Improving slash-and-burn agriculture in Central Menabe, Madagascar

Slash-and-burn agriculture is considered as an important driver of deforestation in the tropics. In Madagascar, a biodiversity hotspot, this type of agriculture particularly threatens the tropical forest cover. On the south-western coast of the island, in Central Menabe, the dry tropical forest of Kirindy suffers from an annual deforestation of 2.6%. At such alarming rate, the forest will have entirely disappeared by 2050. The attention of past research programs and conservation actions were mainly on studying the forest or the general interactions between local populations and the forest, with little focus on the slash-and-burn agricultural system itself. Hence, understanding the cultivation practices and assessing alternatives to them is crucial to improve the current forest conservation initiatives. The present thesis answers to the need of an in-depth study of the agricultural practices in Central Menabe. The project aims to (1) analyze the practices of slash-and-burn cultivation in Kirindy forest, (2) explore alternative slash-and-burn practices which may be more sustainable for the forest, (3) determine the implementation perspectives of these alternatives. In a first stage, we have characterized soil productivity along repetitive slash-and-burn cultivation cycles and the farmer’s perception of their agricultural system. Then, we experimented a selective slash-and-burn agriculture (where trees are left intentionally within the cultivated fields), coupled with compost amendment. Finally, we have assessed the implementation potential of that technique through interviews and participating workshops with local farmers. Our findings highlighted that soil depletion due to plant uptake and erosion or leaching by heavy rains, as well as weed invasion were important problems of slash-and-burn cultivation in Central Menabe. Farmers perceive weeding as a work overload. Decrease in grain yield due to slash-and-burn agriculture reaches about 40% after three years of cultivation on the same field (from 4 to 2.5 t ha-1), and decreases up to 75% after a single cyclonic rainy season (from 4 to 1 t ha-1). Further, we demonstrated that combining compost and wood ashes (from the burnings) seems a promising solution to sustain cultivation on the fields. Compost, combined with wood ashes, multiplied corn yield by 5 compared to traditional slash-and-burn agriculture. Growth rates were accelerated and phenology stages of maize plants advanced. Furthermore, this combination also increased soil security by improving the remaining stock of nutrients after a rain simulation. On the other hand, a partial remaining tree cover (selective slash-and-burn agriculture) improved corn yields only when the soil was amended with ashes, not with compost, nor the combination of both. Implementing composting in the forest dwelling communities appears to be a challenging task. Several barriers were highlighted, among them the most important was the water constraints during a consequent period of time related to compost maintenance. Alternative slash-and-burn practices have not been much studied so far because the use of fire was always considered as destructive. Thus, our result will contribute to the development of new forest management strategies which would balance conservation of habitats and rural communities agricultural needs, while minimizing the impact on primary forest.

Buttler, Alexandre
Robroek, Bjorn Jozef Maria
Lausanne, EPFL
Other identifiers:
urn: urn:nbn:ch:bel-epfl-thesis7839-5

 Record created 2017-10-27, last modified 2018-01-28

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