Dispatch from Madagascar: Jumping Rivers and Crossing Fire LinesMay 2, 2012
Noah Jackson – photographer, blogger, trainer and auditor for the Rainforest Alliance – continues his report from Madagascar’s vanilla trails.
My obsession with vanilla is more than professional. Last year, during my second visit to Madagascar, I used the tale of vanilla to court my girlfriend, talking about the aroma, describing my walks across vanilla forest trails, and detailing the beauty of the orchid that grows organically under a mixture of shade fruits and plants. I even sent vanilla and clove samples, harvested from these farm plots, in my letters.
On my third visit for the Rainforest Alliance, I have to dig deeper and explore the more challenging aspects of vanilla. Today, our team followed new farmer field teams, who help to organize farmers and monitor their compliance with the standards required for Rainforest Alliance certification, across the vanilla trail. It was an adventurous trek — we found ourselves jumping across small rivers, climbing steep slopes and nearing the boundary of Marojejy National Park.
As we walked, we crossed charred rice fields that had burned when planned fires had jumped fire lines — gaps in vegetation that act as a barrier to slow the progress of fires. Hillsides and entire stream gullies were destroyed. This happened because the fires, which were set to clear land for rice, did not follow the intended course. Instead, they crossed fire lines, reducing secondary forest and damaging soil fertility. Burning land to clear it for rice cultivation is a symptom of a larger problem; communities do not have enough land and, as a result, are experiencing rice shortages.
Along the trail, we stopped and talked with farmers, sharing thoughts, ideas and seeds. Tucked away in a seed store compartment in my luggage, I had seeds from my home garden to share with community members. Small gifts – like seeds for squash and beans – help me to build relationships with locals.
To one farmer, I commented that the vanilla these farmers are growing is well-suited to agroforestry practices. Another vanilla variety, introduced nearly two decades ago, has been modified to grow under full sun conditions, without forest cover. This variety could mean the end of forest vanilla farming in Madagascar. It could also mean a shift to plantation conditions, where shade-grown practices are discouraged.
In a country where virtually no crop has a stable market price, this change could have disastrous effects on the landscape, crop and farmer livelihoods. It would certainly mean more forest loss. This is something that Madagascar cannot afford.
We also spoke of planting indigenous trees, and discussed ways to restore very small valleys and gullies. On one farm, I used a stick to sketch out a way to slow water down and use the extra nutrients to grow sugarcane in the soil. Later, I added the sketch to my notebook.
We didn’t spend a lot of time together, maybe no more than an hour, but it was my favorite hour of the day. It was spent wandering the vanilla trail that wove around fish pounds, through coffee and cloves, past animals and organic composting, and beyond a large fruit home garden. These sites provide inspiration about the kind of environmentally, socially and economically sustainable farming the people of Madagascar are capable of.
In the evening, showered and back from a long walk, I spoke with the director of the park, Jean Hervé Bakarizafy, about building relationships one family, one community and one farm at a time. One way to do this is to allow farmers to plant agroforestry crops, such as coffee, cloves, pepper and fruit, within the park buffer zone.
Rice lands, both irrigated wet rice and upland rice, would migrate to lower elevations where the crop could be nurtured on more fertile soil. Fewer fire lines would be crossed and lemurs in the park would have a chance of continuing their march across a park corridor that spans these vanilla lands.
Ready to continue your stroll across the vanilla trail? Watch a short video narrated by Noah Jackson.