In cyclone-plagued country, forests help farmers recover

A woman carrying a bucket, Madagascar

New research derived from interviews with 200 smallholder farmers in eastern Madagascar underscores the role that forests can play in helping impoverished communities prepare for and recover from cyclones. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

When Cyclone Giovanna hurled violent winds and 35.5 centimeters (14 inches) of rainfall onto Madagascar over three days in February 2012, it left a path of destruction in its wake, destroying more than 44,000 houses, damaging upwards of 12,500 hectares (30,888 acres) of farmland and affecting a quarter of a million people.

Madagascar not only has one of the highest rates of cyclones in Africa, it is one of the most cyclone-prone tropical countries in the world — and even when the storms aren’t deadly, they’re disastrous. A paper published this month in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction examines for the first time the strategies used by vulnerable Malagasy smallholder farmers to cope with the impacts of cyclones — and the importance of forests in helping those farmers recover.

Destruction in Madagascar's Morarano municipality following Cyclone Giovanna.

Destruction and flooding in Madagascar’s Morarano municipality caused by Cyclone Giovanna in February 2012. A new paper examines the strategies used by vulnerable Malagasy smallholder farmers to cope with the impacts of cyclones like this one. (© Conservation International/photo by Zo Lalaina Rakotobe)

On top of taking human lives, cyclones damage the country’s infrastructure, destroy crops (reducing food availability), flatten houses and threaten the availability and quality of the water supply. In doing so, cyclones exacerbate the extremely high levels of poverty and food insecurity that already exist among rural populations in Madagascar.

About 70% of Madagascar’s farmers are smallholders who depend on subsistence farming for both their food and their income. Seasonally food insecure, living in remote areas and extremely poor — an estimated 87% of smallholder famers fall below the national poverty level — this population is especially vulnerable to cyclones. To understand how farmers could better prepare for future storms, the paper’s authors interviewed 200 Malagasy smallholder farmers in eastern Madagascar who experienced the category-4 Cyclone Giovanna.

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Celia Harvey, vice president of ecosystem services for Conservation International (CI) and one of the study’s authors, explained what they found:

“While there have been previous national-level studies of the damage inflicted by cyclones, this is the first study within Madagascar to really examine how smallholder farmers prepare for and cope with the impacts of cyclones, and to demonstrate the devastating impacts that cyclones have on rural communities. Our study shows that 99% of farmers interviewed sustained damage to their rice fields, 70% lost stored grains to flooding and 89% experienced damage to their homes (18% had their homes completely destroyed). Approximately 38% of the farmers said they would not have sufficient food for their families for three to five months, while 47% said they would lack food for more than six months. In addition, 65% lacked access to clean drinking water following the cyclone, with significant health consequences.”

“Forests play an important role in helping farmers cope with cyclone impacts, as they serve as sources of emergency food for communities who harvest wild yams from the forests when food is scarce,” Harvey continued. “Farmers also collect building materials from the forest, such as timber and palm leaves, to rebuild their damaged homes.”


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A family granary in the heavily forested Corridor Ankeniheny Zahamena.

A family granary in the heavily forested Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor. As a source of wild foods and building materials, forests play a vital role in helping farmers prepare for and recover from natural disasters like cyclones. (© Conservation International/photo by Zo Lalaina Rakotobe)

Zo Lalaina Rakotobe, outcomes monitoring manager for CI Madagascar and the lead author on the study, described what it was like to conduct this research: “It was very challenging logistically to conduct the household surveys with farmers, as the villages are located in very remote areas and access is very difficult even in normal conditions. In the month following the cyclone, most of the roads and bridges were heavily damaged, making access extremely difficult. However, we were committed to visiting the farmers and documenting how they had been impacted, so that we could better understand their situation and needs and use this information to develop plans to help farmers increase their ability to cope with future cyclones and other extreme weather events.”

The paper includes recommendations for ways that governments, donors and development organizations can help smallholder farmers become less vulnerable to cyclones and other extreme weather events, including improving early warning systems, increasing farmer preparedness for cyclones, creating formal safety nets to help farmers access food and essential supplies following cyclones and promoting the use of adaptation measures to help improve farmer resiliency to future climate shocks.

But in addition to these measures, one of the most effective solutions may also be one of the most basic: conserving and restoring forests to ensure farmers have access to emergency resources after cyclones hit. Natural disasters may be inevitable, but by protecting nature, communities can maximize their ability to recover.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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