Aerial view of eroded Malagasy highlands. Photo:

My guess is that most people will look at the above photo and have a hard time identifying anything positive about it. It is clearly a deforested landscape, pockmarked with erosional features that in many ways resemble tragic scars, metaphorically as much as physically. Referred to by locals as “lavaka”, literally translating to “hole(s)”, these massive erosional gullies now make up just as much of the central highland landscape of Madagascar as it’s rolling hills and beautifully maintained rice fields.

Their presence is due to a combination of natural and human-induced factors, including a long history of slash-and-burn agriculture, that have rendered Madagascar’s once-forested highlands quite barren and gravely susceptible to erosion. The ensuing habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, sedimentation, and an inescapable cycle of poverty are indeed serious challenges for much of the island’s highland population.

The story could stop there, easily filing into place amongst the dusty collections of environmental degradation discourse that plague the developing world. But, like the rest of the fascinating and peculiar oddities that make up the reputation of Madagascar, this story might end somewhat differently.

I was first introduced to the lavaka of the Malagasy highlands three years ago while sitting in a Geography of Development course during the final year of my B.A. at McGill University. The professor, Dr. Jon Unruh, with whom I am now collaborating for this research, spoke of lavaka not as a negative contribution to the oft-repeated narrative of environmental degradation in Madagascar, but instead as one of agricultural opportunity.

While many in the international developmental community consider the phenomenon of lavaka to be a negative socio-ecologic process, they might actually be providing locals with increased opportunities for food security and environmental management compared with uneroded portions of the same landscape. In the earliest stages of their formation, lavaka manifest as deep cuts and collapsed hillsides. However, over time, their formation is such that they can provide a beneficial funnelling effect of water and nutrients, which become concentrated in the crevice of the lavaka as well as at its base, resulting in a rich, fertile soil. Farmers have recognized this advantage and are now practicing agro-forestry in or at the base of the lavaka, with agricultural communities developing, perhaps even prospering, around these adaptive systems.

Fresh lavaka cut eroded into hillside. Photo: Team Lavaka Collection, R Cox

Agriculturally occupied lavaka outflow. Photo: Team Lavaka Collection, R Cox

Since that lecture, the case of agriculturally occupied lavaka in Madagascar never left my mind. Sure, it’s a nice real-world manifestation of the trite expression “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, but to me it represented a great deal more than that.

Here we have a case of local adaptation where farmers now reportedly prefer practicing agriculture in the very erosional formations the first world development community seeks to eliminate via an assortment of internationally funded reforestation projects. Such efforts are certainly well-spirited intentions to help protect the biodiversity and environmental health of Madagascar, but what does one do when these conflicting agendas of development arise? Do we push forward with our developed world understandings of sustainability, or do we honor the adaptive methods of those who subsist off the land and who can now provide for their families in new and improved ways? Can we do both?

Mature lavaka as a side valley with intensive agriculture and homestead buildings. Photo: Jon Unruh

Mature lavaka with terracing and homestead buildings. Photo: Jon Unruh

The importance of this situation is that it challenges our traditional notions of ‘conservation’ and forces us to take on a more nuanced perspective of adaptation to environmental change, recognizing unexpected opportunities that might be present in a given system – even if they don’t comply with, or outright contradict, commonly perceived solutions to environmental change.

Thanks to a National Geographic Young Explorer grant, I am setting out to discover more about this unique case, trekking through the Malagasy highlands with a local research assistant to speak with farmers and document the details of this practice – techniques, accrued benefits (social, economic, health), and potential ties to matters of land tenure. In a broader sense, my hope is to provide a solid case of adaptation to environmental change that underscores the necessity of adopting new lenses through which we can recognize and incorporate these local innovations in the future. I’ll be writing here periodically to share updates along the expedition, so I hope you’ll stay tuned!

Before I finish, take another glance at that first photo – do you now see the channels of bright green vegetation between the valleys, creeping up the crevices of the lavaka, snaking along among their outflows? That’s the agro-forestry that’s filling the “holes” of Madagascar – and that’s the new lens I’m talking about.