Topic Area: Deforestation
Geographic Area: Madagascar
Focal Question: What are the historical causes of deforestation in Madagascar and what is the situation today?
(1) Jarosz, Lucy. "Defining and explaining tropical deforestation: shifting cultivation and population growth in colonial Madagascar." Economic Geography 64.9 (Oct 1993): 366-80.
(2) Matloff, Judith. "Poor Nations Confront Choice of Trees of Jobs." Christian Science Monitor 16 Aug. 1995: 1.
(3) Perlez, Jane. "Whose forest is it, the peasants or the lemurs?" New York Times 7 Sept. 1991: 2N.
(4) Shaw, Christopher. "New light and heat - on forests as energy reserves." Energy Policy 23.7 (July 1995): 607.
Reviewer: Alane O'Connor, Colby College '96

Rapid deforestation on the island of Madagascar has been an important factor in many global issues such as global warming, desertification, soil erosion and decreased biodiversity. Biodiversity is of particular concern for Madagascar as the rosy periwinkle, which is found almost exclusively on the tiny island off the coast of East Africa, is essential for the treatment of leukemia. Additionally, 90% of it's 250 species of reptiles, 29 of it's lemur species and 80% of it's plant species are unique to the island. If the forests continue to be rapidly destroyed without taking this biodiversity measure into account, it could have serious ramifications on the world. Madagascar's historic problem of deforestation can be linked to the detrimental policies of the colonial state in terms of land use and agriculture.

The deforestation problem in Madagascar began when it was annexed as a French colony in 1896. An uncertain political climate and famine followed this annexation, and many of the Malagasy fled to the woods for survival. These farmers started practicing the method of shifting cultivation as a means of survival. Shifting cultivation is "a continuous system of cultivation in which temporary fields are cleared, usually burned, and subsequently cropped for fewer years than they are fallowed" (Jarosz 368). The practice has been defined by the World Bank as "primitive, inefficient, and destructive", but "sustainable and appropriate when population densities are low and land areas are vast" (Jarosz 369).

Madagascar's domestic economy, from the beginning, has been geared toward export promotion. Exports consisted primarily of coffee, but rice and beef were sold abroad as well. Coffee was originally planted on only the east coast, but expanded across the island when it became apparent that producers were able to generate large profits. Because of this expansion of coffee, the island's economic development was uneven. Rice shortages resulted as early as 1911 because of the excess demand for labor in the coffee sector, and the nation's "food security" began to erode. Rice was also more vulnerable to changes in the weather and cyclones, which exacerbated the shortages. Peasants that once worked cultivating the nation's rice moved into regions where they were able to cultivate coffee because of the higher wages. These peasants would then clear additional land so that they could practice shifting cultivation and generate enough food to subsist.

In response to the increasing shifting cultivation, or tavy as it is called locally, the Governor General prohibited it's practice in 1909. The state's objective of this ban was to try and save what was left of the nation's forest as well as impose "rational forest resource management" (Jarosz 373). However, the land set aside by the state for nation's rice cultivation was inefficient because of soil problems. The policy was therefore ineffective in erasing Madagascar's rice production problem. The government also thought that the ban would give them a greater ability to collect taxes because it would be easier to locate citizens if they were forced to remain in one place.

The Malagasy interpretation of the ban was almost entirely opposite of the state's intentions. They viewed wage work as equivalent to enslavement and many revolts took place. Not only did the Malagasy ignore the ban, but they illegally burned many acres of forest in protest. "The ban elevated the practice of tavy to a symbol of independence and liberty from colonial rule" (Jarosz 373). The Malagasy viewed shifting cultivation as a sacred means of survival that they were taught by their ancestors. Because of the protests and the fact that the ban was largely unenforced, whatever good intentions the government had were never realized.

The forest degradation problem became even more serious when the state decided to open up the island's forests to concessionary practices in 1921. Many viewed it as ironic that the state allowed massive clear cutting on concessions while the ban on shifting cultivation was still in effect. More than just the claimed lands were ruined however, because many owners clear-cut lands beyond their concessionary limits. The Forest Service was unable to regulate the concessions because of shortages in labor and "a lack of political will." Much of the illegal felling of trees was completely overlooked and the fines that were levied for violation of the permits were far lower than the actual damages. The combination of these detrimental government policies meant that "roughly 70% of the primary forest was destroyed in the 30 years between 1895 and 1925" (Jarosz 375).

Population growth didn't become a factor in forest degradation in Madagascar until 1940 when vaccines were introduced that lowered the death rate. During the next 40 years the population increased rapidly from 4.2 million to 9.2 million. This put a significant strain on the natural resources and estimates show that 4 million hectares of forests were cleared during this 40 year period, as compared to between 3 and 7 million hectares in the 40 year period from 1900 through 1940. Much of this deforestation, Jarosz argues, was still linked to the concessionary claims, export promotion, and insecure land tenure, rather than population growth alone.

The current situation of forest use in Madagascar is not much more promising than the historical situation. The Malagasy often subsist on per capita income equal to $200 per year and 750,000 acres of forest are still felled every year. Deforestation at 1994 levels still costs Madagascar between $100-$300 million in decreased crop yields and the loss of productive forests. Coffee still represents 24% of the nation's exports, and the rice production situation has become so bad that Madagascar import most of what is consumed. Environmentalists and economists agree that what factors the communities need to survive must be identified and obtained from sources other than their environment. One method that has been identified is using the fees generated from tourism to support the local villages. There are currently 17 of these programs set up across Madagascar with the help of USAID, where 50% of the natural park proceeds directly benefit the villagers. Some problems still exist, however, as logging takes place in many of the areas set aside as national parks. Hunters and poachers as well as the illegal loggers are difficult to police.

Population growth is also still a problem for Madagascar as the growth rate tops 3.0% per year. Some social discontent with the new parks system is also evident as citizens complain that parks are set aside without the consent of the local people. When the Ranomafana Forest was converted into a national park in 1991, 80,000 peasants that relied upon the forest as their primary source of income viewed the transformation as an economic disaster. However, had this park system not been implemented, it is estimated that there would have been absolutely no forest cover left in 2025. "If something more is not done in time we will have a major ecological disaster on our hands and Madagascar will die" (Matloff 8).

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