El Niño: A resilience test? Tree-planting experiences in a semi-arid zone of Madagascar


All images courtesy of Tahina Roland Frédéric.

Since late 2023, Madagascar, a country already vulnerable to climate change, has been experiencing the effects of El Niño. This phenomenon disrupts global weather patterns, leading to extreme weather conditions in many regions.

At the beginning of the hot and humid 2023–2024 season, the General Direction of Meteorology in Madagascar predicted higher-than-normal average temperatures in all regions of the island as a consequence of the effects of El Niño. However, precipitation was expected to vary by region, with some areas experiencing heavier rains than usual, while others, like the Menabe region, would receive less.

The forecasts have been confirmed on the ground, especially in the Menabe region, located in central-west Madagascar. This region is already threatened by desertification due to the deforestation of its dry forests for slash-and-burn agriculture and soil depletion from intensive monoculture, such as peanut farming on vast bare lands.

In response to this situation, our association, Taniala Regenerative Camp, established its first pilot soil regeneration site in the village of Lambokely in Menabe. For us, the equation is simple: where there’s no organic matter in the soil, a desert emerges. To combat desertification, our mission is to enrich the soil with organic matter. To achieve this goal, we focus on dense and diversified tree planting, guided by the principles of regenerative agroforestry that we advocate for.

In Madagascar, tree planting typically occurs during this hot and humid season from November to March. However, tree planting in a semi-arid zone like Lambokely faces several challenges, which are intensified during this El Niño episode.

The first rains usually arrive around late December, with January being the wettest month, followed by a decrease in precipitation in February. January is therefore the ideal time to start tree planting to ensure young tree seedlings can benefit from enough water to survive, grow, and withstand the following dry season.

The first step to successful tree planting in such conditions is to select species that are well-suited and adapted  to the local environment. At our camp, we cultivated 10,000 tree seedlings of 30 different species in our nursery. These species were selected for their ability to withstand intense heat and aridity, characteristics that will be tested on our site.

This year, precipitation has been particularly uncertain on the ground. Even in January, rains have been irregular and discontinuous, sometimes not falling for more than six days. This inconsistency has led to superficial soil drying, which is particularly detrimental to young trees facing the scorching heat.

Planting a large number of trees is labor-intensive and needs to be done promptly, especially during the limited rainy periods in semi-arid zones.  In our case, members of the local community who are a part of our association participate in planting activities. However, their availability is limited as they also need to tend to their peanut crops, their main source of annual income, as soon as the first rains arrive.

To enhance the efficiency of our planting efforts and minimize exposure of our community to the harsh sun, we have invested in a thermal auger to dig holes. Planting takes place in the late afternoon to avoid exposing young tree seedlings to morning heat, thus limiting their stress during transplantation. This approach also enables community members to focus on their agricultural activities in the morning.

Our two-year-old demonstration forest garden plot seems to have successfully overcome these challenges. This forest garden has become a thriving ecosystem, where the soil is covered with organic matter from purpose-grown trees and plants. Even amidst uncertain rain, the soil remains moist, loose, and enriched with organic matter, promoting the growth of newly planted trees and crops in the tree interlines.

Our forest garden serves as a promising model of a system that is both regenerative and resilient. It is crucial to draw inspiration from it to address climate and environmental challenges.

Agriculture and tree planting in semi-arid areas certainly poses challenges, but it is crucial to adapt to these challenges. This allows us to learn and experiment with resilience, preparing us for possible future trials in an increasingly uncertain global climate.

Let’s consider El Niño a test of our resilience, an opportunity to guide our agricultural practices and systems towards approaches that enhance resilience by improving soil health. Are we ready to learn from this test of resilience?

Article tags

drylandsGeneration restorationMadagascarrestoration stewards

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