1. Madagascar: Improving soil health and fertility with agroecology (by Armel Gentien, FAO, for Farm Radio Weekly, in Madagascar)

| August 30, 2010

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The Moïse family in Nosibe, Madagascar, used to grow only rice and cassava. Mr. Moïse says, “We were tired of working without obtaining anything. Thanks to the new technique, the yield is higher, and we sell the surplus on the local market.”

As part of their new farming technique, the family plants flemingia on the contour lines which cross their sloping land. They grow a variety of crops between the lines of flemingia, a plant known in some regions as crotolaria. These hillsides are known as “agroecological sites,” or sites de production intégrés in French.

Mr. Moïse lives in the Fénérive region of eastern Madagascar. Since 2004, he and many other farmers have been working with the Program for Promotion of Rural Income. The program is run by IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

The land here is hilly, with little flat land. Farmers cultivate their crops on the slopes. They typically practice slash and burn, known locally as tavy. A farmer in Anjahambe explains slash and burn, “We clear the land, then we sow the crops. When the soil doesn’t produce more, we will look for another piece of land. We will leave the land as set-aside for five to six years before coming back to cultivate it again.”

But habits are changing. One farmer from Namantoana says, “Slash and burn cultivation doesn’t bring anything. It is the tradition, but the soil becomes hard and uncultivable.” Another farmer, Mr. Bezoky Pierre, adds, “It’s a bad habit inherited from our ancestors.”

Governments have enacted laws against slash and burn over the last 50 years. But farmers change their practices slowly.

The agroecological sites are an alternative. They improve both soil fertility and farmers’ quality of life. Mr. Raherilalao is an agronomist. He explains, “These sites are set up on the slopes. We control erosion by planting a strip of flemingia along the contour lines.”

The flemingia is pruned twice a year. The prunings are applied to the soil as mulch. This adds organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Flemingia also contributes to better soil structure through the action of its roots. Mr. Raherilalao continues, “We rotate vegetable crops, like bean, cucumber and onions. On lower and upper slopes we plant clove and coffee.” Farmers grow eucalyptus or acacia at the top of the slopes to keep the soil in place. These trees can also be used for firewood and construction.

A farmer in nearby Anjahambe states that his yield is ten times higher than before. He uses guano, an organic fertilizer which comes from bat droppings. He says, “A traditional cassava plant usually produced between three to five kilograms on this land. Now with the advice of the project, the organic fertilizer, and better fertility and grafting, the yield of this plant has reached up to 50 kilograms!”

Now that farmers protect their soils and add organic matter and nutrients, soil fertility has increased. Farmers can settle in one area. Many have stopped practicing slash and burn.

With a greater variety of food and higher yields, families eat well and sell their surplus on the local market. Mr. Bezoky says, “The difference is huge!” He explains that his annual income was around 200,000 Ariary (about 80 Euros or 95 American dollars). But today he earns two million Ariary a year (800 Euros or 950 American dollars). He acknowledges that without advice from the program, his income would never reach this figure.

However, some problems remain. The Moïse family indicates that, “Fertilizers are expensive. Without the project funding, we could never buy it.” In addition, Mr. Moïse says, “These techniques require more work, even though they bring a higher income.”

The project ends in 2012. It is not clear what farmers will do then. They are dependent on the project to buy improved seeds and fertilizer for them. There are no input suppliers nearby. But the project is planning to establish a seed and fertilizer supplier in the area. It will also connect farmers to microfinance institutions. Then the system of farming agroecological sites can continue.

The farmers believe in the future. An Anjahambe farmer says, “When you see the yield difference thanks to the agroecological site, you can be totally impressed. I’m satisfied with the project and I will continue this technique for the rest of my life!”

For more information and resources on compost and soil fertility, please refer to the Soil Health Issue Pack, July 2010: http://farmradio.org/english/radio-scripts/91-9script_en.asp.