Adapting farming to combat climate change in Madagascar - the story of Emile Jean
Like most people in the south of Madagascar, including his father and grandfather, Emile is a farmer and cattle-breeder. He owns a few Zebu, but mainly lives of the maize and vegetables he plants, half of which is sold, the other half being grown to feed his family of thirteen.
Indeed, Emile is 54 years old and lives with his wife and eleven kids, six boys and five girls, in a house with three rooms. But don’t be fooled, by local standards Emile Jean is not poor. Admittedly he had to swap his cup of morning coffee for a cup of Rohondroho, a drink somewhat like coffee but stronger, but many of his peers are in much worse situations.
The prices of food products people depend on in their daily lives, such as cassava, maize, rice, oil and sugar have doubled, and many cannot afford to buy them anymore. This is mainly due to the shortening of the rainy season and the harsh weather conditions.
During the past years there have been noticeable changes in the rainfall patterns. Five years ago, the annual rainfall fluctuated between 800 to 900 mm while it rarely reaches 500 mm nowadays. The distribution of rain has changed unpredictably. Storms have become less frequent and more intense.
The temperatures have also been increasing yearly, particularly in the inland areas north and east of the plateau Mahafaly. The weather shifts result in a longer dry period (7 to 8 months) and a shorter rainy season (2 months from February), which make it harder for farmers to plant and live off their crops all year round.
‘When my father was young, they had a bad year every seven years’ said Emile Jean. ‘Now, it’s every two years. And we even risk having many bad years in a row’.
A bad year is a year when the dry season - hot or fresh - is longer than normal. It occurred less regularly 30 to 20 years ago but bad years are now more frequent, and the former bad years are now becoming the normal years.
‘For some years now, we have been losing a part of our manioc yield. We used to be able to plant in the Lohatao season but now the rain comes too late’ explained Emile.
Many farmers used to start planting in the Lohatao season, which starts with the first rain when the temperatures decrease, in order to bridge the gap between two harvesting periods. Now, this is impossible as the temperatures don’t decrease before the rainy season and there is no Lahatao, or first rain.
When a serious drought occurs, not only do farmers have no maize and vegetables to sell on the local market, they don’t even get enough of their harvests to feed their families. That is sadly how famine arises.
During food crises, Governments and Organizations such as the World Food Program, organize food supplying. Despite those efforts, the poorest families most of the time have no other choice then to temporarily migrate to the forestry areas where they produce charcoal and look for food by hunting and picking.
So as natural cycles changed, farmers such as Emile Jean, had to accept the changes in the seasonal calendar and adapt as they went along - they reduced planting harvests which require a lot of water like maize and switched to drought resistant crops; they now also wait for the rainy season to plant to avoid losing their seeds.
In some regions like the Mahafaly plateau, WWF has not only been encouraging farmers to plant drought resistant crops but has been extensively promoting improved agriculture techniques such as drip irrigation and market gardening.
'Since 2003, WWF has promoted agro-ecological practices to help communities to better adapt their agricultural activities and techniques to the harsh climatic conditions' says Soarinosy Gladys Ranalisolofo, project manager for WWF’s sustainable land management programme (SLM). 'For example, we teach farmers how to use vegetative cover seeding to reduce evaporation by retaining the maximum of moisture on the plants and soften heat effects.'
'We also promote culture association - where you plant leguminous with graminous crops - and culture rotation, as they help to increase productivity and preserve the soil for a longer period of production' she added.
But the most important step forward in adapting to climate change in the south of the island was the transfer of forest management to Community Based Organizations (CBO).
Villagers from the Mahafaly Plateau believe that changes in climate, as with many other natural things, occur because God and the spirits living in the forests are angry. They think that God gives rain to places where animals live for them to drink, and that the rain also benefits the surrounding villages, and therefore the humans who live in them.
‘We sacrificed a zebu to ask God for his protection during these difficult times’ said Emile Jean. ‘In exchange we promised to protect nature and the forest. It was like a contract and God helped us through difficult times.'
According to theTemitongoa's beliefs, there is less and less rain because the animals are being killed or have to run from their forums, due to forst cover loss. By protecting the forests - and resorting to community based forest management - the Temitongoa believe they will make up with God and the spirits and which will call back animals to forests.
The village elders still look out for signs of rain, hoping that their many sacrafices have made God happy. But sadly, the rain still isn't coming.
To start building database of rainfall which will help to have more precise trend of future rainfall, WWF has distributed 30 rain gauges to communities across the Mahafaly Plateau, including Emile Jean's villageTsiandriona Nord, to allow villagers to collect rainfall data themselves.
In 2010, the villagers were also trained to be able to interpret the data, in order to translate it into understandable information for them. Thanks to this, they now know what to plant and when. These activities have helped make great advancements in adapting to climate change and have therefore been scaled up in 2011.
But despite the efforts and successes Emile Jean is still shaken - things will never come back to the way they were before. For farmers like him, what once was is no longer so.
Emile Jean's eleven kids all go to school. And in light of the not so bright future, his biggest wish is for them to not follow in their father's footsteps. He'd much rather they become intellectuals, so that they don't have to depend on natural resources like him.