In Madagascar, beekeepers persist in the face of fires and forest loss

  • The Anjozorobe Angavo forest corridor is one of the few remaining primary forests in the Central Highlands of Madagascar.
  • Home to a number of rare and endemic species, this primary forest is undergoing a rapid decline, driven primarily by fires.
  • In hopes of alleviating the problem, an NGO and a honey company are collaborating to train farmers in apiculture, with the aim of providing them with a stable income and an alternative livelihood that does not involve destroying the forest.
  • However, this beekeeping project is threatened by the rapid decline of trees that are vital for the survival of bees.

ANJOZOROBE ANGAVO, Madagascar — Requiring a turbulent two-hour car ride followed by a two-hour walk across paddy fields and mountains, access to the small group of beekeepers in the village of Dobolalina is no easy task for newcomers. Their apiculture project isn’t for the faint-hearted, either.

“I believe in this project, even though it is tough,” says Lovasoa Rakotanaivo, one of the new local beekeepers. “But if the forest continues to disappear, all of our hard work will have amounted to nothing.”

The Anjozorobe Angavo forest corridor that runs alongside Dobolalina stretches 100 kilometers (62 miles) through the regions of Alaotra Mangoro and Analamanga. It’s one of the last remaining primary forests of Madagascar’s Central Highlands. To aid its conservation, an NGO and a honey company co-founded a beekeeping project within a protected area inside the forest corridor. The Anjozorobe Angavo protected area covers 52,000 hectares (128,000 acres), a small slice of the forest corridor of the same name. The beekeeping project, aimed at generating income for local communities without harming the forest, is threatened by increasing deforestation, which is creating havoc in the area.

Beekeepers and technicians gather around a hive to examine the frames. Image by Valisoa Rasolofomboahangy for Mongabay.

The Bee Keeper (TBK), a French-Malagasy initiative led by the Paris-based Compagnie du Miel, has been working for the past year with the French NGO Amitié Madagascar Île-de-France (AMIF) to train farmers from Anjozorobe in apiculture. Their approach is based on the idea that empowering communities economically can enable them to reduce their reliance on forests and the pressure they put on them. Targeting rural areas where the income is $2 per day or less, AMIF provides the necessary equipment and TBK trains and oversees the farmers, free of charge.

The first step is selecting motivated participants. So far, TBK’s approach has been successful in three rural communities throughout the country. Their honey is exported to Europe, the Middle East and Japan, where it sells for high prices, marketed as an ethical and sustainable product.

According to TBK’s model and estimate, 20 hives could enable a beekeeper to rise above the poverty line, while 50 could provide them with a middle-class income. Twelve villagers are currently involved in the project at Dobolalina; the project started with 14 but two dropped out, according to Christian Randrianavosoa, TBK’s technical manager.

A swarm of Apis mellifera unicolor, the subspecies of honeybee endemic to Madagascar that beekeepers raise in Dobolalina. Image by Valisoa Rasolofomboahangy for Mongabay.

A unique primary forest in trouble

The Anjozorobe Angavo protected area is surrounded by plantations of eucalyptus, a non-native species intended to be harvested for timber and charcoal. To see scraps of primary forest, one must trek far into the mountains of Dobolalina. Illegal loggers don’t restrict themselves to exploiting the eucalyptus trees, but also attack primary forests. Slash-and-burn agriculture and illicit mining also drive deforestation in the area. According to Fanamby, the NGO responsible for managing the protected area, forest loss reaches an average of 900 hectares (2,224 acres) per year, fire being the main culprit.

With an endemicity rate of 76% according to Fanamby, the area is home to an outstanding flora and fauna that is severely threatened by habitat loss. According to a 2007 government study, the forest in the department of Andranomay, where Dobolalina is located, holds the highest abundance of small mammal species in the Central Highlands. A rodent called the eastern voalavo (Voalavo antsahabensis), endemic to the area, was also described from there.

Most of the inhabitants are farmers, but the need for additional income is crucial to support the area’s rapid demographic growth. “We are farmers, but our land dates back to our great-grandparents,” says Randrianosolo, a man in his 60s and the oldest of the Dobolalina beekeepers. “With our great-grandchildren there are now more of us, and it is no longer enough for us to survive on.”

Randrianosolo, who like many Malagasy people uses only one name, says he got involved in beekeeping because he needed an extra source of income to complement what he earns from his rice, bean and sweet potato crops. While waiting for the harvest that is barely enough to feed his family, he takes on small, low-paying jobs in the fields.

Living conditions here are precarious, so communities turn to whatever short-term income sources they can find, at the expense of the primary forest. “The protected areas located near community settlements are the ones most affected by fires,” says Valentinah Randriamihaja, a project coordinator with Fanamby.

Small, sparse settlements in Dobolalina, along the border of Anjozorobe Angavo’s primary forest. Image © Nirina Rakotonanahary and Alain Razafindravony.
The hives of Dobolalina’s small beekeeping group. Image © Nirina Rakotonanahary and Alain Razafindravony.

The forest is illegally exploited not only by local communities, but also by timber traffickers and charcoal makers who pass through. According to Fanamby, the COVID-19 pandemic put the protected area under even more pressure due to the absence of tourists, a fate common among the country’s protected areas. “Now unemployed, those who had made a living from tourism turned to logging,” Randriamihaja says.

Migrants escaping the desertification occurring in the country’s south are also migrating to the rest of the country. Without jobs, they exert additional pressure on the forests and protected areas.

