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Farmers Hold Key to the Forest

Primitive methods destroy trees; better technology and enlightened self-interest may save them. MADAGASCAR

THEY live next to some of the world's most prized natural treasures - Madagascar's thick rain forests, home to plants and animals extinct for millions of years everywhere but on this island off the East coast of Africa. Nature tourists from around the world come here, pay a fee, and enter reserves such as this one to gaze in wonder.

But people like village historian Bernard Dominque, or resident Rosalie Soamaneva, who live and farm at the very edge of such reserves, are not allowed in them. In the end, however, they will determine the forests' fate, say conservationists here and in the West.

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Madagascar is losing some 375,000 acres of forest a year. At that rate, all the forest will be gone by 2020, conservationists say. Most of the trees are felled by farmers clearing cropland.

Boundaries have been established around reserves like this one to keep farmers out. With generous international aid, more boundaries are being established to protect more forests. But so far reserves protect only a small part of the remaining forest, and guards are few.

More guards are not the answer, says Olivier Langrand, of the World Wide Fund for Nature office in Madagascar.

``Within the near future you'll have such a crowd around [the protected forests] you won't be able to guard them anymore,'' he says. Population pressure may overwhelm the reserves.

The real answer is in winning the cooperation of farmers like Mr. Dominique and Mrs. Soamaneva, say Mr. Langrand and other conservationists interviewed. The key, says Langrand, lies in persuading them that the forests provide a source of water (treeless areas get less rain), and erosion protection (treeless hills can eventually become barren ground as soils wash off).

To get a better understanding of the life and needs of such people, this correspondent and a photographer made about seven stream crossings, some of them hip-high, and followed a narrow, roller-coaster path for several hours to the town of Ambodirafia. The path skirts the edge of the reserve. Farmers had cut the natural trees and planted bananas up to the very boundary.

Barefoot men, women, and children passed us carrying heavy basketloads of bananas and other fruit to middlemen buyers at the roadhead. From there, the fruit, rice, and coffee is taken by small buses to the nearest big city, Toamasina, and sold for several times the price local farmers get.

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Isolation of many villages in Madagascar makes selling at a good price nearly impossible.

``We are really desperate,'' says Mr. Dominque, a villager. ``We would like to sell our products, but the customers do not come here to buy them. ... If there was a road, we think [more of] our bananas will be sold. But it is impossible now, so we are frustrated.''

There is a road. But it is so treacherous that only one or two vehicles a year manage to reach the village. Almost everything sold is taken out on foot.

Much of what is grown is consumed in the village. But people say the land is wearing out. The traditional farming method involves cutting and burning a set number of parcels of land and planting in rotation, leaving some land unused each year. But population pressures mean fallow ground is now used by others.

So farmers are cutting and burning more forest to take advantage of the rich soil. Ironically, the richness fades in a few years without the trees that pull up nutrients from deep in the earth.

BUT even as farmers seek new land, the amount of government-protected forest land is increasing. The crunch has come in villages like this one, at the foot of the Betampona reserve, where farmers must use the same land, year after year.

Farmers might boost production with more irrigation, fertilizers, or terraces on the hills (one sees few now). But for the moment, little of this is happening. Instead, production of the main crop, rice, is falling.

``You don't get the amount of rice you should,'' says Dominque. ``The soils are no longer fertile. They have been used for too many years. They don't get rest at all.''

Down the main dirt path of the village, a dim oil light still burns in a one-room reed hut. Inside, Mrs. Soamaneva sits on a mat on the floor with one of her eight children and a granddaughter. She is a widow. There is no furniture: Other villagers have chairs, and perhaps a table.

``Life is very difficult because I am obliged to work, cultivate the land,'' she says. She takes on extra work, such as weeding, to supplement her farm income.

Soamaneva complains that the price of rice is increasing, perhaps because of inflation. Farmers often sell rice to pay for school fees and such, only to buy rice later for food at a higher price. Asked to name something she is happy about in the village, she is silent. A neighbor suggests she mention the village's new pharmacy, and she does.

The pharmacy was started with help from the Church of Jesus Christ of Madagascar (FJKM), which is also offering advice to villagers on how to improve rice irrigation. Western and local conservation and development groups hope to help farmers boost production.

Gilbert Ramarinjanona, a farmer and pastor of a FJKM church in a nearby village, says he needs better tools for farming, and advice on repairing rice irrigation canals. But FJKM development worker Maheefa Andrianaivo says villagers already know how to build and repair irrigation canals, as some have done. He questions just how much villagers really want - or need - outside advice.

Village teenager Samy Florent asks why a local laborer is paid less per day than the market price for the rice each laborer eats every day.

The World Bank in Madagascar provides part of the answer. Poor economic policies until recent years squashed private enterprise. As a result, people are worse off today than they were 20 years ago, according to bank officials. Last year the economy grew as the result of economic reforms, the bank reports.

But the four percent growth was nearly eaten up by the three and a half percent population growth. And so the question of whether Madagascar's forests will survive remains an open one.

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