National Geographic Young Explorer Alizé Carrère is researching an innovative method of agricultural adaptation in the Malagasy highlands that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as “lavaka”, literally meaning “hole”, they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic benefits, turning a deforested landscape into one of opportunity, not hardship.
If I had to give my title as a qualitative, social science researcher in remote agricultural areas another name, I’d opt for something along the lines of ‘Farmer Therapist’.
Once Malagasy farmers get past the initial surprise that I’m not in their villages to preach or teach the ways of the vazaha (white person), arriving instead with the intention of learning their ways of managing life in the bush, the floodgates holding back feelings of despair, frustration, anticipation, and hope swing open.
In other words, it is a lot of hours of story time. And from those stories, it is then my job to extract important details, pry further on certain comments, decode spiritual and mystical references, understand farmers’ mental maps, and offer hugs and handkerchiefs when things get emotional (ok not really, but I sometimes feel that urge – life in the bush is no walk in the park).
Ultimately, I will string together these narratives, accompanied by the methods and practices I witness out on their fields, and produce something that translates it all into credible research.
On the topic of lavaka, there turns out to be quite a lot of emotion and opinion coming from the farmers who live among them. From what I’ve encountered during my first few weeks of field work, the variation in their assessments is largely tied to one important distinction.
There is a difference between younger, active lavaka, and older, inactive lavaka. When a lavaka first forms, an incredible volume of soil detaches itself from the hillside and dumps on the land below – this is what gives that impressive scar-like image on the landscape. For what can be up to decades, this raw exposure of steeply sloped, non-vegetated soil is then greatly susceptible to continued erosion, particularly during the rainy season.
Active lavaka are very detrimental to rice farmers who maintain paddies on valley floors. If a lavaka forms, the volume of soil that gets deposited can silt up entire rice fields, destroying crops and generations’ worth of physical labor. I spoke with many farmers in villages around the Lake Aloatra region who are currently suffering from the wrath of heavily active lavaka that force them to abandon fields altogether. Their stories are disheartening, often ending with pleads for expertise on how to help.
Inactive lavaka are those that are much older and that have been stabilized by the establishment of trees and other vegetation. This is where my research begins – and where the stories take on a more positive tone.
If left on their own, lavaka will eventually become stabilized via natural tree and shrub colonization processes – even if it takes several decades. This is viewed spectacularly from aerial photos, where clusters of dense woody vegetation are often seen within more mature formations.
In recent years, however, the alarmingly accelerated rate at which lavaka are forming in the highlands has prompted many farmers to take up their own concerted stabilization efforts, planting fruit trees and hardy plants that can withstand, and eventually halt, erosion. Many farmers who do this will then harvest what they can from these trees and plants in the meantime, including wood for charcoal, fruit, and various other forest products for consumption or for sale. Annual and perennial crops are also sometimes planted among the trees.
In conversing with farmers who were dealing with much older, already stabilized lavaka on their land, things sounded even more promising. Most said that their fields at the outflow of inactive, mature lavaka were far more fertile than those at greater distances, and that fertilizer inputs were no longer needed. They attributed this to the natural funneling effect of water and light soil nutrients coming down from the stabilized lavaka.
For now, it is not yet entirely clear to me whether farmers practicing agriculture and agro-forestry in lavaka do it more for reasons of stabilizing erosion or because it does indeed provide ideal conditions for growing crops. My understanding thus far is that it is some combination of both, depending on what phase of the lavaka life cycle the farmer is dealing with.
What is certain, however, is that maturing lavaka have the potential to provide farmers with opportunities for increased food security and environmental management over time – even if it occurs on time scales that spread across multiple generations. While we might call that a silver lining, I particularly enjoy the Malagasy way of putting it:
Ao anatin’ny mangidy no ahitana ny mamy – It is in the bitterness that you can find the sweet.