, 500,000 hectares were cut down – half a million football pitches of rich, diverse rainforest. Gone.
The rainforest’s last chance
The situation has become so dire that a group of Malagasy and international scientists have come together to urge the new government here to take steps to preserve the country’s famous biodiversity.
“Madagascar’s irreplaceable forests are burning and there are species threatened by the pet trade which will go extinct in the next few years if things don’t change,” explains Prof Julia Jones from Bangor University, UK, who led that study.
“The link to human well-being is often less clear for biodiversity loss than it is for climate change, but effective conservation is essential. If Madagascar lost its lemurs, its forests, its coral reefs, it would be so much poorer.”
It is that pattern of destruction that the young people of Mangabe are now working to break away from.
‘It’s a special place’
Mangabe forest is officially protected. But looking over its landscape, you can see where farms have bitten chunks out of irreplaceable habitat.
Where it is intact, under the shade of its dense canopy, there is a palpable sense of what a biodiversity hotspot it is.
Vines wrap around trees that are surrounded by leafy plants buzzing with insects. As we follow our guides along the path to the village, a nearby tree shakes – an indri lemur bounds quickly away from us. When one of our guides, Emille, gently flicks over one particular leaf, a minuscule, bright orange frog is sheltering beneath.
Photograph: Cow Pea Seeds by Global Environment Facility