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GeoJournal 56: 191199, 2002. 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

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Deforestation in the Madagascar Highlands Established truth and scientic uncertainty


Jorgen Klein
Hogskoleni Hedmark LUH, 2321 Hamar, Norway E-mail jorgen.klein@Luh.hihm.no
Received 21 May 2002; accepted 15 January 2003

Key words: deforestation, environmental narratives, Madagascar, natural resource management Abstract The Madagascar central highlands with their red soils and erosion gullies are often held up as a frightening example of the consequences of deforestation. They are also used as a model of how the entire island will look if so-called forest unfriendly activities of local people continue. This insight is based on a narrative that describes the highlands as totally forested by the time of human arrival and gradually deforested as a response to human activities. This paper questions the deforestation narrative of Madagascar and points at alternative explanations for present day land cover. By the use of alternative sources of information the paper presents a counter-narrative that sees the treeless rolling planes of Madagascar as a result of several abiotic and biotic changes and not as the work of one single agent. The paper points at the political nature of the deforestation narrative as an explanation for its hegemonic position. On a theoretical level the paper makes an attempt to investigate the epistemological implication of a social constructivist approach to environmental discourses in Third World settings. Introduction The Madagascar central highlands, with their species-poor grasslands and extreme gully erosion, are often held up as a terrifying example of the consequences of deforestation. Further, they are used as a model of how the entire island will appear if forest-unfriendly activities such as slash and burn agriculture continue. This perspective is based on a narrative that describes the highlands as totally forested at the time of human settlement and gradually deforested as a response to human activities. This paper considers the scientic arguments that form the foundation of this narrative, discusses the motives behind the narrative and addresses its policy implications. The relationship between humans and the environment is highly complicated, and explanations tend to be biased by the position and agenda of the observer. Often a simplied set of widely perceived images about the relationship between human agency and natural processes becomes the motive power for environmental policy. One of the most interesting developments in the social sciences over the past 15 years has been the exposure of narratives, discourses, orthodoxies and myths within the eld of environment and development. These are ruling stories about the environment-society relationship that have been repeated over and over again until they have become institutionalised as facts. According to Foucault (1972), it is through discourse that we construct what we experience as reality, and when we learn to think about reality in a particular way we block our ability to think in other ways. The ideas that make up the discourse are held to be correct by a social consensus that can be termed as the establishment. Lately several researchers have focused on analysing the complex relationship between the discursive construction of nature and natural processes and the actual impact of these very constructions on the environment. (e.g. Blaike and Brookeld, 1987; Leach and Mearns, 1996; Fairhead and Leach, 1996; Peet and Watts, 1996; Bassett and Koli Bi, 2000). The issue of environmental change in developing countries poses great epistemological challenges to the analyst. On one hand it is essential to understand the natural processes that are involved in the production and reproduction of natural resources in the physical environment. On the other hand one must acknowledge that different people perceive these matters differently through their cultural lters. Thus, the environment must be considered socially constructed, and its scientic study represents only one of several social constructions. By accepting a social constructivist view on deforestation and environmental change, one runs the risk of being accused of relativism: that every statement about the relationship between humans and the environment has an equal claim to truth. In particular, post-structuralism, with its focus on the role of language in the construction of reality, tends to treat language not as a reection of reality but as a constituent of it. This would be pushing the relativistic point too far. A social constructivist approach need not include the post-structuralist break of any link between an external reality and human knowledge, which can lead to extreme positions, such as radical relativism, nihilism or neo-Kantian constructivism1. As several contemporary

192 theorists have shown, there exists a golden mean between radical relativism and common-sense realism, where observations refer directly to a pre-existing, independent and objective reality. Demeritt (1998) points towards social object constructivism and artifactual constructivism as a middle course2, and Proctor (1998) argues for the use of critical realism and, to same extent, environmental pragmatism. Both critical realism and environmental pragmatism distinguish between epistemological relativism and ontological relativism. This means that individuals constructed knowledge of phenomena differ, even though the phenomena themselves are acknowledged as real. This position is compatible with social constructivism, but not with strong forms of relativism. In a context where both real biophysical processes in nature and natures discursive construction have to be acknowledged, this could be a fruitful position to take (Klein, 