Mapping Essential Ecosystems in the Land of Rice

This year’s World Food Day (celebrated every year on October 16) is focused on the importance of sustainable agriculture. Today on Human Nature, CI’s Rachel Neugarten recounts a recent visit to Madagascar where the close ties between people and nature were evident everywhere she looked. This is the first of three posts from Rachel’s trip. 

rice paddies in Madagascar

Rice paddies in Madagascar. Rice is a staple of the Malagasy diet, yet hunger is widespread in the country. By determining which ecosystems are the most important to protect, we can help these landscapes continue to produce food for a growing population. (© CI/photo by Miroslav Honzák)

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.

zebu cart on road in Madagascar

Zebu cart along the road between the Malagasy capital of Antananarivo and Anjozorobe Forest Corridor. Many people in Madagascar still rely on cattle to transport goods. (© CI/photo by Rachel Neugarten)

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.

CI scientist with chameleon in Madagascar

Rachel meets a tiny yet full-grown chameleon. (© CI/photo by Rachel Neugarten)

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.

flower growing on tree trunk, Madagascar

A flower grows on a tree trunk in northeastern Madagascar’s Montagne d’Ambre National Park. Native to Madagascar, this species is sold as an ornamental flower in the U.S. under the name “coral bells.” (© CI/photo by Rachel Neugarten)

We are employing a small army of scientists from CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans and CI-Madagascar: experts in ecosystem service modeling, spatial analysis, vulnerability assessment, eco-hydrology and forest carbon. Our Madagascar staff are helping us understand the context of rice, poverty and biodiversity that drives the relationship between the Malagasy people and their ecosystem.

So how does it work? When you make a map of important biodiversity areas, you start with the biophysical data: Where are the species? Where are the ecosystems?

But when you map places that are important for people, you start with a map of people. Where do they live? Where are the most vulnerable groups — the poorest, the most hungry, those who are most susceptible to storms, floods or droughts?  Where does their water come from? Their food? The fuel they use for heat and cooking? The materials they use to build their homes, or sustain their livelihoods?

Next, you map the ecosystems. Which ones provide water, food, protection from storms and raw materials? Is it the forests, the mountain tops, the large bodies of water, the estuaries?

Finally, you look at how these new maps align with the biodiversity priorities. Do they overlap? Are there places where conservation can serve multiple purposes? Do they conflict? If so, are there are there things we can do to reduce threats, or address the trade-offs?

chameleon in Madagascar

A chameleon poses patiently on the photographer’s hand. (© CI/photo by Rachel Neugarten)

This information will be used for several purposes. It will help guide conservation investments, such as the new cycle of grants administered by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). It will provide a map of “critical natural capital” — ecosystems that are fundamentally important for human well-being. This will be used to calculate a baseline metric, to understand the current state of ecosystems in Madagascar today, and measure changes over time. It will also be used to help CI measure, track and demonstrate the effectiveness of our work.

The information can also be used to engage civil society, public and private partners — to help them understand the role of ecosystems in human well-being and to make better decisions about which places to conserve, and which places to avoid destroying.

Our role is not to reverse the fate of Madagascar, its people or its resources. We cannot hope to end poverty, or to stop cyclones. At best, we can hope to salvage what is left by demonstrating that without nature, the country would be just a little more hungry, and the floods a little more destructive.

Ultimately, we hope to influence the discussion, and to change behavior — for the sake of the land, its people and the as-of-yet undiscovered lemurs, lurking between the rice paddies.

Rachel Neugarten is the manager for conservation priority setting in CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans. This blog is the first in a three-part series; read part two


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  2. Philip Rothrock says

    This is a fascinating and well-written blog-post. I hope to read more by you in the future. It would be interesting to hear more about followup community engagements in Madagascar. There are some other initiatives around the world that are using potentially complimentary strategies to promote improved environmental practices and resource management among communities. I could definitely see the final maps from CI’s work in Madagascar helping to inform stakeholders about the tradeoffs for different management approaches at the landscape level. You should check out the blog article below, which describes the development of land use planning role-playing games and approaches used by CIFOR to inform stakeholders about different management options and related consequences:

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  7. Jason Hodges says

    When people are fighting for survival against starvation, economy, and even the forces of nature, it can be more than difficult to convince them of the role that they sometimes play in their own pain. When you are looking to find your next meal, they threat of a flood tomorrow is too tad away to be of concern. With that said, using GIS tools to show them exactly what they have done to the land and how altering their direction, not stopping their movement, can minimize the flood. More and more tools, like Arc Collector from ESRI or MapItFast from AgTerra are available that can do this from the field.

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