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Reforesting Madagascar’s Highlands: A (Poetic) Lesson From Nature

National Geographic Young Explorer Alizé Carrère is researching an innovative method of agricultural adaptation in the Malagasy highlands that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as “lavaka”, literally meaning “hole”, they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic benefits, turning a deforested landscape into one of opportunity,...

A scorched hillside (with an existing, older lavaka in the middle) from an intentional forest fire. Photo: Alizé Carrère
A scorched hillside (with an existing, older lavaka in the middle) from an intentional forest fire. Photo: Alizé Carrère

National Geographic Young Explorer Alizé Carrère is researching an innovative method of agricultural adaptation in the Malagasy highlands that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as “lavaka”, literally meaning “hole”, they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic benefits, turning a deforested landscape into one of opportunity, not hardship.

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Deforestation is old news in Madagascar. So, too, is its classic solution, reforestation.

For decades, Madagascar has been the recipient of millions of aid dollars and countless multi-national projects that aim to reduce the wide scale deforestation across the island. The reasons for this unfortunate legacy are myriad, but some of the most commonly sited are the burning of trees to make way for flat crop lands, the belief that slash and burn agriculture returns nutrients to the soil, and the common practice of doro-tanety, the vast burning of hillsides before the rainy season to promote the growth of fresh grass sprouts preferred by grazing cattle.

Small grass sprouts emerge from the ashes of a recently burned hillside. This is the traditional practice of doro-tanetry, the expansive burning of shrubbery prior to the rainy season to promote the growth of young, green grass sprouts for grazing zebu. Photo: Alizé Carrère
Small grass sprouts emerge from the ashes of a recently burned hillside. This is the traditional practice of doro-tanetry, the expansive burning of shrubbery prior to the rainy season to promote the growth of young, green grass sprouts for grazing zebu. Photo: Alizé Carrère
Several agricultural fires ablaze at once in the severely degraded region of Alaotra-Mangoro. Photo: Alizé Carrère
Several agricultural fires ablaze at once in the severely degraded region of Alaotra-Mangoro. Photo: Alizé Carrère

Over the years, reforestation efforts across the country have been met with varied success. This is also due to a number of different reasons, but as is commonly seen in impoverished agricultural areas, solutions that put food on the dinner plate tonight are far more important than those that protect invisible atmospheric layers for a future they may never come to know. Because successful reforestation typically requires time scales conducive to the latter mentality, it’s perhaps not too surprising that these good intentions haven’t all seen the fruits of success.

So the challenge remains. Deforestation and bush fires are still frequent practice, which also further provoke the formation of lavaka.

However, in my last few weeks of field work, I have begun to witness a unique form of natural, and comparatively rapid, reforestation that has captured the attention of farmers across the highlands – and which may offer an important contribution to greater reforestation discourse in Madagascar.

As mentioned in a previous post, lavaka are often re-colonized by natural tree growth processes. When rain makes landfall at higher elevations, it has a natural tendency to follow the crevices of lavaka as it works its way down to valley floors. In the process, seeds, branches, and other forest debris are carried along for the ride, which get deposited in the nooks and crannies on the interior façade of a lavaka.

As farmers have been quick to notice, those seedlings then enjoy a rather healthy existence there in the lavaka. Not only are they protected from the elements, but they receive an abundant supply of water and a consistent replenishment of soil nutrients. As one farmer aptly pointed out, it’s as if the lavaka creates its own mini, self-sustaining forest ecosystem: as the trees inside the lavaka grow and shed their leaves, everything tumbles to the bottom, decomposes, and re-fertilizes the soil cradled within, further enriching the saplings. Because there is then an increasing competition for light, the trees have a tendency to grow much faster and turn out considerably more robust than their exteriorly located counterparts.

Visibly healthier and more robust trees occupying a lavaka. Photo: Alizé Carrère
Visibly healthier and more robust trees occupying a lavaka. Photo: Alizé Carrère

One farmer told me, “We call it the lazy farmer’s work! You don’t have to do much, and the trees turn out much better than others outside the lavaka”.

Farmers have said that in addition to stabilizing the lavaka and helping slow erosion, a dense collection of trees provides an important source of revenue in the way of forest products. Farmers I spoke to greatly encourage and respect tree growth processes taking place in lavaka, sometimes planting their own among those that arrived naturally.

As a result, it is not at all uncommon to see a heavily deforested hillside with hardly a single tree in sight, and then a mature lavaka right in the middle of the barren landscape with lots of thick, lush trees pushing out of it. It can be quite a spectacular sight.

A smaller, older lavaka abundantly populated with trees. Photo: Alizé Carrère
A smaller, older lavaka abundantly populated with trees. Photo: Alizé Carrère
Healthy trees spring out of a lavaka. Photo: Alizé Carrère
Healthy trees spring out of a lavaka. Photo: Alizé Carrère

I find this all remarkably poetic. It’s as if nature has a way of tending to its gravest of wounds first, the rawest and most gaping of cuts on earth’s skin. Much like a scab, the trees and vegetation take over the fresh lavaka, seal and protect the exposed land, and then create a new layer over time. Most importantly, the advantages of this process seem attainable and worthy enough to farmers that they give the proper time and maintenance it needs to successfully manifest.

That’s not to say that the rest of the landscape should be ignored. But reforestation is a lengthy process, and I find a great deal of sense in adopting new approaches that start by incorporating some of these restorative trends on the ground – particularly those produced by Mother Nature herself.

NEXTThe Bitter And The Sweet: Finding Opportunity in the Life Cycle of Erosion

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Alizé Carrère
Alizé Carrère is National Geographic Explorer researching human adaptability to environmental change. She began her research in the highlands of Madagascar, uncovering an innovative method of agricultural adaptation that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as "lavaka", literally meaning "hole", they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic opportunities on an otherwise deforested landscape. She is now working on a series of short films that showcase remarkable human resilience and creativity in the face of environmental change. Alizé obtained her B.A. and M.Sc. from McGill University, and is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Miami in Ecosystem Science and Policy.