2002). By focusing on how various perceptions of the environment develop into discourses that guide policy, important aspects of the relationship between humans and the environment can be illuminated. Roe (1994) points out that stories commonly used in describing and analysing policy issues are a force in themselves and must be considered explicitly in assessing policy options. According to Roe (1991) these stories, or policy narratives as he terms them, often resist change or modication in the presence of contradictory empirical data. This is because they underwrite and stabilise the assumptions for decision-making in the face of uncertainty, complexity and polarisation and enable policy makers to act. Even when their truth-value is doubtful these narratives are more programmatic than myths because they are employed with the objective of getting people to believe or to do something. Fairhead and Leach (1995, p. 1023) state that the narratives have strength and credibility because they have an incontrovertible logic which provides scripts and justication for development action. Hoben (1995) adds to the argument by stating that environmental policies in Africa rest on historically grounded, culturally constructed paradigms that both describe a problem and prescribe its solution. Many of the policies are rooted in a narrative that tells us how things were in an earlier harmonious time, how human agency has altered that harmony, and how disaster will befall people and nature if action is not taken soon. The specic case considered here is the deforestation narrative of Madagascar, in particular the narrative of the central Madagascar highlands. Madagascar is often presented as a land totally forested before human intervention and then gradually deforested as a response to human agency. This story can be read in many of the pivotal environmental organisations publications and policy documents about the island. This is despite the fact that there is uncertainty in the scientic community about the pre-settlement land-cover and about possible agents of change. The dominant narrative describes a harmonious, almost Edenic, forested island 2,000 years ago. Then humans enter and, through slash-andburn activities, convert the forest into grassland and desert, which in turn leads to soil erosion and the extinction of endemic species. The end of the narrative is a totally deforested and infertile island unless action is taken to halt the unsustainable production systems of the expanding local population. The picture is viewed through a Malthusian lens, which highlights population growth as the underlying explanation for degradation. In the following sections I describe the establishment of the deforestation narrative and question the scientic evidence that the narrative is built on. This is partly done by regarding the validity of the arguments per se and partly by drawing on alternative evidence and explanations for present highland vegetation. Then I point out possible motives for a deforestation narrative and the effects of its use. The deforestation narrative The Madagascar highlands, dened as land between 1,000 and 2,700 m above sea level, cover about 120,000 km2 , which represents about one fth of the island. The topography is very varied with hills, large plains, volcanic cones and narrow valleys forming important features. Highland Madagascar has a tropical climate tempered by attitude and a distinctly seasonal rainfall. Cool dry winters average 12 15 C and hot and humid glimmers average 1923 C. Annual precipitation ranges from 1,2001,400 mm and falls largely from December through March. It is easy to perceive the Madagascar highlands as deforested. The vegetation is largely grassland, and it can appear especially sparse in the dry season when re often burns off the grasses. The highlands are almost totally devoid of trees except for small stands of evergreen forest restricted to valleys or protected sites and scattered plantations of exotic pines and eucalypts. The grassland has a limited ora and fauna compared with the savannahs of, for instance, East Africa. Erosion in the landscape is severe and is manifested by an unusually large number of gullies, called lavaka, which generally occur on hillsides or on slopes. The gullies of Madagascars highlands are unusual in that they have erosion rates about 7 times the global average and they form in mid-hillside, without initially being graded to the valley oor (Wells and Andrianimihaja, 1997). The early European travellers, scientists and missionaries differed in their views on the original vegetation cover of the highlands. In the late 1800s and early 1900s one faction seemed to believe that the lack of forest was natural and a response to highland climate, especially what they regarded as low annual precipitation values (e.g., Baron, 1890; Gautier, 1902; Grandidier, 1905). Muntz and Rousseaux (1901) supported this argument with their claim that the soil was not forest-derived. Even though the most inuential geographer on Madagascars natural history, Grandidier, supported this view, several other groups argued that the highlands had been forested before human intervention. The leading gure of the Norwegian Missionary Society, Lars Dahle (1876), writes that the forest originally covered the entire island, and he suggests that internal warfare must have been the reason for its clearance. The view of a totally forested island before human colonisation is supported by James Sibree (1896) of the English Missionary Society. Despite these controversies

