Global Programs

Sustainable livelihoods herald new hope for Madagascar’s biodiversity


The Menabe Antimena Protected Area on the west coast of Madagascar is home to an array of animals and plants found nowhere else on Earth, including the world’s smallest primate. Weighing less than a chicken’s egg, the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur could soon disappear as the human imprint on its forest habitat in western Madagascar grows. 

Several other species have already disappeared from most of their original ranges and are found in just a few sites, including Menabe Antimena. The region’s endemic species make Menabe Antimena a top conservation priority—not just in Madagascar but globally, both in terms of irreplaceability and threat. If Menabe Antimena’s forests are lost, at least four species will go extinct. 

Menabe is also famous for its iconic baobabs that tower over the surrounding fields at the Avenue of the Baobabs. In nearby Menabe Antimena, two different species of these giant trees can be seen in large numbers in their original habitat of dense, deciduous, dry forest. All the baobabs outside the forest are remnants of the extensive tracts of dry forests that once covered western Madagascar. 

Deforestation at an astonishing rate 

Dry forests are the most endangered biome in Madagascar. Originally believed to have covered much of the western flank of Madagascar, western dry forests have dwindled to less than 3 percent. In 1994, Menabe Antimena was identified as one of just five large dry forest blocks greater than 50,000 hectares that can maintain viable populations of western forest species and, in particular, those with large home ranges like Madagascar’s top predator, the fossa. But Menabe Antimena and its unique biodiversity are in peril. It has suffered from an astounding surge in deforestation during the past 15 years, destroying nearly half of the main forest block. In 2008, the dry forests in Menabe Antimena covered around 98,000 hectares; by 2020, they covered just 55,000 hectares—a loss of 3+ percent per year, more than double the 1.45 percent annual deforestation rate recorded for all western dry forests in Madagascar over the same period. 

The dry forests in Menabe Antimena are disappearing at more than twice the annual average deforestation rate outside the protected region. [graphic: Tetra Tech]

A vicious cycle of migration, profiteering, poverty and climate change

People have been leaving Madagascar’s dry southern region to seek employment and better livelihoods further north for generations. In the 1960s-80s, a sisal plantation, sugar plantation and refinery, shrimp farm and other agroindustry in Menabe offered seasonal employment. But these businesses closed in the 1970s-90s, mostly as a result of political upheavals and economic downturns. However, migrants had learned that land was available for cultivation in Menabe, and they continued to arrive. The region’s indigenous Sakalava people and rice growers from the high plateau of Madagascar already occupied the fertile low-lying areas, so migrants turned to the forests, practicing slash-and-burn cultivation.

The 210,000 hectares that make up Menabe Antimena were not set aside as a protected area until 2015, when conservationists—aware of the biodiversity importance of Menabe Antimena’s forests—campaigned for its creation. It included all the remaining dry forests as well as mangroves and the intervening degraded and cultivated areas. But official protection came too late as a vicious cycle of migration, profiteering, poverty and climate change was already in motion. Law enforcement in protected areas has been minimal in Madagascar since independence in 1960, due in large part to a lack of political will and very limited human and financial resources.

By the time the Menabe Antimena Protected Area was created, regional economic and political operators were making substantial profits bringing migrants from the south to clear forests and grow maize to meet the growing national demand for chicken feed. A web of corruption further reduced political will to protect Menabe Antimena forests. At the same time, people in the south were growing increasingly desperate for new livelihoods due to droughts exacerbated by climate change. Entire families were relocating and willing to risk arrest, fines and jail time for illegal deforestation while earning only a pittance from maize production. They know the slash-and-burn economy is unsustainable, but migrants feel trapped and resigned to an itinerant life at the margins of society, without access to basic health care, sanitation and education. 

