We look at two case studies along the Linta River, which cuts through the ‘spiny forest’ ecoregion in southwest Madagascar. In both cases, we follow the fates of hybrid forest-pastures in the territory of Mahafale pastoralists. We trace the distinct environmental histories of the three forest-pastures— the Fatrambey, the Ankara, and the Samata.
The northern Linta case, at the river’s source, demonstrates deforestation of the Fatrambey forest-pasture arising from immigrant farmers in search of land to grow cash crops for the international maize market. Pastoralists had long held the forestpasture as a pastoralist reserve, as a place to pasture and to shade their cattle from prying eyes. We emphasise that raising cattle in Madagascar does not mean transforming forest into pasture. The two landscape types are not only compatible but preferred by pastoralists who live in the heart of the Mahafale territory.
We predict that the Ankara forest pasture awaits a similar fate as the Fatrambey. The government has continued to make policy that supports farming intensifications in pastoralist landscapes. An interesting collaboration is emerging in which Mahafale pastoralists have turned to NGOs, in particular the World Wildlife Fund, for help. Pastoralists are adapting their indigenous conservation ethic to a Western conservation ethic in hopes of retaining control of their forest-pastures. This development invites further research.
The southern Linta case, at the river’s mouth, reveals how the hands of pastoralists have made the Samata forest-pasture. In the grass-scarce deep south, pastoralists have managed to create more food for their stock by favouring an endemic tree that cattle can eat (samata, Euphorbia stenoclada) and by planting large plantations of non-endemic prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.). These Mahafale pastoralists have found an answer to feeding and watering their zebu cattle by developing a plant that they categorise as ‘water-food’. The inventiveness of pastoralists is emphasised, even though their ventures into cactus husbandry means a cut back in their herd mobility.
The cases demonstrate the difficulty in generalising about pastoralist peoples. Pastoralists might not be as married to grass as many observers have thought. Mahafale cattle raisers put forests on an equal footing with grass. Moreover, contrary to much conventional wisdom about pastoralists’ impacts on Madagascar’s forests, it is the immigrant maize farmers seeking to benefit from the international market, who are having a negative impact on pastoralist forest-pastures. We move away from studies that stress the cultural devotion of pastoralists to their cattle, to a perspective that brings out an indigenous economic practice that considers cattle as a bank.
Originally published as:
Kaufmann J.C. and S. Tsirahamba 2006. Forests and Thorns: Conditions of Change Affecting Mahafale Pastoralists in Southwestern Madagascar. Conservation and Society 4(2): 231–261.