Forest patch protected by local taboos (sacred forest) in Madagascar. Photo: M. Pykkönen
Seeing the forest for the trees
Taboos, informal rules and social networks help tropical forest regeneration in Madagascar.
Human presence may not be such a big threat to the preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity after all. Centre board member and recent Nobel Laureate in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, has already shown how common property can be successfully managed by groups using it.

Now centre researchers Thomas Elmqvist, Markku Pyykönen along with Maria Tengö have studied how local communities in Madagascar contribute to the regeneration of the southern dry forest in the country.
 
Listed as one of the 200 most important regions in the world, the southern dry forest in Madagascar harbors an exceptionally high level of plant endemism. Elmqvist and his colleagues have expanded previous studies and found that human activities are not necessarily detrimental to the ecosystem dynamics in the areas. On the contrary, social and ecological processes interact, creating situations resulting in forest loss, but also in protection (stable cover) and regeneration.
 
The study, appears in a new book Reforesting Landscapes published by Springer Verlag and is the first multidisciplinary synthesis addressing reforestation around the world.

- While we have a rather good understanding of deforestation and the social institutions and economic context in which this is embedded we have a poor understanding of reforestation and the types of social conditions and institutions involved, says Thomas Elmqvist.
 
Little formal protection
Loss of tropical forests and changes in land use and cover is of growing concern worldwide. With an annual regeneration of about 20 % of the total deforestation, there is a clear mismatch between how much is cut down and how much grows up again.

The Androy region where the Madagascar study was conducted, is situated in the southernmost part of the island. The area is characterized by semi-arid climatic conditions and the dry forest consists of drought-tolerant woody species.
 
In contrast to other types of forests in Madagascar, there are only a few, very small areas that are formally under protection and the forest has since the early 1970's been reported to be in decline, principally due to clearing for agriculture, cattle herding, timber harvest and charcoal production.

The big taboo
In their study, Elmqvist, Pykkönen and Tengö used Landsat images from southern Madagascar taken in 1984, 1993 and 2000 to detect any changes of the forest cover.

Together with interviews with government officials, clan leaders, women and youngsters who did the actual work of exploiting the forests for timber, firewood and grazing, the researchers got a better picture of who had access to forest resources, which rules regulated this access and who actually enforced these rules.
 
- We found that rather than formal legal definitions of forest protection, it was the informal rules acknowledged and made by forest users that influenced forest conditions, Elmqvist says.
 
The most strict and well-reinforced rule was the informal taboo against harvesting in certain portions of the forest areas.

- Whether or not an area will regenerate may perhaps therefore, in many areas, be less a question of ecological constraints, but rather social variables, Elmqvist says.

Source: Elmqvist, T., Pykkönen, M, Tengö, M. 2010. Spontaneous Regeneration of Tropical Dry Forest in Madagascar: The Social—Ecological Dimension. In Nagendra, Harini; Southworth, Jane (Eds.), Reforesting Landscapes. Springer Verlag.

See video interview with professor Eric Lambin on what worldwide land use change we can expect for the future:

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Reference
Elmqvist, T., Pykkönen, M, Tengö, M. 2010. Spontaneous Regeneration of Tropical Dry Forest in Madagascar: The Social—Ecological Dimension. In Nagendra, Harini; Southworth, Jane (Eds.), Reforesting Landscapes. Springer Verlag.

Related news
Stockholm Resilience Centre and Madagascar have agreed to develop a transdisciplinary research partnership to strengthen Madagasy research on sustainable development.

2010-04-09 | Sturle Hauge Simonsen

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