Threat to Madagascar's environment: slash and burn agriculture


Madagascar is among the world's poorest countries. As such, people's day-to-day survival is dependent upon natural resource use. Most Malagasy must live off the land that surrounds them, making use of whatever resources they can find. 

Tavy, or slash and burn agriculture, is the lifeblood of Malagasy culture and the Malagasy economy, even though it is illegal throughout the country.

Tavy is mostly used for converting tropical rain forests in Madagascar into rice fields. Typically, an acre or two of forest is cut, burned, and then planted with rice. After a year or two of production the field is left fallow for four to six years before the process is repeated. After two or three such cycles, the soil is exhausted of nutrients and the land is likely colonized by scrub vegetation or alien grasses. On slopes, the new vegetation is often insufficient to anchor soils, making erosion and landslides a problem.  It also has a dramatic effect on coastal ecosystems, as sedimentation results in the death of corals, because sunlight is being blocked from penetrating the water. The impact of slash-and-burn agriculture on coral reefs also impacts economic security of fishermen. 

Tavy is the most expedient way for many Malagasy to provide for their families, and where day-to-day subsistence is a question there is little concern for the long-term consequences of the actions. From this perspective, as long as there is more forest land freely available for clearing, you might as well use the land before a neighbor does.

Sadly, much of Madagascar has been destroyed by the gradual action of small farmers and herdsmen. Human populations have grown long beyond the point at which these activities can be practiced without permanent destruction. As the forest is destroyed, so is the habitat for Madagascar's unique plant and animal species. The loss of habitat due to deforestation is the biggest single threat to Madagascar's wildlife. Although the exact extent of forest loss is not known with certainty, only 10 percent of Madagascar's forests remain. Also, recent estimates suggest that 1-2 percent of Madagascar's remaining forests are destroyed each year, and a staggering 80-90 percent of Madagascar's land area burns each year.

Slash and burn on the way to Ranomafana park...