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Airplane view of deforestation-induced erosion in Madagascar
Deforestation in Madagascar is largely the result of three activities: slash-and-burn agriculture, logging, and the production of fuelwood and charcoal for cooking fires.

Slash-and-burn agriculture
Slash-and-burn agriculture, known locally as tavy is an important part of Malagasy culture and the Malagasy economy. Tavy is mostly used for converting tropical rainforests in Madagascar into rice fields. Typically an acre or two of forest is cut, burned, and then planted with rice. After a year or two of production the field is left unused for 4-6 years before the process is repeated. After 2-3 such cycles the soil is exhausted of nutrients and the land is likely colonized by scrub vegetation or grass. On slopes, the new vegetation is often insufficient to anchor soils, making erosion and landslides a problem.

Tavy is the most expedient way for many Malagasy to provide for their families, and among people whose day- to-day subsistence is in question there is little concern for the long-term consequences of their actions. From their perspective, as long as there is more forest land freely available for clearing, you might as well use the land before a neighbor does. Tavy for rice also has spiritual and cultural ties that transcend the economic and nutritional value of rice as a crop.

Logging for timber
Logging for timber is especially a problem in the rainforests of eastern Madagascar, particularly on the Masoala peninsula. The high value for Malagasy hardwoods (mostly ebony and rosewood which may fetch $2,000 a ton in international markets) makes illegal logging a significant problem in some protected areas.

Fuelwood and charcoal production
The endemic spiny forests of Madagascar are being cut at an alarming rate for charcoal production. In eking out a living by selling little piles of charcoal along roads in southwestern Madagascar, local people turn towards the nearest plant source which in this case is often the magnificent Alluaudia tree.

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© Rhett A. Butler / 2008