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‘Climate-smart’ farming boosts forests, food security in Madagascar

© Cristina Mittermeier. Agriculture field in Eastern Madagascar

In Madagascar — one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries — a devastating drought, punctuated by intense cyclones, has pushed more than a million people into hunger. 

As extreme weather exacerbates poverty and malnutrition, farmers are caught in a dangerous Catch-22: Climate change threatens their crops and livelihoods, prompting them to expand their farms by cutting down trees. This, in turn, intensifies the effect of droughts, flooding and soil erosion. 

According to a new report, sustainable agriculture practices can help farmers break this cycle.

The report assesses the results of a program launched in Madagascar five years ago by Conservation International and the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund to help farmers implement new climate-smart practices — like using drought-resistant crops, mulching to prevent soil erosion during heavy rains and planting native fruit trees that provide both shade and new sources of income.

Researchers say those efforts are paying off. And they could inform how farmers around the world adapt to the climate crisis. 

The report found that farmers who adopted sustainable agriculture practices were not only less likely to deforest surrounding land, they also had greater food security — an important indicator in a country where about a third of the population does not have enough food. 

“The farmers that are changing their practices are seeing results,” said Camila Donatti, a Conservation International expert on climate change who authored the report. 

“Climate change is already negatively impacting crop production around the world — and is expected to worsen in the years to come,” she added. “These findings show that we can make a difference in a short amount of time.”

As climate change threatens farmers around the world, the report provides the most comprehensive look yet at how they can become more resilient to climate change, Donatti said. 

Researchers surveyed more than 1,600 participating farmers to learn more about the quantity and type of food they eat and their ability to pay for essential needs, like housing, clothing and medications. 

Over the course of five years, the farmers’ food security shifted measurably. 

“We were surprised to see a significant drop in food insecurity in a short amount of time — typically it takes much longer to see results like this,” Donatti said. “It’s very encouraging.”

“In the past, many of the farmers surveyed had resorted to cutting down trees to supplement their incomes so they could buy food,” she added. “Now, we’re seeing a reduction in those practices — which is good for the farmers and the forest around them.”

The ongoing project has the potential to improve the lives of nearly 24,000 people and conserve the two largest remaining forests in eastern Madagascar — the Ankeniheny-Zahamena and Ambositra-Vondrozo forests. These globally important forest corridors hold vast amounts of planet-warming carbon and wildlife — roughly 85 percent of which is found nowhere else on Earth — but have steadily been degraded by slash and burn agriculture, the area’s leading cause of deforestation.

The findings are promising for Madagascar — and beyond, said Zo Lalaina Rakotobe, of Conservation International-Madagascar.

“Smallholder farmers are one of the populations most at risk from climate change,” Rakotobe said. “This project is building trust in sustainable agriculture’s ability to prepare them for the effects of a warming planet.”

Mary Kate McCoy is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.