193 the view of a natural grassland was widely accepted for more than two decades (Gade, 1996), and can be recognised as the rst scientic orthodoxy on the subject. In the 1920s this orthodoxy was replaced by a new theory which has remained dominant to the present day. The main proponents of this theory, the botanists Perrier de la Bathe (1921, 1936) and Humbert (1927, 1949), are by far the most cited on these issues and are regarded as the main authorities on the subject. They concluded that the highlands had been generally covered by closed forest formations, except for the highest mountains (over 2,600 m a.s.l.), that wildre had been completely absent, and that the by then extinct mega-fauna were forest-adapted. They also believed that anthropogenetic inuence through the introduction of re was the cause of deforestation. The view that the highlands had once been forested and then deforested as an effect of human agency was to be conrmed by several scientists in the years to follow. Gade (1996) is the latest researcher to adopt this positional stance. He points to the work of several researchers (e.g., Francios, 1937; Battistini, 1965; Aubreville, 1971; Chauved, 1972; Rossi, 1979; Graniere, l979; Jolly, 1980; Tatterall, 1982) that support this view, and he builds up a chain of arguments culminating in the conclusion that: Madagascars highland region once was covered with an evergreen forest dominated by about 20 endemic tree species. This has been permanently replaced by a oristically impoverished steppe vegetation on ferrolic soils. Human intervention has caused this deforestation, aided by a notable failure of highland forests to spontaneously regenrate. (Gade, 1996, p. 101) The supporting evidence for these sweeping statements about land cover and the causes of change actually consist of some rather circumstantial evidence, summarised by Gade (1996, pp. 103105), namely: all living mammalian species on Madagascar are forest dwelling; subfossils belonging to extinct animals have been recovered along with tree trunks and tree fruits; pollen spectra dated from about AD 1000 can be interpreted as being from forest vegetation; forest relicts may indicate that trees covered much of the upland region; the evolution of a rich endemic herbaceous ora would have been expected if grassland were ancient on the island; Malagasy oral folk tradition describes a forest-clothed highland of a remote past. The causes of this presumed deforestation is mainly directed to population pressure on the resources caused by a rapidly increasing population, as can be read in the quotation below; Paddy rice cultivation of Asian inspiration gained ascendancy in the highlands after 1700 (Berg, 1981). Valley oors and sides were terraced and converted info irrigated rice elds in response to decreased productivity of swidden agriculture as the primary forest was removed. Growing population pressure fostered that change and an increasingly hierarchical polity contributed to its organisation. (Gade, 1996, p. 105) The validity of the deforestation narrative Simultaneously with the establishment of this dominant deforestation narrative, also called the classical hypothesis, several researchers began to forward other explanations for both original highland vegetation cover and possible agents of change other than anthropogenic ones. They point towards abiotic factors and the possible role of environmental change. One hypothesis is that the grassland reects climate changes during the late Quaternary. This was described by Bourgeat (1972) and further developed by Burney (1987, 1997). In Burneys (1997) view, the highlands at the time of human arrival consisted of a mosaic of woodlands, shrublands, and a savannah-type grassland. He thus directly attacks the prevailing narrative, as described by Gade (1996), of Madagascar as a completely forested island until human colonisation. Burney points out that Madagascar has been subject to climate changes on many scales, from a general cooling since the Cretaceous, to increased aridication since the Oligocene, to a regular rhythm of tropical-zone responses to the glacial-interglacial cycles of the Quaternary (Burney, 1997, p. 76). This dynamically changing Madagascar experienced major vegetation changes in presettlement times3 , which operated on different time scales, from glacial-interglacial to shorter disturbance scales. Burney builds his arguments on evidence from several sites, using radiometrically dated fossil pollen, charcoal, algae, and former lake levels. In the early 1980s a multidisciplinary group of researchers from several American institutions and the University of Madagascar collected information on the causes and timing of megafaunal4 extinction and environmental changes in Madagascar. Their goal was to re-examine classic fossil sites such as Ampasambazimba (near Antananarivo) through excavation, radio carbon dating and examination of pollen stratigraphy. The site accumulated bones in a matrix of shallow lake and marsh sediments between circa 9,000 and 4,000 yr B.P. The pollen spectra (which were the rst dated ones from Madagascar), were interpreted as representing a mixed vegetation of woodland, shrubland, and grassland, which undermined the idea of a totally forested Madagascar before human arrival (Burney, 1997). This interpretation was supported by palaeontologists, who had long been questioning why so many of the extinct animals seemed to be ground-dwellers with adaptations more suited to a savannah habitat than a forested one (see MacPhee et al., 1985). Burney also demonstrates that res inuenced the vegetation and were common in Madagascar long before human settlement, rather than being introduced fairly recently as the deforestation orthodoxy advocates claim. Burney and his group investigated the charcoal concentration from 23 sediment cores (Burney, 1997, p. 78) throughout Madagascar by the use of several independent techniques to minimise misinterpretation. The outcome of the tests points clearly in one direction: data from the sediment cores show that the inux and concentration of charcoal are often higher in late Pleistocene and early Holocene samples than in those of the human period, including those of modern times (Burney, 1997, p. 81).

