Erratic Weather Threatens Livelihood Of Rice Farmers In Madagascar | KERA News

Erratic Weather Threatens Livelihood Of Rice Farmers In Madagascar

Aug 6, 2017
Originally published on August 6, 2017 1:33 pm

All his life, 56-year-old Jeanpier Marolahy has been growing rice in eastern Madagascar, on the steep hills that slope down from the central highlands toward the Indian Ocean.

The thin, weather-beaten Marolahy knows that rice production is all about water and timing. The grain needs a lot of water at first, but if torrential rains fall at harvest time, they can destroy the crop.

Rice is a hugely important part of life on the island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa. At times, it shows up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In much of the country, it dominates the landscape, planted in small plots across millions of acres of land.

But erratic rains and powerful storms are threatening rice production in parts Madagascar and putting the livelihoods of subsistence farmers like Marolahy at risk.

For years, Marolahy says, the wet and dry seasons arrived in his fields in a relatively predictable pattern. But that is no longer the case.

The weather has clearly changed, Marolahy says, from when he was a boy.

Ankle-deep in the mud of a rice paddy, Marolahy notes that when he was a kid, this part of eastern Madagascar might get hit by a cyclone once every five years. Now, he says, he can get five big storms in a single year.

Complicating matters even more, this area was plagued by a four-month drought last year that Marolahy says was the worst he has ever seen.

Marolahy has two small rice paddies in a narrow valley just outside the Ranomafana National Park. He also has two smaller plots of rice and vegetables terraced into an adjacent hillside. These four fields are the only source of income for his family.

This year, the rains have been steady, but he says it has been abnormally cold and the seedlings are growing very slowly.

"Look," he says, pointing to a 10-foot-by-10-foot plot of bright green rice shoots. "They are like this." He holds open his thumb and forefinger. "But they should be like this," he says, holding his hands about 6 inches apart. At night, he covers the seedlings with banana leaves to try to keep them warm.

Marolahy isn't just another farmer complaining about uncooperative weather. Climate scientists say weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable.

Researchers tracking the temperature in the adjacent national park say the highs and lows in this part of Madagascar have become far more extreme over the past two decades.

In 2014, Celia Harvey, a scientist with Conservation International, helped conduct a study looking at how changing climatic conditions are affecting 600 small-scale farmers on the island nation.

"We found that farmers are experiencing very variable rainfall and very variable crop production," Harvey says.

The study also found that small-scale farmers in Madagascar are ill-prepared to deal with climatic fluctuations.

"They have large families. They have very small areas of land. They're very poor. They lack access to basic services. They're really living on the edge in many ways," she says. "So they depend almost entirely on rice production for both their food security and for income generation. So anything that affects their rice production ultimately very quickly undermines their livelihood."

According to the World Bank, three-quarters of the population of Madagascar lives in poverty. Most of those people survive by growing their own food.

In Madagascar, these small, subsistence farms are particularly vulnerable to tropical storms. Madagascar is as long from tip to toe as Texas. Its 1,000-mile-long east coast stands as a long, straight bulwark protecting southern Africa from storms that barrel west across the open Indian Ocean. As ocean temperatures rise, climate scientists expect that more powerful and more frequent tropical storms will buffet Madagascar.

"Madagascar is one of those countries that are very exposed to cyclones, and when cyclones come through, farmers typically lose most of their rice crop," Harvey says.

Marolahy, the rice farmer, says he has few options on how to deal with the erratic weather. His land is the most valuable thing he owns. He can't just move somewhere else or find another job. His strategy to deal with the fluctuations in his rice yields is to expand. Later this year, he plans to burn the bushes off a hillside above his rice paddies and try planting cassava and beans.

Not far from Marolahy's fields, another family of rice farmers is also diversifying. Perline Ramaniandaibe and her two daughters are panning for gold in a small stream that serves as both the sewer and the spring for the village of Kelilalina in eastern Madagascar.

Ramaniandaibe says some days they don't find any gold, but other days, they find a few flecks of the precious metal. They use the gold to support their rice farm.

"We don't have any other way to make money, only this, this gold," she says.

One of the benefits of panning for gold, Ramaniandaibe says, is that when flooding makes it impossible to work in their fields, the rising water cuts in to the hillsides, exposing soil that potentially could yield more gold. She concedes that ripping up agricultural land to search for gold is a problem over the long term, but at least it can bring in some cash when crops fail.

