From conservation to regeneration
By Tahina Roland Frédéric, Drylands Restoration Steward 2023
“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.” The first time I saw this quote from the writer and physician Anton Chekhov, I thought, “Wow, that’s what I think too!” This quote reflects the guiding principle of my journey so far.
My first steps as a young agronomist and forester
I had chosen to study agronomy, forestry and environment at university. I constantly asked myself, “How can I make a meaningful contribution to these fields to help develop my country, Madagascar?” Initially, I saw myself working in the forestry administration. I thought it was the best way to serve my country while putting my training into practice.
However, my early professional experiences changed my thinking. One day, I participated in a research project on the governance of Menabe Antimena Protected Area. This area is classified as a Protected Landscape under category five of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) protected areas management system. The aim of the research was to study the factors behind the increasing deforestation.
Menabe, where the Menabe Antimena Protected Area is found, is a semi-arid region in western central Madagascar. It is known worldwide for its baobabs – found nowhere else in the world – and for the endemic species living in its dry deciduous forests. Menabe is also my home region. So when I was offered a research assistant position in the protected area, I immediately accepted. It was an ideal opportunity to get on-the-ground experience in my field of interest of rural development and natural resource management.
After completing this project, my new knowledge helped me to get a position with a conservation organization in Menabe Antimena. I saw this as an opportunity to put my knowledge into practice and use my skills to help my home region, which I felt was my duty.
The central problem encountered in the Menabe Antimena protected area is illegal deforestation for slash-and-burn agriculture. This needs to be stopped urgently if the forest is to be saved. My job involved forest patrols with military and community patrol agents to monitor and counter deforestation. Data on illegal activity collected during patrols was used to identify the most threatened areas and plan targeted law enforcement patrols. I therefore found myself on the “front line” of conservation and saw the on-the-ground reality of deforestation and of efforts to prevent people from destroying the forest. It was clear to me that these emergency responses alone were not enough to solve the complex problem of deforestation in the long term.
Outside of this work, I tried to raise awareness about the destruction of the Menabe Antimena forest. Then some friends told me: “Tahina, you have become an activist!”. I didn’t know exactly what the word “activist” meant at the time. I just wanted to do everything I could to prevent the destruction of the Menabe natural forest. Through to my dedication to this cause, I had become an activist unawares. I therefore used my knowledge from my field work to try to draw attention to the critical situation in Menabe. I encouraged different actors to take responsibility for their part in the problem and to take action. Unfortunately, as psychologist Albert Bandura said, “Where everyone is responsible, no one is really responsible.”
I could see the limits of emergency action and advocacy, given the extent of the area to be protected and the lack of coordination and action among actors involved in its governance. Monitoring and reporting on the situation no longer felt sufficient; I wanted to take more constructive action. I felt strongly that my role should be to work on the ground and target the cause of the problem and by sharing my technical knowledge with the local community. This way I could use my knowledge as a young agronomist forester to have a more direct impact on the sustainable development of my country.
The lightbulb moment
In the Menabe Antimena landscape where I was working, protecting the remaining natural forest is a priority and the focus of most local conservation actors. I believe that to achieve effective conservation of this forest, directly preventing deforestation is not enough; a landscape-scale approach is needed. During visits to my friends and former colleagues who are local community members, I observed another form of degradation, that of the soil in particular and the land in general. This degradation seemed to me to have been ignored by the leading conservation actors in the area.
Much of the forest has been converted to new villages and vast fields for the cultivation of peanuts. Only a few baobabs remain standing as witnesses to the destruction of the trees that once surrounded them. These lands have become agricultural and are now exploited by the local community with farming techniques that deplete the soil. Once the agricultural soil fertility is depleted, the farmers need to find new land for cultivation. The remaining protected forest, a reservoir of fertile soil, is more at risk of deforestation by slash-and-burn agriculture as a result. Unsustainable agriculture thus appears to be the main problem in the area. This problem is fueled by a growing local population that lacks alternative sources of food and income.
One of the principles of permaculture came to me: “the problem is the solution.” Agriculture has certainly caused damage, but it could also be the solution in the populated areas of Menabe Antimena. It can enrich biodiversity in the fields, contribute to the fight against deforestation, substitute ecosystem services provided by the natural forest, and help to regenerate ecosystems. This kind of agricultural model has a restorative function, or rather a regenerative function since it does not seek to replicate the old natural forests that existed there before the local community settled.
In light of this realization, my challenge was clear: to practice, develop and promote a regenerative agricultural model in the local community. To meet this challenge, I joined forces with local community members and friends from different backgrounds to create the Taniala Regenerative Camp organization in 2022. Our goal was to enable local people to create living soils and healthy natural and agricultural ecosystems to leave for future generations. I believe that to create a sustainable landscape, natural forest conservation and soil regeneration can work hand in hand.
A regenerative camp for sharing knowledge
We want our interventions to take place as close as possible to the degraded landscapes and the local stakeholders. To achieve this, we want to create base camps in villages where we can introduce the local community to regenerative agricultural practices. The camps would provide a space in which to demonstrate and teach different agricultural techniques to local farmers. We will incorporate techniques applicable at small, community and landscape scales.
Taniala Regenerative Camp also aims to regenerate relations between the different rural actors. For that reason, we want to connect local communities with practitioners, researchers and other actors involved in landscape restoration. This is intended to make room for partnerships rather than top-down approaches.
As president of the association Taniala Regenerative Camp, being the Drylands Restoration Steward 2023 of Global Landscapes Forum will provide the support we have always wanted for our initiative. It is also a massive encouragement for me to continue with our project to promote pioneering regenerative agroforestry in Lambokely. This village is where we have decided to set up our first “regenerative camp.” We have already started to develop a demonstration food forest that uses regenerative agroforestry, with living hedges surrounding the site.
The support of the Restoration Steward Program will help lay the foundations for successful restoration efforts in the local community of our intervention area. Key to this will be the construction of critical elements of our camp in Lambokely, such as a nursery, water point and lodge. We will set up school and family food forests, and introduce trees to cultivation fields via regenerative agroforestry. These developments will help us to lead the local population step by step towards practices that promote soil restoration and ecosystem regeneration.
I have always searched for concrete actions I can take that will have a positive impact on-the-ground. Through regenerative agroforestry, I am uniting with my team and local people to transform degraded lands into abundant, green lands. I believe that the activities of Taniala Regenerative Camp will pave the way for much larger-scale actions in future.
Seeing the growth of the trees we have planted in our agroforestry plots gives me a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction. It keeps me motivated. It is as if regeneration of the soil leads to the regeneration of my soul. I want to regenerate this feeling in local community members who work with us, then in the wider public we well. That way, everyone can do their bit to regenerate our planet.