On the path to resilience among the baobabs
By Tahina Roland Frédéric, 2023 Drylands Restoration Steward
Crammed into the local bush taxi, a Renault Super Goélette, we headed northwards along the National Road N°8. We travel through the seemingly endless, desolate countryside. In the oppressive heat, we open a window and a cloud of red dust fills the car. A grueling four hours and 80-kilometer stint sees us finally arriving at our destination, Lambokely. Here, we are enchanted by a picture postcard-perfect landscape, in which the village appears painted against a mesmerizing backdrop of “baobab forest.”
Lambokely village is located in the Menabe-Antimena Protected Area of west-central Madagascar. Off the southeastern coast of Africa, Madagascar is the largest island in the Indian Ocean. The village was established fairly recently and its expansion has been astonishing. Its creation can be linked to recent waves of migrants coming from the far south of Madagascar. To escape severe drought and famine there, these communities have been fleeing the arid south and settling in the Menabe-Antimena area, hoping to find more fertile land and securing work.
On my arrival, I am warmly welcomed by community ranger Bendray Zoemana, a leader of his village’s community patrol team. In 2020, Bendray was recognized as a “conservation hero” by the U.S. Ambassador. He proudly shows me his honorific certificate, signed by the Ambassador and neatly displayed on the wall of his hut. Bendray is an old friend with whom I worked on a project to strengthen the community patrol system in the Menabe-Antimena protected forest.
I keep talking to Bendray about the “baobab forest” that I have seen, so he suggests guiding me through it without further delay. But the closer we get to it, the more I realize that what I thought was a forest is actually not a forest at all. It is merely a group of baobabs widely distanced from each other.
Bendray tells me that less than 10 years ago, there was a healthy dry forest with various trees and other plants thriving between the baobabs. These majestic ”bottle trees” are the sole survivors: the forest was burnt to make way for slash-and-burn agriculture. The baobabs are still standing because their waterlogged trunks enabled them to withstand repetitive fires. They remain there, marked with the scars of the fires because the farmers did not bother to cut them.
Bendray explains that in this dry forest lived many endemic species such as Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, the flat-tailed tortoise, the giant jumping rat and the narrow-striped mongoose. These flagship species are currently classified as either endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
After 20 minutes, we arrived at the baobabs. Their enormity leaves a lasting impression. While walking among them, I feel as if I am in a ”natural cathedral” of sorts, their huge trunks making me think of columns connecting the earth with the sky. I draw Bendray’s attention to the fact that among the eight species of baobabs in the world, six of them are endemic to Madagascar. This makes them unique and a natural treasure for Madagascar – indeed, for all of humanity. Unfortunately, some of these baobabs also appear on the aforementioned IUCN Red List.
After admiring and studying the branches of the baobabs – which make one think of roots – my gaze turns to the ground. The soil is almost bare; it is arid and sandy. I recognize some dry residues from the crops of the previous season and from the remains of burnt trees from the original forest. While making a small hole in the ground to try to observe soil structure, I shared my thoughts with Bendray:
“Do you know that we have a lot to learn from these Baobabs? Imagine if these baobabs also had feet. What would they do if they saw forest fires raging in their area?”
Bendray looks at me with sparkling eyes. He understood what I meant.
I continue: “If these Baobabs had feet, they also would have migrated like our grandparents and most village inhabitants. But these giants do not have feet and despite the degradation of their ecosystem and the pressures they face, they have survived until now. These baobabs show resilience. We, the local community, also have to be resilient to survive – the solution is up to us because it is under our feet’. “
I continue by pointing out to Bendray that, concerned about the drastic situation in this region, resilience is the reason for my presence here. My stay at Lambokely is a preliminary assessment of the environment as part of our initiative called Taniala Regenerative Camp. “Taniala“ is a combination of two Malagasy words: tany, which refers to both “the soil“ and “the land“, and ala, which means “the forest.“
With Taniala Regenerative Camp, we want to be proactive. We aim to help people break the vicious cycle of deforestation-desertification-migration-deforestation by strengthening the resilience of local communities and the ecosystem they live in. We plan to set up a base camp to showcase regenerative agricultural practices around Lambokely village.
The Taniala Regenerative Camp initiative will connect local communities with practitioners, scientists and others involved in landscape restoration. The approach adopted is inspired by permaculture design: it integrates agroecology, agroforestry, rainwater harvesting and ecological restoration practices.
I present these concepts to Bendray and his friends, explaining that it is essential to consider the forest as a model. The natural forest produces large trees and food plants without watering, fertilizers, or pesticide treatments. Its soil is always covered, made up of a mixture of trees and other plants. It shelters abundant biodiversity. Our production system has to be modeled on the forest. Resilience means reconciling agricultural production with ecosystem regeneration.
Our approach allows us to work at different scales, ranging from a garden to an entire landscape, including farmland and a community area. We started to install two food forest gardens in Bendray and another in a friend’s yard. We knew that permaculture conveys a culture of permanence. Through the permanent beds of these permagardens, we can instill this culture of permanence among these local communities with a migratory background.
Additionally, forest functioning is replicated on a smaller scale through these beds of permagardens. Bendray and his friends have watched and are learning from it. They understand the importance of organic matter or humus for the soil, which is achieved through mulching. By combining crops, they are aware of the importance of biodiversity for resilience and learn to optimize available space. They were also introduced to using nitrogen-fixating plants to enrich and improve their soil.
Our first nursery allowed us to produce different species of fruit trees and nitrogen-fixing trees, which we will integrate into the local agricultural system and for our future food forests. Trees are not our enemy that has to be cut down: they are our allies. They nurture the soil and feed us, people.
Local actions on the ground such as these need to be encouraged and further developed within the global movement for ecosystem restoration. The proximity of these actions gives them the quality of catalyst for sustainable behavior change within communities. A quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Finally, perhaps you would like to know a little about me. I am Tahina Roland Frédéric, a young Malagasy agronomist and forester leading the Taniala Regenerative Camp initiative. I am the 2023 Drylands Restoration Steward for the Global Landscapes Forum. Our slogan is “living soil and thriving community.“ Soil is at the very heart of our initiative because it is “the solution under our feet.“ It is simply the “soilution“ for humanity.