194 But does this indicate that it was grassland that burnt in these periods and not forests? Not necessarily, but Burney points out that in the cases where it is possible to distinguish the sources of charcoal fragments through microscopic examination it shows a high level of graminoid remains (derived from grasses and relatives). In the Tritrivakely core south of Antananarivo about three quarters of the charcoal of the sediments from the pre-settlement segment was derived from graminoid sources. This indicates that graminoid vegetation occurred on the pre-settlement upland surrounding the site. It can also be added that there is debate about similar issues in the African mainland as well. Traditionally, the grasslands of the Afromontane landscape have been regarded as derived by forest clearing through human agency. New research (Meadows and Linder, 1993) conducted in Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa offers strong support for the idea that the grasslands have been prominent in the southern Afromontane region since before the permanent occupation of the mountains by people. Environmental changes in the late Quaternary are suggested as having been important in establishing the vegetation pattern. It is also argued that it is not the Afromontane forest patches that are relics of a natural environment; rather it is the grasslands themselves that are relics from a time when the climatic conditions were more suited to grassland than to forest. The argument that a species-poor grassland fauna is evidence of human-induced deforestation needs to be assessed in the light of Madagascars unique biogeography. It rests on the assumption that since there are grasslands in mainland Africa with a high diversity of species, they should also occur so in Madagascar. As they do not, the implication is that people converted the natural vegetation and affected its disequilibrium. But is this an obvious conclusion? The high level of endemism on the island shows that the ora and fauna are unlike those of all other places. Researchers state that the biogeographic origins of the modern terrestial and freshwater vertebrate fauna of Madagascar remain one of the greatest mysteries of natural history! And in addition to the high level of endemism, the faunas of Madagascar exhibit a distinct imbalance relative to their African equivalents. Krause et al. (1997) writes that the extant mammalian fauna consists of only insectivores, bats, primates, carnivores, and rodents. This is in contradiction to the mainland where there are felids, hyaenids, caniform carnivores, catarhine primates, lagomorphs many others. Common African birds, such as woodpeckers, barbets, honey guides and oxpeckers are not present, and the same pattern repeats itself among the reptiles5 and amphibians6. In the case of sh, primary freshwater sh (those that are physiologically fully restricted to freshwater) are totally absent on the island. This can clearly not be explained by a human-induced deforestation. Madagascar was very unlike other places even before human intervention. Dewar and Wright (1994, p. 424) add to this argument by stating that: The early Holocene fauna of Madagascar was as remarkable for the kinds of animals that were not present as for the species that were. Furthermore, Schatz (1996) points out that the oristic links are much sharper with South East Asia than with Africa, probably because of the prevailing winds and ocean currents. The fact that Madagascar is an island is also an important matter as it is colonised from the sea and has a different evolutionary potential. On basis of this we might conclude that generalisations about how the Madagascar grassland fauna and ora ought to look as compared with those of the African mainland are speculative. Another widely used argument linked to the deforestation issue is that humans played a key role in the extinction of the endemic terrestrial megafauna on Madagascar. This is supposed to have taken place by overhunting, by habitat modication (deforestation) and by the introduction of exotic species like rats and cats. This hypothesis is a part of a global narrative describing how large animals were killed shortly after human settlement. This overkill hypothesis as described by Paul Martin (1966), identies Madagascar as one of several places where large animals became extinct shortly after human colonisation. This assumption is derived from the fact that the dates of some of these extinctions overlap in time with the earliest dates for human arrival. But the nature of that link is unclear. To show that humans were responsible for the extinctions will require a chain of evidence linking particular human activities to the disappearance of particular species. Dewar (1997) has reviewed the history of human settlement and the evidence for environmental impact on each region in Madagascar, and he concludes that no clear link can be established between any particular form of human activity and the extinction of any of the subfossil taxa. As an alternative explanation of the megafauna extinction several researchers point to climatic changes that occurred simultaneously with their disappearance. Burney (1997) shows that the climate of many areas of Madagascar has changed signicantly since the Pleistocene, but a clear link between climate change and the extinctions has not been established. One exception is the waterbirds that disappeared during the period of maximum Holocene aridity in the west and south-western region (Goodman and Patterson, 1997). This was prior to the earliest known colonisation of the island, approximately 2,000 year ago (Rakotoarisoa, 1997). The assertion that there is an oral folk tradition in Madagascar that describes a totally forest-clothed highland of a remote past is contradicted by the existence of several written and oral traditions that describe otherwise. The Tantaranny Andriana (Histories of Kings) is a written classic of the Imerina nation and its language, culture and history. It represents one of the most impressive collections of oral tradition in tropical Africa. The stories were collected by the Jesuit Father Francois Callet, who came to Tananarive in 1864. Historians who have studied the Tantaranny Andriana suggest that the Merina penetrated and conquered the central highlands in the 15th century and either forced the resident Vazimba tribe to move, or assimilated them. As the title indicates, the Tantara largely describes the history of the Merina kings but some mentions of the natural environment

