The tropical dry forests of Madagascar are notoriously fragile. The plants and animals inhabiting these areas are highly endemic; 48% of the genera of plants in southern Madagascar are unique to the island. Clear cutting of these forests has escalated with the expansion of agriculture since 1970.
But to what extent? According to this paper recently published in PLoS One, recent literature on the subject has shown a less dramatic model of deforestation in the area. The researchers broaden the scope of analysis to include rates of stability and regeneration in these forests, as well as the local social institutions that affect how the area is managed. They focused on areas within the Androy region of Southern Madagascar, an area dominated by strange but beautiful plants like Alluaudia ascendens (pictured above), which can reached heights of 10 meters or more.
Their methodology is pretty straightforward:
Basically, it’s not as bad as we thought, at least in this study area. Between 1984 and 2000, deforestation in the Androy region has significantly reduced. From 1984 to 1993, the forests were reduced by 11 percent; from 1993 to 2000, however, there was a 4 percent increase in net forest cover. Juxtapose the results with an estimated 65% cover loss from 1950 – 1984, and their conclusion becomes clear.
Perhaps the most important finding in this study (one to be further explored) is that regeneration rates of tropical dry forests might not be as low as once thought.
Social institutions, as hypothesized, seem to play a big part in how the forests are managed:
The largest forest reduction in our surveyed area occurred in an area with distinctly insecure property rights and an open access situation. Stable forest occurred in areas where property rights are well defined and strong social institutions and functioning enforcements are present.
Environmental legislature is not entirely responsible for the reduction of forest loss. There are areas deemed off limits by local tribes because of the sanctity of the forests; they play a major role in the religions of the people of Androy. Also, rainfall has been sparse in Androy, increasing the risks associated with farming, and reducing the number of applications to clear cut forested land. The droughts have reduced the pressures on the forests, allowing the endemic flora to regenerate.
The funny thing about this study is its implications. Sure, there is legislation and belief systems that protect the forests from overuse in some areas, but much of the forests are intact because of neglect. There’s little rain, so farming is not viable. The pressures decline because people are not invading as often as they once did.
The author cinches it up nicely, acknowledging our the importance of addressing our ubiquity:
We argue that spontaneous forest regeneration can not be understood as an ecological process alone; it is also embedded in an institutional context and critically dependent on functioning local social institutions mitigating drivers of deforestation and alternative land use.