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The high endemic biodiversity in Madagascar is being threatened by the increasing use of fire that is seeing whole landscapes being gradually transformed from closed forest to savannas. Here, Harifidy Rakoto Ratsimba of the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar, and Head of the Regional Eastern Africa Fire Management Research Center (REAFMRC) tells us what is being done, and the next steps needed to reduce the risk of wildfires and the threat to Malagasy forests.
Fires has left a mark on almost all natural ecosystems in my country. However, the frequency of fire has been increasingly shaping landscapes, with gradual impacts from closed forests to savannas and grasslands. However, there are specific resilient ecosystems in the highlands with typical tapia vegetation dominated by Uapaca bojeri. However, even this is disappearing with the cumulative effect of fires and other anthropogenic pressures, particularly logging, charcoal making and competition with exotic trees planted in reforestation projects. Fires are particularly harmful in high biodiversity areas, especially in protected forest lands, but also in wetlands fire is used for conversion into rice fields. Biodiversity in Madagascar is characterized by a unique endemism of more than 80% in plants, 90% in reptiles and mammals, and more than 99% in amphibians. The loss of one hectare of forest by fire is thus a loss for all of humanity and not only for the country. The main causes of forest fires here are slash and burn where this creates short term productive areas for poor farmers with extremely limited investment capacity, but also to some extent the spread of fires from fires in agricultural fields and pastures.
We aim to create 'fire-smart landscapes' that balance the needs of communities for their sustenance and for ecosystem services, the ability of ecosystems to regenerate, and which integrates systems that limit frequency and spread of uncontrolled wildfires. Natural ecosystems have their own inherent capability to regenerate, but human activities weaken this balance, requiring an in-depth understanding of appropriate nature-based solutions.
Being a forester and having worked for many years in forested environments, protecting the specific endemism and characteristics of Malagasy forests was always one of my priorities. I was then able to discover the importance of firebreaks to limit the impact of fires that arose from outside forests, but investments for which had to be renewed at least every three years. This also had no influence on the fires that came from inside, such as from slash and burn cultivation, which from the level of poverty of Malagasy farmers, seemed to be their only short-term solution to survive. From this observation was born the idea to create broader 25 to 100 metre-wide ‘agricultural firebreaks’, instead of ‘classical firebreaks’ that are only 5 to 10 metres wide, and that can be cultivated by farmers and so generate additional livelihoods options while also limiting the build-up of biomass or ‘fuel load’, through regular ploughing and cultivation. These agricultural firebreaks are now being established on degraded land, and create new land resources for farmers. They require substantial investments in the first year, but do not need systematic reinvestment, with land use rights secured for farmers to ensure their long-term investment.
I was forefront in helping to apply the concept of agricultural firebreaks around Ankarafantsika National Park in northern Madagascar, with more than 65 km now established. These have been developed to directly limit the spread of fires, and has also created an additional 496 hectares of farmland for crop production that should indirectly help to limit further slash and burn activities in the national park so reduce the potential for future fire ignitions. And because of the clear benefits seen by local smallholders and decision makers, the use of such firebreaks have now spread to more remote localities. This has created new farmland and helped to reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildfires spreading, far from the national park. This year, the plan is to establish a further 600 hectares of agricultural firebreaks. Currently, the country is facing increased deforestation linked to slash and burn agriculture for producing more maize for local consumption and export, and we see much increased interest in this concept. The implementation of the system around other protected areas is envisaged in the coming years.
Harifidy Rakoto Ratsimba is member of the editorial (sounding) board of the forthcoming edition of Tropical Forest Issues #61 (formerly ETFRN news) - Towards fire-smart landscapes, due for release late august 2022.
Banner photo: Fire on the edge of Ankarafantsika National Park, with field crops in the buffer zone are not affected by fires (2021). Source: LLandDev.org