Tromping through rice fields in the dark felt like a surefire way to twist an ankle, but I was thrilled since the existence of these fields meant that our project was working. Verifying this was the purpose of my visit to Vohimary, a village on the edge of the Fandriana – Vondrozo protected area in Madagascar. The people of Vohimary practice tavy, a form of shifting cultivation (what some call slash-and-burn agriculture) that embodies the complex relationship between agriculture and conservation. It can reflect ecological balance and even positive links between natural systems and human practices, but in many settings growing populations and technological change upset that balance. I direct the Conservation Stewards Program (CSP) at Conservation International (CI), which addresses these competing forces using conservation agreements to help resource users like the Vohimary community avoid deforestation and enhance food security by switching to sedentary cultivation on permanent plots.
This switch is difficult for many farmers who lack the tools and resources needed to adopt new production methods and fear the risks of doing so. In return for local community commitments to specific conservation actions, CSP channels funds to address their self-defined needs and priorities. One of the most commonly identified needs is technical assistance to improve agriculture, creating an opportunity to help farmers move from shifting cultivation to sedentary agriculture while working with the community to protect natural habitat and biodiversity.
In Madagascar, CI uses CSP’s conservation agreements to work with local communities who have committed to stop illegal hunting and forest clearing for tavy in specific areas. Important components of these agreements include building small-scale irrigation infrastructure that enables rice production on permanent lowland plots – the plots that threatened my ankles. Protecting forests by managing shifting cultivation helps sustain water supplies that make irrigation and sedentary cultivation possible. Thus, conservation agreements help address the vicious cycle of deforestation and lost water services that (in part) drive shifting cultivation and further forest loss.
I had a particularly memorable conversation with an elderly woman in Vohimary who could not tell me her age; the municipal office that kept birth records burnt down years ago. She described to me how when she was a little girl the forest had extended much further, rains were more regular, and Vohimary was located many kilometers to the east. Water became scarce as her people cleared the hills, and every so often the village would relocate to follow the shrinking forest edge. I was nervous when I asked her what she thought of the conservation agreements, as this clearly was a lady who had seen too much in her long lifetime to sugarcoat the truth. She replied that water infrastructure built under the agreement in return for protecting the forest brought water to the village and the rice fields. Under the agreement, further clearing was not allowed, but would be foolish anyway since the forest keeps the water flowing. She shook her head in disbelief at the thought that anyone would consider further deforestation – she could tell them a thing or two about vicious cycles! I was delighted, as her reply simply but powerfully captured the workings and purpose of the conservation agreement.
How do CSP’s conservation agreements differ from other forms of technical assistance to farmers? They are based on explicit conservation commitments, and linking community investments to performance on these commitments. This empowers farmers to leverage their control over natural resources to attract investment: communities can pursue livelihood objectives by tapping into conservation finance, and conservation funding achieves environmental objectives while advancing socioeconomic development. Our monitoring systems show markedly positive results for biodiversity as well as human wellbeing. However, the most compelling indicator of success might be the fact that year after year our partner communities in Madagascar and elsewhere are keen to renew the conservation agreements.