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Gerenette and her friend pick Moringa leaves. Image courtesy of Azafady.

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Getting to the root of the problem in Madagascar

February 26th, 2013

by Daniel Reeds

When Daniel Reeds visited Madagascar he was struck by the beauty of its ecosystems and people, but also by the appalling poverty. However, he found inspiration from a pioneering charity that works with humans and wildlife, to ensure a sustainable future for both.

Madagascar is one of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots, with approximately 4% of the Earth’s plant and animal species living there - within just 0.4% of the planet’s surface. Many species have yet to be named or even discovered. However, it is also one of the most impoverished and least developed countries in the world, ranking 151st out of 187 in the UNDP 2011 Human Development Index.  

Additionally, it’s one of the top three countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change through factors including unsustainable agricultural practices. Over the last 50 years Madagascar has experienced a 10% increase in temperature and a 10% decrease in rainfall, a climatic pattern with a range of disruptive impacts. Thus initiatives which sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions are becoming increasingly urgent for the island’s population and environment.

Island-wide, extreme poverty levels are commonly seen among rural communities, with severe and cumulative impacts on health, livelihoods, education and the environment. Since a coup in 2009, this situation has steadily worsened, with a breakdown in law and order allowing a massively increased plundering of the country’s natural resources.

Illegal logging is estimated as reaching 400 trees per day in some areas, whilst the price of basic food staples like rice has doubled, simultaneously increasing environmental degradation and reducing access to livelihood resources. 

Within the Anosy region in the south east, spiralling poverty and environmental degradation are seen in their most extreme form. The Antanosy people are among the poorest in Madagascar - over 90% of the population live below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Up to 60% of children suffer stunted growth from malnourishment and up to 40% die before their 5th birthday, typically as a result of diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections. Chronic food insecurity is one of the most pressing problems, with a harsh climate and recurrent drought frequently resulting in failed harvests for Anosy’s rural communities. 

Alongside nutritional challenges, under-awareness of basic hygiene practices is a major barrier to securing health, particularly for pregnant women, and children most vulnerable to diarrhoeal disease and subsequent malnutrition. Government health spending has dropped by 75% since 2008, and regional taskforces previously established to coordinate social development and conservation interventions are no longer operational. There is a severe and long-standing lack of coordinated and focused health interventions to counter escalating needs among the local population. 

Conservation efforts are being made from within the country, but legislation can often be passed without consideration for the impact it may have on community development. This was highlighted recently when legislation was passed on the island to protect 3.8 million hectares of forest from use by inhabitants.

For the animals and plants that live there it was great news, but less good for the people, the majority of whom depend on subsistence agriculture in extremely isolated rural communities and rely heavily on local natural resources for their livelihoods. 

One of the most pressing problems for rural households is chronic food insecurity, which is particularly acute in the south east’s  Anosy Region, where forest resources provide much needed food and other basics. These can often make the difference between surviving or not. So whilst helping protect the forest’s animal and plant inhabitants, the legislation further curtails survival strategies for communities, which now have far less resilience to external shocks.

In response to this, award-winning charity Azafady aims to help alleviate poverty and conserve unique and biologically rich environments in south east Madagascar. Managing director, Mark Jacobs, explains: “Things are being done sporadically within the country to help, but often this can be based on knee-jerk reactions, done quickly without consideration for the longer term impact.”

The UK based charity has been implementing combined community and conservation projects across the south-east of Madagascar since 2006, and hope to show how the two concerns can be addressed successfully at the same time and set a standard for others to follow.

Gerenette, 12, lives in the rural village of Farafara Vatambe. Puncturing holes into an old plastic bottle, she sprinkles water over her Moringa tree – a routine she has repeated since first planting it two years ago. Every day she delicately picks a handful of green leaves to brew tea for herself and her mother. Gram for gram these leaves contain seven times more vitamin C than oranges and three times more calcium than milk, though it’s not just the leaves being used by Gerenette and the rest of the village.

All components of the tree are edible, from roots to leaves, and the plant is extremely nutritious, being a rich source of protein and micronutrients - vitamins C & A, calcium, potassium, and iron. These are severely lacking in the daily diet of south east Madagascar’s rural poor.

Working with the community of Farafara Vatambe to alleviate malnutrition by supplying Moringa oleifera seedlings, providing cultivation training and setting up a community-run tree nursery as well as encouraging school children like Gerenette to participate has helped spread project messages speedily, and the health benefits for the community have quickly become noticeable: “We don’t get the same illnesses as before, we are healthier now, and it also helps get rid of stomach ulcers.” 

Gerenette’s mother has attended cultivation workshops held in the village – covering how to propagate new trees from cuttings and seeds – to ensure that people have the skills to germinate their own Moringa trees in the future. Self-sufficient projects can only be achieved if there is a successful transfer of responsibility to participating communities: “Moringa is valuable so it is important for us to be able to grow our own”.  

However, it’s not just the people’s health that has benefitted from the Moringa trees, as ‘farming’ them has also helped reduce reliance on the local forests. These desperately need to be protected in order to conserve the endemic species that live there.

Alongside the Moringa growing project, another community/conservation success story has been taking shape through the installation of, and education on the use of, fuel efficient stoves in village dwellings.  As with the Moringa trees, this has had a dramatic effect on the health of those involved, as the stoves produce less harmful emissions.  

Indeed, the majority of households with them installed have seen reduced smoke inhalation related illness and improved respiratory health.  Besides the health benefits, carbon dioxide emissions have also been significantly reduced, and for those families with stoves installed, firewood consumption has dropped by 70%, dramatically reducing dependency on the forests for firewood.  

Azafady hopes that its projects can act as models for Madagasgar’s Government and local councils,  highlighting that conservation efforts do not have to happen in isolation to community improvement schemes.  

The country desperately needs both aspects to be a success if the health of its people and status of its endemic species are to improve.  

For further details and ways to help please visit www.madagascar.co.uk



 

 

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