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Malagasy farmers who practice conservation agriculture earn more, demonstrating an alternative to slash-and-burn

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Fegrine tends her peanut fields in Lambokely. [photo: USAID Mikajy]
Menabe Antimena is one of Western Madagascar’s last remaining blocks of dry forest, home to at least three endemic species‚ÄĒall of which are on the verge of extinction. Rapid expansion of slash-and-burn cultivation of maize is driving deforestation. Once these fragile dry forests are cultivated, the poor, sandy soil they grow on is quickly degraded and overrun by weeds, becoming unproductive after the second harvest. Slash-and-burn cultivation expanded significantly during successive droughts in the dry south of Madagascar when thousands of migrants arrived in Menabe seeking land to cultivate. ¬†

Lambokely village illustrates the problem. Founded 25 years ago by a handful of migrants from the south, by 2018 it was home to more than 10,000 households practicing slash-and-burn cultivation of maize. Today, the village is surrounded by vast tracts of degraded land, with any remaining forest incorporated into the core protected zone of the newly created Menabe Antimena Protected Area. Many of the migrants moved on after the authorities started to crack down on illegal forest destruction within the new protected area. The ones who stayed‚ÄĒthose most vulnerable and least able to relocate, such as single mothers or big families‚ÄĒfell deeper into poverty with only degraded land to cultivate.¬†

Peanuts provided an alternative to maize, but yields from the degraded, deforested lands were low: around 1 ton per hectare (t/ha) compared with an average of 1.72 t/ha in Nigeria and 3.5 t/ha in the USA. To address the low yields and provide the Lambokely community with a viable alternative to slash-and-burn cultivation, NCBA CLUSA’s U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Mikajy activity introduced conservation farming techniques and a new variety of peanut seeds well adapted to the agro-climatological conditions of the region.

Conservation agriculture is a sustainable farming system that can prevent arable land loss and restore degraded land. It involves minimum tillage (leaving soil as undisturbed as possible so it doesn’t dry out), composting to retain water and combat erosion, and rotating crops to maintain soil nutrients. The conservation farming techniques also restored soil structure and fertility, enabling the communities to bring abandoned lands back into production. Through USAID Mikajy‚Äôs interventions, conservation agriculture has now been adopted by 853 farmers around Menabe Antimena who have restored a total of 371 hectares of degraded land. USAID Mikajy disseminated the new techniques through a network of lead farmers who manage a demonstration plot and assist around 20 other producers.¬†

Through USAID Mikajy’s interventions, conservation agriculture has now been adopted by 853 farmers around Menabe Antimena who have restored a total of 371 hectares of degraded land.

To protect the Menabe Antimena forest, natural resource management transfer contracts have been established by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development with community associations called communautes de base (COBAs) around the protected area, including the forests nearest to Lambokely. COBAs help protect the forest through patrols and reforestation of a buffer zone. 

Fegrine Efanjarasoa, a mother of 10 who emigrated to Lambokely¬†in 1998, is leading the transition to conservation agriculture. She joined a village savings and loans association (VSLA) called Fivoarantsoa that was established with support from USAID Mikajy to help producers manage their revenue and access micro-credit, stimulating entrepreneurship and providing a social safety net. Fegrine’s active participation in the VSLA and her local COBA led members of the peanut cooperative Volasoa to nominate her as a lead farmer in 2021.¬†

Maximizing harvests from small plots of land is critical for families who live near the Menabe Antimena Protected Area, she added. “Each family only has about one hectare to cultivate” and no space to expand, Fegrine said.

With training in leadership skills and conservation agriculture from USAID Mikajy, Fegrine established a 2,000 square meter demonstration plot on her land. In 2023, she harvested 500 kg of peanuts‚ÄĒa yield of 2.5 t/ha despite heavy rains during the growing season that lowered the average regional yield to only 0.5 t/ha. During the off season (May through October), Fegrine replanted¬†100 kg of her harvest so she could sell seeds for the next cultivation season. She earned¬†880,000 MGA (USD$228.57 USD) from the sale of the remaining 400 kg.¬†

Meanwhile, Fegrine’s VSLA completed its nine-month savings and loan cycle, distributing the accumulated savings and loan profits back to the members. These distributions meant Fegrine could feed her family during the lean season, cover expenses for her children’s education and even purchase a calf. In southern Madagascar, cattle are very important culturally and are used to build savings. They can be sold when a family needs a significant sum of money. Owning cattle thus conveys social standing and provides security against future stresses and shocks.¬†

As a member of the peanut cooperative Volasoa, Fegrine has access to new opportunities like “using a tiller for field work or training in cooking that is more nutritious for my family,” she said.

“Thanks to Mikajy, I was able to adopt conservation agriculture techniques that allowed us to restore this infertile soil and produce more,” Fegrine said. Maximizing harvests from small plots of land is critical for families who live near the Menabe Antimena Protected Area, she added. “Each family only has about one hectare to cultivate” and no space to expand, she said.¬†

The project also introduced me to the VSLA, which helps me to manage my money better, and to the cooperative, which allows me to access other opportunities such as the use of a tiller for field work or training in cooking that is more nutritious for my family,” Fegrine said.

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