In Madagascar’s dry forests, COVID-19 sparks an intense, early fire season

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  • Though Madagascar officially has just under 1,800 reported infections and 16 deaths from COVID-19, the pandemic’s socioeconomic effects will be catastrophic for the country, the U.N. has warned.
  • One tangible impact has been the fire season, which has started early and is likely to be fiercer this year as rural residents deprived of tourism revenue, employment opportunities and access to food markets turn to the forest to survive.
  • The environment ministry registered 52,000 forest fire incidents from January until the start of June, with the western flank of the country, which hosts its unique dry forests, being the worst-affected.
  • A reduction in NGOs’ and state agencies’ field activities has made forest patrols more challenging and affected the critical task of creating fire breaks.

The barbed terrain forged by the tsingy topography in western Madagascar has, for millions of years, sheltered the dry forests that grow between the limestone spires. This year, even before the fire season is upon the island nation, blazes are burning inside Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, which encases this geomorphological wonderland.

Usually, the fires, lit to clear cropland and create pasture, begin in June and peak in October, before the start of the rainy season. This year is anything but usual, with the fires burning earlier and more intensely, a ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In May 2019, the environment ministry recorded a total of 19,784 fire points, but this May the number was up to 32,565. Of these, 2,752 were inside forested areas, compared to 1,890 last year.

“We detected more fire points than last year, surrounding Bemaraha in particular, and in the [protected area] network globally,” said Mamy Rakotoarijaona, director-general of Madagascar National Parks. This quasi-governmental agency manages Tsingy de Bemahara and 42 other protected areas. Foreign and domestic NGOs and local communities help manage Madagascar’s 144 protected areas.

“Our preliminary results show clearly that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the protected areas in Madagascar and the human pressures have increased,” said Johanna Eklund, a researcher at the Digital Geography Lab of the University of Helsinki. “It is clear that the protected areas in the Western dry forests of Madagascar are the most affected so far.”

The country reported its first COVID-19 case on March 20 and announced a series of measures soon after that severely restricted movement of people and goods. Though Madagascar has an official COVID-19 tally of just under 1,800 infections and 16 deaths, the pandemic’s socioeconomic effects will be catastrophic for the country, the U.N. has warned.

Eklund led a team that analyzed NASA satellite data on active fires, focusing on the protected areas and comparing data from 2019 and 2020. According to the analysis, there was an 81% increase in fire incidents inside protected areas between March 1 and May 17 this year compared to the same period last year. Those results have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Of the 113 protected areas the group examined, 29 showed increased fire activity compared to the previous year, and nine were heavily impacted, including Tsingy de Bemaraha.

 

Map of Madagascar and the terrestrial protected areas. Graduated colours show the difference in fires this year compared to the corresponding period in 2019 (March 1- May 17).  The interactive version can be found here. Map courtesy: Digital Geography Lab, University of Helsinki.

This appears consistent with figures from Madagascar’s environment ministry. The ministry registered 52,000 forest fire incidents nationwide from January through to the start of June. A ministry official said the Melaky region, where Tsingy de Bemaraha is located, reported one of the highest numbers of fire points this year. The entire western flank of the island is heavily impacted, with the most fires being reported from the Menabe, Atsimo Andrefana, Betsiboka, Melaky, Sofia, Amoron’I Mania, and Bongolava regions.

Protected areas that attract substantial numbers of foreign tourists felt the immediate impacts of the embargo on international travel. As economic hardship intensifies in this already extremely impoverished country, the threats to protected areas will only multiply, experts say. In the south, a drought is pushing people deeper into destitution and hunger is taking hold, amplifying the risk that people will turn to forests to survive.

The situation is worrying across the protected area network, according to the Forum des Professionnels de la Gestion des Aires Protégées Terrestres de Madagascar, or Forum LAFA, which surveyed 60 protected-area managers. In the weeks after lockdown measures came into force, all kinds of illegal activities increased, from fires to logging to artisanal mining, according to anecdotal evidence from the managers. However, the magnitude and severity of the increase have not been measured, the group, a collaboration between the environment ministry, the German Agency for International Cooperation, and NGOs, said in a report.

An antsingy leaf chameleon (Brookesia perarmata), which is endemic to Bemaraha National Park. Image courtesy: Bernard Dupont/Wikimedia Commons.

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is one of the most popular among tourists. The tsingy are crafted from limestone deposited in a lake 200 million years ago. Tectonic activity lifted the lakebed, and falling sea levels during the Ice Age exposed it to the elements. Over millions of years, rain and groundwater sculpted the massive limestone labyrinth, a unique ecosystem brimming with endemic life-forms. The park spans 1,577 square kilometers (609 square miles). To the west lie dry forests interspersed in the tsingy, and to the east lie secondary grasslands.

Fires are an annual phenomenon here, especially on the edges of the park. “The dramatic increase of fires in Tsingy de Bemaraha could well be related to the loss of tourism revenue, meaning that people now have to rely on the land instead,” Eklund said.

Further south along the coast from Bemaraha, the Menabe Antimena Protected Area, home to the famous Alley of Baobabs, faces a bleak future. The forests here have already been devastated by yearly fires and clearing of woodland to grow cash crops.

“During the first week of lockdown, people knew that the government is busy fighting the health crisis and will have limited action on forest patrol, and the number of wildfires increased abnormally,” said Tiana Andriamanana, executive director of the local NGO Fanamby, which manages the protected area.

Fire damage in Menabe Antimena protected area. Image courtesy: Dezy

Even areas that are not heavily dependent on tourism have seen a rise in such incidents. In the Bongolava protected area in the northwest, which hosts fragments of dry deciduous forest, the number of fire incidents more than doubled from 53 in December last year to 123 in May, according to the LAFA report, which is higher than the historical average for May for Bongolava. Some of these fires scorched the core of the protected area.

The reduction in NGOs’ and state agencies’ field activities means the critical task of creating fire breaks has taken a hit. “In some of our sites, we establish and maintain fire breaks, an activity usually done in groups,” said Pete Lowry, director of the Madagascar program at the Missouri Botanical Garden, which manages 11 protected areas in Madagascar. Such activities were put on hold during the shutdown imposed to tackle the public health emergency. “The forest service and other government services are often no longer active and responsive, focusing primarily on the COVID situation,” Lowry said.

It was particularly difficult when the restrictions first took hold but remains challenging even as the government has eased them. COVID-19 cases in Madagascar have seen an uptick in recent weeks, sparking fears that the outbreak is not under control and adding to the uncertainty about when the country will fully reopen.

The limited presence of state agents in the field makes it harder for locals who patrol these areas and are compelled to take on some law enforcement functions, often at considerable risk to themselves. Outreach and awareness activities have also suffered during the past three months. Some of these forest patrollers face threats from community members who view them as imposing unjust laws. There is concern that local groups that patrol protected areas may be disbanded as pressure from within their communities grows.

(Banner Image: A view of the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. Image Courtesy: Zigomar/ Wikimedia Commons)

Reporting contributed by Mickah Raharisoa from Antananarivo.

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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