Amboasary — The dry, spiny forests of southern Madagascar comprise one of the most unique ecosystems in the world, but they are becoming increasingly endangered as residents of the arid, food-insecure region cut down trees to make way for cultivation and to produce charcoal.
In an effort to slow the rapid deforestation and to address chronic food insecurity, the World Food Programme (WFP), in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is replanting 1,000 hectares of trees through food-for-work projects reaching 60,000 beneficiaries.
Eager to plant
When a chief in Amboasary Sud District asked residents of the small town of Ankirikiriky if they would help replant the surrounding forest, the townspeople readily agreed.
"We know it's good for the environment, and it will provide us with wood for construction and to make charcoal," said 25-year-old team leader Havrelle Zanasoa Marovavy. "Before, we would just cut the trees, but they take 15 years to grow back."
According to a November 2012 WFP assessment, 676,000 people in the region are at risk of severe food insecurity during the current lean season. The food-for-work project offers 2.4kg of maize and beans in return for five hours of planting.
"This works for me, because if we earned money we would just use it to buy food also," Marovavy told IRIN.
People in the area remember before 2009, when such projects did not exist. "In 2006, there was no rain, and we had nothing to eat for months. Since then, things have improved, as there are food-for-work projects, so we can earn some food during that time," Horzentive Rasoanandrasana, a 47-year-old mother of 12, told IRIN.
With guidance from WWF, the townspeople have divided up the unused or depleted land in their area into different parcels for planting, restoration and exploitation, an approach that reduces deforestation while allowing locals with limited sources of fuel or income to continue making charcoal. They are planting Fantsiolitse, a spiny plant they rely on for both construction and charcoal production.
"We need about 80 of these trees to build a house," Marovavy told IRIN. One of her fellow planters, who earns a living producing charcoal, said he needed to burn about four big trees to make one bag of coal.
In Anjanahasoa Village, which is next to Andohahela, a dwindling national park, villagers organized a replanting effort after a forest fire destroyed most of the surrounding vegetation. WFP has now introduced its food-for-work programme to the area to boost their efforts.
"We knew we had to plant again," said Tsareke, a 35-year-old farmer. "We need the forest to produce coal, so if there are no more trees, we're going to have a problem. Our ancestors didn't plant. We are the first generation to do this, because we see there's not enough forest to go around."
In this village, each family has agreed to plant 30 saplings per year. A nearby hillside is now covered in Fantsiolitse saplings.
Although unable to reverse deforestation, the WFP project aims to slow its rate and protect livelihoods that are threatened by the destruction of the forest. The region has become drier and its soil less fertile as more forest has been cleared, factors that have contributed to declining production among local subsistence farmers.
"The villagers themselves see that there is a problem with the forest. But we can't just tell them to stop burning the wood for charcoal, because that is their livelihood. So we try to work with them to manage the forest," Enrique Alvarez of WFP told IRIN. "We tell them, 'Yes, you'll burn, but you'll also plant'.
"These projects take some of the pressure off the forest, but they also help people to survive. Without them, the food insecurity of the people would be even worse. The reforestation activities try to restore the communities' livelihoods, while the WFP-provided food contributes to food consumption during the lean season, when many households eat only once a day," Alvares continued.
"People here don't like to get food for free. They prefer to earn it; there's dignity in that," he said.
Before Madagascar plunged into a political crisis in 2009, when Andry Rajoelina deposed President Marc Ravalomanana in a coup d'etat, many farmers in the region went to the cities to find work during the lean season. But the crisis has damaged the Malagasy economy, and work is now scarce.
Plans by WFP to expand its food-for-work programme into more areas in need of replanting have been put on hold due to a funding shortfall that has also affected the provision of school lunches.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]