Elsewhere, charcoal making is becoming increasingly attractive as demand from the capital city of Antananarivo rises, according to Randriamihaja. Even in big cities, energy sources besides charcoal remain expensive and a luxury for the majority of the population. “Even those who did not make charcoal before do now. They are poor and there’s fast and easy money to be earned, even though they know it is not good.” she says. Fresh tire tracks made by charcoal trucks are common on the outskirts of the protected area.

Furthermore, with its abundance of precious wood, minerals and gemstones, this region is a magnet for illegal logging and mining. “It is difficult to reconcile the needs of rural people with forest conservation because it affects thousands of people,” says Benja Mialison, agricultural project officer at AMIF. “And at the moment, our project only impacts 12 people.”

The forest also shelters extremely rare species, such as the Madagascar serpent-eagle (Eutriorchis astur), listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. According to the 2007 government study, Anjozorobe Angavo holds more species of lemurs than the other patches of forest in the central-western region, such as the Ambohitantely and Analamaitso Tampoketsa special reserves. This includes babakotos or indris (Indri indri) and diademed sifakas (Propithecus diadema), both critically endangered, according to the IUCN. These lemurs have become reclusive and harder to find due to hunting and lack of forest cover.

“We no longer see any lemurs around here because the forest patches are just not big enough,” says Victorine Raoliarmanana, Ralova’s spouse. “However, around mid-September we can hear the calls of the babakoto.” These calls can travel more than 4 km (2.5 mi).

Aerial view of Anjozorobe Angavo’s primary forest. Image © Fanamby.
Patches of Dobolalina’s primary forest that have been illegally cleared. Image by Valisoa Rasolofomboahangy for Mongabay.

Honey from primary forests, a long-term challenge

According to TBK, all of the conditions for collecting honey from the primary forest were in place. That the honey could eventually serve as a stable source of income for the communities of Anjozorobe, all the while saving the forest, supports a marketing strategy for selling a unique product. However, the project is currently up against many potentially discouraging challenges.

In mid-August, a fire of unknown cause destroyed part of the Andranomay forest bordering the protected area, approximately 5 km (3 mi) from Dobolalina. The fire contributed to a series of delays in TBK’s first honey harvest, which had been planned for August.

“At the moment we are struggling because the forest is retreating faster than the bees can work!” says Gaël Hankenne, co-founder of TBK and la Compagnie du Miel. The bees have fewer and fewer flowers to pollinate as the forest is destroyed.

“There was so much smoke on the day of the fire that it looked like fog everywhere,” says José Randra Andrinirina, one of the beekeepers. And smoke is bad for bees. Weather conditions have also been unstable in the region this year. Sometimes, it rains five days in a row, according to the Dobolalina beekeepers. And then, when there is no rain for several days, it becomes too dry. These are difficult conditions for bees.

These weather anomalies and others, which locals blame on climate change, are having a major impact on the protected area and on all community activities. From a conservation perspective, the Anjozorobe forest block serves as a shelter for many endangered species because it’s isolated from other forest fragments in the highlands. Yet little by little, the retreat of the forest is affecting the area’s climate stability and humidity levels. It’s disturbing the farming and livestock-breeding calendars. And with food production shrinking, people are more likely to turn toward logging and poaching.

Elsewhere, according to a 2014 doctoral thesis by Henriette Rasolofoarivao at the Université de la Réunion, tropical bees have a high tendency to leave their hives. This is a hygiene-related behavior expressed distinctly in the endemic Malagasy honeybee (Apis mellifera unicolor), the subspecies the Dobolalina beekeepers raise. And although these honeybees are relatively tame and easy to breed, when conditions are tough, the queen bee tends to lead the swarm elsewhere. The Dobolalina beekeepers have found it difficult to keep their swarms, and they often kill the queens in the honeycomb so that when the next generation is born, the queens don’t lead them out of the hive. On one occasion, one of the 22 hives on-site was found to be completely empty.

AMIF and TBK work with the villagers to maintain a total of 100 hives at Anjozorobe. They had to move some of the hives closer to the eucalyptus forest while they wait for the honey project in the primary forest to come to fruition.

Despite the challenges of keeping bees in a shrinking forest, the participants persist. “If we are still here, it’s because we still believe in it,” says Randrianasolo.

The hives of the little group of Dobolalina beekeepers on the edge of primary forest in the Anjozorobe Angavo protected area. Image by Valisoa Rasolofomboahangy for Mongabay.
Eucalyptus plantations, grown for harvest, border a rice paddy about 5 km (3 mi) from Dobolalina. Image © Nirina Rakotonanahary and Alain Razafindravony.

Banner image: The small group of Dobolalina beekeepers at the home of Lovasoa Rakotanaivo and his family. Image by Valisoa Rasolofomboahangy for Mongabay.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s French team and first published here on our French site on Nov. 3, 2021.

Citations :

Goodman, S. M., Raselimanana, A. P., Wilmé, L., Nationale, M. M., Madagascar. Ministère de la recherche scientifique, & Centre d’information et de documentation scientifique et technique. (2007). Inventaires de la faune et de la flore du couloir Forestier d’Anjozorobe-Asngavo.

Rasolofoarivao, H. (2014). Apis mellifera unicolor (Latreille 1804, Hymenoptera Apidae) et Varrroa destructor (Anderson and Trueman, 2000, Acari : Varroidae) à Madagascar : diversité génétique, impact et comportement hygiénique (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).

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