Home Locations Ambanja (Madagascar)

When the going gets tough? The tough keep surveying: exploring the mangrove forests of NW Madagascar

by Dr. Trevor Jones, Remote Sensing Scientist, Madagascar

The Blue Forests and Coastal Communities (BFCC) team is currently in transit on the long (>2500km!) road trip back to Toliara after a month long reconnaissance mission in northern Madagascar.

We’ve been surveying various mangrove-adjacent communities in the Ambaro bay region, at the opposite end of the country to our office base in Toliara. The days were long and mostly incredibly hot, with temperatures reaching 39 Celsius/101 Fahrenheit. The going was tough and slow, through mud which reached the depth of one’s waist; through jungle gym arrays of buttress roots often sporting near razor sharp shells; through dense scrub forest which was home to dangling wasp nests who made it quite clear with their stings that our presence was not welcome. The sunburn, rashes and stings were cooled and soothed at times by torrential rains associated with a series of cyclones and tropical storms; however, the rain, a welcome break from the heat, was so heavy at times that all work ground to a halt.

The BFCC team hard at work

Despite the slow going, we successfully and thoroughly inventoried over 20 hectares of mangroves, establishing over 100 field plots to capture the variability in mangrove ecosystem types based on aspects of species dominance, canopy cover, tree density, frequency of tidal inundation and various other ecological attributes. In addition, we documented observed levels of degradation and deforestation.

A preliminary summary of the status of these mangrove ecosystems based on our observations and interviews leads us to believe that degradation and in places wholesale deforestation is prevalent. The stories are different but similar, and the primary reason for over-exploitation is charcoal production. Enormous, near industrial-scale charcoal production operations were witnessed in numerous locations. Our initial interviews indicate that much of the extraction and charcoal production is carried out by migrants taking the forest products back to towns around the island of Nosy Be, which, due to the limited extent of its own mangroves and upland forests, lacks the resources necessary to derive this currently essential forest product. However in some communities, it is the residents themselves who have turned to over-exploitation for a variety of reasons, such as around a former sapphire mining boom town, where residents and now unemployed former miners now have no other option to make a living.

These forests are being cleared for charocal

Our presence was overall welcomed, except in migrant charcoal production camps where it was feared (of course wrongly) that we were there to shut down operations.

Locals have a variety of concerns, including deforestation reaching a level where the current mangrove buffers are no longer intact and tidal waters will inundate communities, and observable rapid declines in crab populations.

While the level of exploitation is certainly not welcome news and we have only scratched the surface of what is going in the region, it is clear that the situation warrants further investigation by the BFCC team. In April, after having used the data we collected on this reconnaissance mission to make a map of the different mangrove types and surrounding land-cover types from satellite imagery. Also after having targeted particularly vulnerable communities, the BFCC team will return to the region to implement a biomass inventory, socio-economic research and social impact assessment. Through these activities, we can quantify the carbon stocks in these forests and model their dynamics, and reach a more concrete understanding of the agents, drivers and underlying causes of degradation and deforestation. In addition, we can begin to thoroughly understand the role that mangroves play in the lives of these coastal communities, and how alterations to this role might impact stakeholders, including migrants.

A cleared mangrove forest – what a sorry sight

This is of course no small feat, but our current team of three full time staff will be growing later this month (and for our next campaign) by a full time socio-economic researcher, a full time remote sensing scientist, a visiting graduate student working on social impact assessment and a mangrove expert from Kenya! In tandem with the local expertise offered through our community hosts who have lived their entire lives in and around these ecosystems, the BFCC team is poised to bring back a wealth of information from their next field mission, all of which works towards assessing the feasibility of payments for ecosystem services (PES) and carbon financing mechanisms.

In the meantime, we will work our way back towards Toliara, let our wounds heal and prepare for the next phase…