Scattered fires were burning across western Madagascar on 27 July 2004, and were detected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite. The active fire locations have been marked in red in this scene.
Last October Madagascar’s Ibity Massif was engulfed in flames. The mountainis famous among botanists, because as many as 20 plant species found there grownowhere else in the world.
Neither unique plants nor fire are unusual on Madagascar, an island nationoff the southeast coast of Africa. An estimated 80 percent of the Madagascanflora is endemic. Fires, both natural and human-caused, have burned seasonallydry parts of the island with clockwork regularity for millennia.
But the blaze that scorched Ibity seven months ago was particularly badandnow scientists are hoping that they can use surveys of the plant populationbefore the fire to monitor how the mountain vegetation recovers from such acatastrophe, if at all. The fire, it is hoped, may have provided a rareopportunity to understand how burning may have contributed to the widespreaddestruction of Madagascar’s once mighty forests and grasslandsand how plantsmay eventually make a comeback.
Most of Madagascar’s fires are started by cowherds (to encourage the growthof tender shoots for their cattle), cattle rustlers (to hide their tracks),hunters (to flush out game), farmers (to clear the land of forest foragriculture)or even by sparring political groups (to demonstrate that theirrivals do not have control of an area). One study determined that an average of600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) was burned each year between 1984 and 1996.
The relentless burning of Magadascar is controversial. Some experts believethat fires started by people are the root cause of the destruction of the greatmajority of the island’s indigenous forests and grasslands. Others believe thatmuch of the island’s vegetation has adapted to the periodic fires, and that theerosion is attributable to a combination of many causes.
Every year a portion of Ibity Massif burns, usually the result of firesintentionally lighted to encourage new grass growth. The fires are generallylighted on old pasturelands on the lower slopes and farther out on the rollinggrasslands of the high plateau.
“But the October 2003 fire was unusually extensive, in that practicallythe whole site was burnt,” said Chris Birkinshaw, a biologist with theMissouri Botanical Garden who is stationed in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capitalcity.
The October fire coincided with a field trip to Madagascar by members of theNational Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. Stunned bythe inferno, the committee awarded Birkinshaw emergency funding to study thefire’s effect on Ibity’s unique flora.
The fire is inseparable from the Madagascan agriculture and ranching economy.Birkinshaw said, however, that almost no research has been done to determine theeffect of the frequent burning on Madagascar’s native plants.
The sense among conservationists, he said, is that current rates of burning”are too frequent and impoverishing ecosystems.” He hopes the currentstudy will help reveal an answer to the question of how much fire is good forMadagascar’s biodiversity.
According to preliminary results from the study, few mature plants died inthe inferno and regrowth of species was rapid.
“Fire is normally considered as the number one enemy of conservationists,so some here would be surprised to find out that a number of Malagasy speciesare adapted to fire and indeed would probably decline in the absence of thiscondition,” Birkinshaw said.
Although the finding on mature plants is encouraging, Birkinshaw said youngervegetation may be more seriously impacted by fire. Woody rootstocks and thickbark protect mature plants, adaptations that seedlings are too young to have.
This October, Birkinshaw and his colleagues plan to burn small plots on Ibityto more closely study the impact on younger plants.
“I think one wouldn’t want to give the impression that fire is good forMadagascar’s biodiversityit isn’t, especially at its current frequency. Butwithout wishing to leap to conclusions at the start of the study, we will likelyfind some species for which the ideal environmental conditions would include anoccasional burn,” he said.
Christian Kullan environmental scientist at Monash University inMelbourne, Australia, and author of the book Isle of Fire: The Political Ecologyof Landscape Burning in Madagascaris not surprised by the preliminaryfindings.
“Since fire has always played a role in Malagasy environments, somespecies are favored by the presence of fire,” he said. Prior to theseasonal burning of fields by farmers and ranchers, intense lightning-causedfires swept across the island, he added.
When humans arrived on Madagascar about 1,500 years ago, they used fire tosculpt the landscape to their needs, according to Kull. The biggest changes werein the highlands, where a mix of woodlands, savanna, and open areas becamedominated by grasslands.
When the French colonized Madagascar in 1896, administrators,conservationists, and scientists sought to control the rates of burning to stemthe loss of forests and prevent soil erosion.
Laws intended to punish burning were carried over when Madagascar wonindependence in 1960 and are still enforced today.
However, Kull said anecdotal evidence and government data suggest that ratesof burning have remained consistent for the past century. This burn rate servesMalagasy needs to renew pasture, fight brush encroachment, and prevent thebuildup of fuels, he said
“The main difference is that with a hundred years of government antifireactivity, people now burn out of sight, at night, when nobody is looking,”he said.
Birkinshaw said that a group of about 200 local villagers, including womenand children, banded together to beat out the Ibity fire last October out ofsocial responsibility and fear of being blamed “for not doing anything.”
Given the steady rates of burning over the past hundred years,conservationists are concerned it is eroding the island’s biodiversity.
“The ideal frequency of burning is unknown and would depend on thedesired abundance of fire-tolerant versus fire-intolerant speciessomethingthat is probably subjective. But presumably one would want to approach thenatural state,” Birkinshaw said.
According to Kull, determining the ideal rate of burning is a complex process.Madagascan farmers “use fire to shape biodiversity to their needs. From abotanical perspective, this probably means less species. But from a humanperspective, this is what we do,” he said.
Kull, Christian A. Isle of Fire: The Political Ecology of LandscapeBurning in Madagascar. 256 p. (est.), 17 halftones, 11 line drawings, 19 tables.2004 Series: (GRP, 245) University of Chicago Geography Research Papers, Volume245
Long considered both best friend and worst enemy to humankind, fire is atonce creative and destructive. In the endangered tropical paradise ofMadagascar, the two faces of fires have fueled a century-long conflict betweenrural farmers and island leaders. For the farmers, wildland burning plays a keyrole in sustaining their agricultural livelihood and maintaining control of theisland’s rangelands, croplands, and woodlands. For the government, fire is thechief threat to the island’s economic development and environmental stability.
In Isle of Fire, Christian Kull argues that the antifire polemics ofMadagascar’s leadership are misdirected and that the most dangerousconflagration is the blaze that is fanned by the disagreements between outsideauthorities and farmers. Based on fieldwork in Malagasy villages and a thorougharchival investigation, this volume offers detailed analysis of why Madagascarhas always been aflame, why it always will be aflame, and ultimately, as Kullargues, why it should always be aflame.
Table of Contents
Part One: The Fire Problem
1. The Isle of Fire: Problem, Theory, and Setting
2. The Nature of Fire: Bad Fire, Good Fire, Complex Fire
Part Two: Landscape Burning and Livelihoods
3. Grassland Fire: The Agropastoral Logic of Fire across the Highlands
4. Woodland Fire: Fire and Rural Economy in the Tapia Woodlands
5. Forest Fire: Slash-and-Burn Farmers on a Forest Frontier
Part Three: Fire Politics
6. The Struggle over Fire: Criminalization and Resistance
7. Fire Politics: A History of State Antifire Efforts
8. Empowering Rural Fire Setters: Towards Community-Based Fire Management
1. Official Statistics of Annual Fire Extent
2. Summary of Legislation and Government Acts Relevant to Fire, 1896-1998