Madagascar bush fires prompt exasperated NGO to curtail tree planting
- Graine de Vie, a Belgian NGO present in Madagascar since 2009, claims to be the leading reforestation organization in the country.
- Weary of repeated bush fires and an alleged lack of government action, the NGO announced in January that it would reduce its activities by a third.
- The announcement followed the catastrophic loss of thousands of freshly planted saplings to a bush fire.
ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — After 14 years in Madagascar, it was the last straw for Graine de Vie, a Belgian NGO dedicated to reforestation. In October, 50,000 saplings in the Ambohitantely Special Reserve, freshly planted eight months earlier, went up in smoke. Exasperated by what its president describes as a lack of involvement by Malagasy authorities, the NGO announced at a Jan. 10 press conference in Antananarivo that it would reduce its activities on the island by nearly a third.
“There has been a series of triggering events. I’m sorry, but things are no longer working in Madagascar,” Frédéric Debouche, Graine de Vie’s president, said in an interview with Mongabay.
In Madagascar, bush fires are widely considered an escalating national tragedy, especially as efforts to combat climate change mount. As part of these efforts, more and more NGOs and reforestation companies have been surfacing in the country. Graine de Vie, which has been present on the island since 2009, is among these organizations aiming to “regreen” the Red Island by planting trees.
Until its recent reduction in activities, Graine de Vie planted an average of 10 million trees per year across 19 regions and claimed to be the leading reforestation organization in Madagascar. With 322 tree nurseries, it has been involved in reforesting 10 protected areas and planting trees in the surrounding villages. In protected areas, the NGO plants native species for ecological restoration, while in villages, it plants exotic trees that can be used locally for charcoal or building materials.
In January, the NGO shared a video showing the extent of the fire damage at their reforestation site in Ambohitantely Special Reserve, located in the island’s Central Highlands, 140 kilometers (87 miles) northwest of the capital, Antananarivo. The incident occurred in October 2022 at the peak of the country’s bush fire season. Fire alerts were unusually high in 2022 with a record 1,706 alerts based on satellite data across the island during the week of the incident, according to Global Forest Watch.
In addition to Ambohitantely, in just one weekend, fires broke out in four other protected areas where the NGO operates. The fires crossed the natural firewalls Graine de Vie had established.
An accusation of ‘government greenwashing’
Following the bush fires and repeated forest loss, Debouche denounced the Malagasy authorities’ lack of involvement, which he claimed stem from a lack of competence and motivation to act on behalf of the environment. When bush fires occur, those responsible are supposed to receive a five-year prison sentence, but in general they are quickly exonerated and released, Debouche said.
He added that government fire brigades also lack resources. However, when fires break out in parks, locals are not allowed to intervene without special permission. In the time between an application for permission being filed and being granted, thousands of hectares of forests can burn.
In a reference to the government’s own widely publicized reforestation initiatives, Debouche spoke of “government greenwashing.” Madagascar’s environmental situation has not changed in 14 years, he said. Moreover, he said his NGO never received a reply upon requesting to partner with the Malagasy government. “I do not understand. In Togo and Benin, the environmental ministries welcome us with open arms,” he said.
The alleged shortcomings in environmental governance were catalysts in the NGO’s decision; It announced in January that it would reduce its nurseries from 322 to 208. However, Debouche said this reduction will not impact its work in protected areas.
He said the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MEDD) contacted the NGO following its announcement, though with no proposed solutions.
The MEDD did not respond to several requests for comment from Mongabay.
Image courtesy of Global Forest Watch.
Fire: a double-edged sword
Traditionally, farmers in Madagascar have used fire for a variety of reasons, including to clear and fertilize the soil in slash-and-burn agriculture, to maintain pasture, or to remove flammable fodder and control potential wildfires.
Fire has also historically been part of Madagascar’s ecology. For example, a study published in May 2022 showed that the island’s fire regimes were similar to 88% of other tropical burned regions with similar climate and vegetation, such as Australia or Central Africa. In particular, “the frequency of fires in the highlands and western Madagascar is similar to that of other parts of the world,” Christian Kull told Mongabay in a video call. Kull, a co-author of the study, is a researcher at the Institute of Geography and Sustainability at the University of Lausanne and has spent more than 10 years studying bush fire ecology in Madagascar.
At the same time, researchers have shown that contrary to popular belief, the Malagasy highlands — where many major reforestation projects are located — historically were not entirely covered with forests. Photographic archives from the 1800s show the Malagasy highlands covered by savannas and grasslands with small, sparse forests in the valleys. The primitive herbaceous plants in these biomes adapted to a more or less regular fire regime by becoming pyrophytic, according to a 2020 study.
“We could exclude fire from the Central Highlands, but that would change the landscapes significantly,” Kull added. The researcher argued that reforestation is appropriate only in areas where forests originally existed. For its part Graine de Vie is restoring previously deforested areas in Ambohitantely, which is one of the forests nestled between the hills of the Malagasy highlands. The village areas it plants trees in, by contrast, are either formerly deforested areas, grasslands or land belonging to farmers.
Fire can be a double-edged sword, and it can become uncontrollable, as evidenced by the loss of Graine de Vie’s 50,000 saplings. According to Kull’s research, the fight against bush fires in Madagascar only began at the start of the colonial era, in 1896. People have tried to stop bush fires in Madagascar for 120 years since then, but to no avail, he said.
“My research dates back 20 years, but every time I come back, things haven’t changed much,” Kull said. This indicates that not only are some reforestation efforts perhaps inappropriate, but efforts to control bush fires are also not effective enough.
According to a webinar Kull organized in December in Madagascar, this lack of control over bush fires stems from a tense relationship between local communities and those who want to fight bush fires. For example, farmers may be falsely accused of using a tool, fire, that they’ve been using for generations, which could lead them to use it illicitly and therefore control it insufficiently.
Moreover, Kull said that contrary to popular belief, the high rate of deforestation on the island is not attributable solely to bush fires. Fires contributed to the loss of 269,000 hectares (664,713 acres) of tree cover in Madagascar between 2000 and 2021, according to Global Forest Watch. In comparison, losses due to all other causes during the same period totaled 4 million hectares (9.8 million acres), so the loss due to fire was only 6% of the total. According to the platform, shifting cultivation was the primary cause of these losses.
For Debouche from Graine de Vie, “The question is not why some people are burning forests. The real question is why the state is letting it happen and not taking any action to protect national parks.”
Banner image: Graine de Vie’s reforestation site in Ambohitantely prior to the October 2022 fire. Image courtesy of Graine de Vie.
This article was first published here on Mongabay’s French website on Apr. 3, 2023.
In Madagascar, a tree-planting business goes long on social, short on eco
Phelps, L. N., Andela, N., Gravey, M., Davis, D. S., Kull, C. A., Douglass, K., & Lehmann, C. E. (2022). Madagascar’s fire regimes challenge global assumptions about landscape degradation. Global Change Biology, 28(23), 6944-6960. doi:10.1111/gcb.16206
Solofondranohatra, C. L., Vorontsova, M. S., Hempson, G. P., Hackel, J., Cable, S., Vololoniaina, J., & Lehmann, C. E. (2020). Fire and grazing determined grasslands of central Madagascar represent ancient assemblages. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 287(1927), 20200598. doi:10.1098/rspb.2020.0598
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