USAID Mikajy’s work to establish new sustainable livelihoods 

Farmers in the village of Lambokely display peanuts grown using conservation farming techniques introduces by USAID Mikajy. [photo: USAID Mikajy]
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Mikajy activity. started working in Menabe in 2019, conducting trials of new techniques to bring degraded, previously deforested land into sustainable production. These conservation farming techniques include digging holes and shallow furrows to maintain humidity and nutrients, spacing out seeds and adding compost. Trials showed that maize could not be grown successfully on the degraded land even using these techniques due to the crop’s high nutrient and rainfall requirements. Peanuts were already grown on land no longer productive for maize, and the conservation farming techniques combined with new, resilient seed strains introduced by USAID Mikajy almost doubled the yield with a quarter of the seed. Farmers were impressed and USAID Mikajy scaled up; by 2023, more than 1,500 farmers had adopted conservation farming. With support from NCBA CLUSA, USAID Mikajy helped farmers create cooperatives that established contracts with peanut buyers for bulk sales at a higher price than the open market. To date, 20 cooperatives have been established. These enterprises are negotiating investments from their private sector partners and collecting member dues to improve efficiency, scale up production, and build warehouses to store produce until prices are optimal for selling.    

USAID Mikajy also promoted other revenue-generating activities, providing training on improved techniques for vegetable gardening and local-breed, short-cycle chicken husbandry. These activities improved household nutrition while enabling farmers to earn income during the long eight-month dry season. They were also popular with women and youth, who often had less access to land. USAID Mikajy trained these communities to create producer groups and cooperatives, enabling them to establish contracts to supply hotels and other buyers seeking consistent, high-quality products and willing to pay higher prices. By 2023, USAID Mikajy was helping more than 402 producers to participate in improved vegetable gardening (92 percent women and 49 percent youth under 30 years of age), and 523 producers had adopted improved chicken breeding (62 percent women and 36 percent youth). 

NCBA CLUSA helped Malagasy peanut farmers create 20 cooperatives through the USAID-funded Mikajy activity. Together, they can access better markets and higher prices. 

Initially, USAID Mikajy helped residents of sustainable use zones within Menabe Antimena establish sustainable livelihoods, but this did not provide new migrants with an alternative to slash-and-burn cultivation. In response, USAID Mikajy, along with another USAID activity called Hay Tao, supported the Menabe Regional Government and the Ministries of Agriculture, Lands and Environment to develop plans for a new site where migrants could relocate voluntarily. In 2023, under the Government of Madagascar’s Titre Vert Project, USAID Mikajy helped create a land reserve of 6,140 hectares at Bezeky, around 80 kilometers southeast of Menabe Antimena. This site can provide up to 1,000 migrant households with 2 hectares each of land for cultivation. USAID is further supporting the endeavor through Mikajy’s ongoing assistance to enable newly relocated migrants to establish sustainable production, and by funding UNICEF to provide clean water, and implement sanitation and hygiene activities.

By January 2024, close to 200 migrant households had voluntarily relocated to Bezeky from Menabe Antimena, where they originally planned to cultivate crops illegally. USAID Mikajy is helping them adopt conservation farming techniques and grow complementary crops in agroecological blocks including peanuts, sorghum, cajanus, cowpeas and other legumes. USAID Mikajy is also supporting more than 1,000 other mostly migrant farmers who are renting land east of Menabe Antimena. More than 1,600 farmers have benefited from the project during the 2024 cultivation season. 

Working toward a sustainable and prosperous future

USAID Mikajy’s work to enable migrants and residents to establish sustainable livelihoods in and around the Menabe Antimena Protected Area has been a game changer. Once migrants had a viable alternative, the government started cracking down on illegal occupation in the protected area itself. This has been supported by increased philanthropic funding to start new businesses and management plans for the Menabe Antimena Protected Area coordinated by USAID Mikajy. The Foundation for Biodiversity and Protected Areas of Madagascar, Hempel Foundation and Conservation Allies have all contributed vital new long-term funding for protected area management. Together, these activities have resulted in a dramatic drop in deforestation within the Menabe Antimena Protected Area. 

After peaking in 2017, the rate of deforestation began to rapidly reduce after the launch of USAID Mikajy and Hay Tao. In 2023, deforestation in Menabe Antimena reached its lowest rate since 2008. This transformation heralds new hope for Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur and other locally endemic species, along with a sustainable and prosperous future for the people and biodiversity of Menabe Antimena. 

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