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A challenge threatening Madagascar’s rarest forest type could be solved with something that is a common sight for farmland in Britain, but unseen in most Malagasy landscapes – the hedge.

The single rarest forest type remaining in modern day Madagascar is known as ‘littoral forest’. It forms where humid forest grows on old sand dunes, and supports a rich biodiversity of life including many species known only to live in this type of ecosystem.

It’s so rare that one of the largest remaining patches of littoral forest – the Agnalazaha forest protected area – is just 1500 hectares in size. For comparison, that’s eight times smaller than Manchester!

The pictures above show the challenge of the Agnalazaha ecosystem for plants. Soil just millimetres in depth quickly gives may to unstable sand dune, and swamp-like flooding is frequent. 

Like all forest in Madagascar, Agnalazaha, found in the southeast of the island, faces decline due to the human pressures surrounding it. The most important cause of deforestation here has its roots in the relationship between farmland and roaming cattle. Subsistence farmers in the region rely on the land for their survival and that of their families.

Cattle that are allowed to freely roam can easily ruin a crop, either through consumption or trampling, so farmers need to keep cows out at any cost. The way farmers have kept out cows until now is by creating barriers using wooden stakes – more than 1,000,000 of them every year – extracted from Agnalazaha’s trees.

A wooden stake fence with a criss cross pattern is pictured in a community near the Agnalazaha forest.

Pictured – A wooden stake fence in a community near the Agnalazaha forest. Each fence requires hundreds of wooden stakes to craft. 

The situation is far from sustainable, and the signs of degradation are already starting to show. The goal of the project – an effort led by Missouri Botanic Garden with support from us here at Chester – is to reduce forest decline by finding an alternative means of crop protection that addresses the root issue.

Solutions – Short & Long term?

Barbed wire is one of the more obvious solutions to keep roaming cattle and pigs away from crops. A project trial in recent years showed barbed-wire fences/fencing to be an effective alternative that could exclude cattle. Most importantly, it was also found to be socially acceptable as a method with local farmers. The current goal is to scale-up this trial to include ~30% of farmers in the Agnalazaha vicinity. Barbed wire is relatively expensive however, and requires replacing over time. It isn’t a sustainable answer either.

A barbed wire fence is pictured, with saplings that will one day cover the fence with living hedge

Pictured – A barbed wire fence provided as a stopgap while the saplings planted at its feet grow to a size in which they themselves become the barrier. The original wooden fence is visible in the background, hopefully soon to be obsolete. 

The barbed wire is providing a stopgap to the project’s true means of making change – hedgerows.

Hedges have been used for centuries across multiple parts of the world to separate owned areas of land and ensure property such as livestock aren’t roaming elsewhere. This initiative is trialling the creation of Madagascar-suitable hedges. Their core consists of gliricidia, moringa, and ficus, plant species that root easily and grow large quickly, but this isn’t all.

Once serving their main objective of keeping out cattle, the hedges can be enriched with a whole assortment of species serving multiple purposes: plants that provide extra food, medicines, timber, or firewood. All these things serve benefits for both people and forest.

Another triumph of the project lies in where the plants to form these hedges are grown…

The nursery

Thousands of plants will need to be grown for making hedges at this scale. This is a perfect opportunity to staff a plant nursery with people from the communities who call the area surrounding Agnalazaha home.

Early in 2022, the project nursery began operations. The project employed and trained 10 unmarried mothers in the many techniques of botanical nursery care, and provides a creche for children to play and sleep during their mother’s working hours. The nursery staff also receive regular training in skills such as chicken rearing, hygiene, family planning and maternal care.

Pictured – Nursery staff receiving training, and the sizable plant nursery under their care that is making the outputs of this conservation project possible.

To investigate the project’s long-term outcomes, our social scientists will carry out research in collaboration with our partners on the ground to monitor the impacts of nursery participation on the staff – good or bad. Their attitudes, knowledge, perceptions, and behaviours may all look very different three years from now over the duration of the project. Positive change for biodiversity mustn’t come as a result of negative change for people, which is why it’s so important that we study both.


Long-term vision

In the next few years of this Darwin Initiative funded project,  protecting 30% of the farms in the area from cattle with wire and fencing would mean that an estimated 300,000 tree stems a year would remain in the forest. The effect this has on the rate of deforestation, we’ll know in time with extensive forest monitoring.

Pictured – The Agnalazaha forest and some of its biodiversity that together we’re working to protect. 

As well as protecting biodiversity, the project aims also include sizable benefits for the human communities of Agnalazaha. Reduced crop losses and employment for those with little opportunity is hoped to significantly improve livelihoods. The project’s continued evaluation and partnership with the involved communities will tell us what effect the interventions are having.

Here in 2022, the project is just getting off the ground, and huge success hopefully lies just around the corner in this unusual conservation story.

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