And there may be another silver lining to climate change for some parts of the island. While researchers say storms and erratic rainfall will make it harder to grow rice in eastern Madagascar, rising temperatures might boost rice production in the central highlands of the country, where lower temperatures currently limit the growing season.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In Madagascar, rice is often served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not only is it a staple of the local diet, it's also one of the primary crops grown across the island. But erratic rains are disrupting rice production on the island nation off the southeast coast of Africa. Our Jason Beaubien spent time with rice farmers as NPR looks at the effects of climate change around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUD SLOSHING)

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Jeanpier Marolahy is in the middle of planting his next crop of rice. Ankle-deep in the mud of a rice paddy, Marolahy stabs a shovel into the soil, just inches in front of his bare toes. He wiggles the shovel to make a gap in the mucky earth, pushes in a rice seedling and then moves further down the row.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUD SLOSHING)

BEAUBIEN: Rice production is all about water and timing. It needs a lot of water at first; but if torrential rains fall at harvest time, they can destroy the crop. The 56-year-old Marolahy has been growing rice all his life on the steep hills that slope down from Madagascar's central highlands towards the Indian Ocean. He says for years, the wet and dry seasons arrived here in a relatively predictable pattern. But now, that's no longer the case.

JEANPIER MAROLAHY: (Speaking Malagasy).

BEAUBIEN: He says when he was a boy, there might be one cyclone every five years. Now, he says, his fields can get hit by five major storms in one year. Making things worse, last year, there was an extended drought in what is usually the wet summer. Marolahy has two small rice paddies in a narrow valley just outside the Ranomafana National Park. He also has two smaller plots of rice and vegetables terraced into an adjacent hillside. These four fields are his only source of income for his family.

MAROLAHY: (Speaking Malagasy).

BEAUBIEN: "This year," he says, "the rains have been steady, but it's been abnormally cold," which is slowing the growth of his seedlings. At night, he covers them with banana leaves to try to keep them warm.

Marolahy isn't just engaging in that storied tradition of farmers complaining about the weather. Climate scientists say weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable. Researchers tracking the temperatures here say the highs and lows have become far more extreme over the last two decades.

CELIA HARVEY: In the study that we did, we found that farmers are experiencing very variable rainfall and very variable crop production.

BEAUBIEN: Celia Harvey with Conservation International was looking at how changing climatic conditions are affecting 600 small-scale farmers in Madagascar. And the study found that farmers in Madagascar are ill-prepared to deal with climate change.

HARVEY: They have large families. They have very small areas of land. They're very poor. They lack access to basic services. They're really living on the edge in many ways, so they depend almost entirely on rice production for both their food security and for income generation. So anything that affects their rice production ultimately very quickly undermines their livelihood.

BEAUBIEN: According to the World Bank, three quarters of the population of Madagascar lives in poverty. Most of them survive by growing most of their own food. In Madagascar, these small farms are particularly vulnerable to tropical cyclones. The island is as long from tip to toe as Texas. It's long east coastline faces straight out at the Indian Ocean. Climate researchers predict that with rising ocean temperatures, more powerful and more frequent tropical storms will buffet Madagascar.

HARVEY: Madagascar is one of those countries that's very exposed to cyclones. And when cyclones come through, farmers typically lose most of their rice crop.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

BEAUBIEN: Back in his rice field, Marolahy says he has few options on how to deal with this new, more erratic weather. He can't just move somewhere else or find another job. His plan to deal with the fluctuations in his rice yields is to double down.

MAROLAHY: (Speaking Malagasy).

BEAUBIEN: Later this year, he plans to burn the bushes off of a hillside above his rice paddies and try planting it with cassava and beans.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUCKS QUACKING)

BEAUBIEN: Not far from Marolahy's field, another family of rice farmers is also diversifying. Perline Ramaniandaibe and her two daughters are panning for gold. They're ankle-deep in a small stream that serves as both the sewer and the spring for the village of Kelilalina.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

BEAUBIEN: She says, some days, they don't find any gold. But others, they find a few flecks of the precious metal. And they use the gold to support their rice farm.

PERLINE RAMANIANDAIBE: (Through interpreter) We don't have any other way to make money, only this, this gold.

BEAUBIEN: One of the benefits of panning for gold, Ramaniandaibe says, is that when flooding makes it impossible to work in their fields, the rising water cuts into the hillsides, exposing soil that potentially could have gold in it. Obviously, ripping up agricultural land to search for gold is a problem over the long term. But she says, at least it can bring in some cash when crops fail. And there may be another silver lining to climate change for some parts of Madagascar. While researchers say storms and erratic rainfall will make it harder to grow rice here in the eastern part of the island, rising temperatures could boost rice production in the central highlands of the country.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.