If you’re a farmer, what are you supposed to do when your fields start to weaken and your harvests become smaller? Traditionally in Madagascar, the answer was simple: find a new patch of forest, chop it down, set it on fire, start over.
Due to poor soil quality, declining production yields, and a lack of rain attributable to climate change, the pressure on farmers to clear new land in the surrounding dry forests is immense.
But a growing awareness about the downsides of slash-and-burn farming — including destruction of forest habitats, soil erosion, and weakening of the water table — has female farmers in the Menabe region of Madagascar looking for new solutions.
Since June 2019, 87 women have been working with the USAID Mikajy project to establish sustainable market gardens where they grow a wide range of produce, such as onions, tomatoes, and cabbage, for their own use and for sale.
Instead of slashing-and-burning, these women are learning how to become stewards of the land — nurturing it, watering it, feeding it, and caring for it — so that the land can continue to feed them and their family for generations.
The women have learned new, conservation-friendly farming methods that promote minimal land use and cultivation of healthy soils. They have also been equipped with tools, such as watering cans and shovels.
“Those techniques do not require large amounts of land, so we can grow our crops in the village,” says Selestiny, a 28-year-old mother of three children from the village of Lambokely. “Our agricultural production has increased significantly since we started using the new methods taught by USAID Mikajy,” she explained.
Selestiny, who uses one name, has already established a flourishing 28 by 10 meter garden. She sees how the new approach secures the future of her family and the region’s forests.
“This activity helps us to increase our family’s income, especially during the lean season, and also reduce the destruction of Menabe Antimena’s forests,” she says.
The Menabe Antimena Protected Area contains some of the largest sections of dry forests in Madagascar and is home to numerous unique plant and animal species. However, the forests are under increasing pressure as trees are cleared and the land burned to grow cash crops such as maize and peanuts. The situation has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the reduction in the number of forest patrols and an increase in economic insecurity in the region. Over a recent three month period approximately 56 hectares of dry forest — an area about the size of 60 city blocks — were illegally burned.
To help address this threat, USAID is working with NCBA-CLUSA to help women like Selestiny create sustainable income generating activities like market gardens.
Market gardens enable women to provide food, cash, and stability for their families without putting additional pressure on the surrounding forests. The women use a portion of the profits from the sale of their produce to buy additional seeds and other equipment, helping them to maintain or grow their businesses.
The project has also established other systems to encourage resilience and economic prosperity. One example is the creation of a village savings and loan association (VSLA) in which members contribute to a funding pool. Other members may borrow from these funds to cover emergency expenses or pursue new opportunities. Selestiny explains that under this system the members are accountable to each other.
“Previously, if we had to borrow money to support our everyday needs the interest rates could be very high — up to 100 percent. But since we have the VSLA, it’s different. Now if we need money, we borrow from each other.”
And the success the women have had is being noticed. They report they are now seen as role models and are taking on leadership roles in their communities. In fact, Selestiny has been elected as president of the Farmers Association, which includes all local farmers, male and female.
“Selestiny is a really dynamic woman. It is no great surprise that she was elected president of our organization,” says Mamike, one of the male farmers. “The fact that she is a woman doesn’t matter. Above all, we want to develop our organization.”
For Selestiny, she sees her new role through the eyes of a farmer — as a chance to grow a strong, healthy future for her community.
“I accepted this responsibility because I want our organization to develop. It’s not easy to lead a whole team, but I think a woman can do a great job in this role,” she says. “Women have the same rights as men these days. The organization needs to evolve and we have to work to achieve this goal.”
About the Authors
A.G. Klei is the Senior Development and Outreach Communications Advisor for USAID’s Mission in Madagascar, and Mialy Randriamampianina is the Communications Officer for the USAID Mikajy environmental activity in Madagascar.