October 21, 2013

Mapping Essential Ecosystems in the Land of Rice

Last week, World Food Day emphasized ‘sustainable’ in agriculture and food systems. One interesting element of the day was how the discussion spread beyond the development community, in many cases demonstrating how necessary breaking down silos really is. Case in point, Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Co-Organizer Conservation International (CI) took this opportunity to highlight some of its ongoing work in Madagascar. By bringing in a spatial element to examine how land uses are influencing the provision of ecosystem services in a landscape, CI expects its systems approach to conservation, agriculture, and sustainable development to provide tools and stimulate discussion in the policy realm. The following is an excerpt from a post by Rachel Neugarten, manager of conservation priority setting, on the HumanNature Blog.

Madagascar is a land of rice. To understand the relationship between people and nature here, that’s the first thing you need to know.

Malagasy people eat more rice per capita than most countries in the world. In Malagasy, friendship is referred to as “rice and water”; perfection is “rice with milk and honey.” I once saw a map that showed how agricultural wages varied across the country, and the units were kilos of rice, not money.

Everything about this place — land use, water use, income and poverty, nutrition and food security, deforestation and habitat loss — can be measured in terms of rice.

The second thing you have to know is that Madagascar is hungry … and growing. Over 90% of people live on less than the international poverty rate of US$ 2 per day. Rates of chronic malnutrition are so high that half the children under five have stunted growth. And the population is growing at an astounding 2.8% per year, twice as fast as India.

The people are literally eating their country — stripping the land bare, sifting every last fish from the surrounding sea. Madagascar has lost 90% of its native vegetation cover already, making it one of the most threatened landscapes on Earth.

The most common way to grow rice is tavy — slash-and-burn agriculture. Tavy leaves the land naked. When it rains, the red soil leaches into the rivers, and people say that Madagascar is bleeding. When a cyclone hits — and they hit several times a year — massive flooding drowns entire valleys, destroys rice paddies and homes, and takes lives. Survivors retreat to higher ground and wait for the waters to recede, so they can rebuild and replant.

Climate change is making the cyclones more intense, while also making rainfall more unpredictable. So people may face catastrophic floods one year and crippling droughts the next.

The final thing you have to know about Madagascar is, of course, that it is like no other place on Earth. There are chameleons the size of beetles and bats the size of housecats. The islands off its shores were once home to the dodo, and “fossil” fish known as coelacanth still lurk in the deepest waters. It seems new species — even new primates — are discovered every time a biologist stumbles into the forest.

It has been estimated that over 90% of the species of plants, amphibians and terrestrial mammals found here are found nowhere else. If they disappear, they will be gone from the face of the planet. One local biologist told me, “We aren’t saving these species; we are archiving them.”

It is against this backdrop of rice, hunger and cyclones that CI is attempting to map out — literally — the links between nature and people in Madagascar. It is one of many efforts to remind people at all levels — local communities, civil society, public officers, corporations — that in order to save their own skin, they need to save the living “skin” of this country. After all, it is Madagascar’s vegetation and biota that filters their water, makes their air breathable and provides refuge from the storm.

Scientists have already done much of the work to map Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) — the most important areas for species’ survival — in Madagascar. But CI’s mission now encompasses people, too. So to these existing maps, we are seeking to add new ones. Maps depicting ecosystems that are critical for providing fresh water, for food, for climate resilience and for recreational and cultural values.

Click here to read the full post.

 Photo credit: Rachel Neugarten (Conservation International)

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