195 can also be found. Some descriptions point towards a nonforested environment at the time of the Merina penetration. The clearest one is a description of how wild cattle roamed over wide areas (Kent, 1970), a description which contradicts the notion of a totally forest environment at the time. Other Tantara interpreters such as Dez (quoted in Kull, 2000) support this view, and suggest that the highland landscape in the 13th century consisted of vast grasslands, occasional forests and marshes. Several early European explorers who travelled in the highlands conrm this view. Nicolas Mayeur, who travelled the highlands around 1750, writes that Trees are not to be seen here except those which are planted in the trenches around villages and their number is small. The forests from which [the Hova] obtain their construction wood are on the southern borders, at some twenty leagues distance. (Quoted in Kent, 1970, p. 214) The central highlands are the region of Madagascar that has received most archaeological attention. The oldest archaeological sites known from this area are assigned from the 12th to the 14th century (Dewar, 1997), but the rarity of sites dating from earlier than the 15th century suggests that population density at that time was low. Burney (1987) uses palynological records to show a marked increase in burning and grass pollen frequency in the 7th or 8th century. This suggests that there was a period of 500 years with increased burning and spread of grasslands when there is no evidence of human settlement in the highlands. It could be that archaeologists just have not been able to uncover that evidence yet, but considering the large amount of archaeological attention paid to this area, and the huge number of sites (tens of thousands) from the 15th century onwards, this explanation seems unlikely. Many of the advocates of a human-induced deforestation in the Madagascar highlands point towards present day-human exploitation of the natural resources as a clue to understanding degradation in the past. The relatively fast deforestation of Madagascars eastern rainforest7 is especially used as a model of how the highlands once became deforested. The most important activities are believed to be cutting of forest for fuelwood and construction, and clearing for agricultural elds. But rewood collection, the production of charcoal, and lumbering for construction has signicant effects on the environment only when population densities are high (Bates and Skogseid, 1997). At the time of the Vazimba and the Merina penetration of the highlands the population numbers were very low. Dewar (1997) points out that no settlement exceeded a few thousand people until the nineteenth century; thus the effects of clearing forests for fuelwood and construction must have been very local. Also, the widespread environmental effect of clearing forests for elds is very dependent on high population density; in the highlands 5001,000 years ago the population was very low. In the case of swidden agriculture as an agent of transition considerable empirical evidence shows that it is relatively ecologically stable when population numbers are low (Dewar, 1997). Forest clearance for elds would not have been an important cause of change until population densities increased signicantly, which did not occur until the 18th and 19th centuries. Given the low population density at the time and the different climate conditions any comparison between past deforestation in the highlands and present deforestation in the eastern rain forest seems out of place. The neo-Malthusian argument often used to describe the deforestation of the eastern rain forest has no logical validity in the highlands at the time they were supposed to have been deforested. The advocates of the deforestation narrative have never been able to explain the paradox that lies in the fact that if the entire island was forested and in an ecological equilibrium at the time of human arrival, the environmental effects were greatest in the areas where humans were latest to arrive, and for a long period lived in the smallest numbers. The policy issue Despite scientic evidence that suggests that climate, vegetation, and re have a complex interaction that has changed over time, only one, probably simplistic, view seems to have been incorporated in the policy documents and strategy plans of the big environmental NGOs, the World Bank and governmental organisations: the highlands was once forested, and has been deforested as a result of human activities. Several of these institutions have produced gures that show that Madagascar now has less than 1020% of its original forest cover left. Such statistics draw on and perpetuate images of original forest as a baseline to compare present-day assessments derived from techniques such as remote sensing. Table 1 shows how some of the most important institutions within the eld of development and environment perpetuate and contribute to the image of a once-forested Madagascar. There seems to be some sort of consensus around the gure 80%. This is widely used to represent the size of the island that has been deforested as a response to human activities. Given the present amount of forest, these gures presuppose an almost totally forested highland in the past. The World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) states that 6085% of the original Madagascar forest has been destroyed by unsustainable shifting subsistence cultivation (1996, p. 1). These gures circulate widely among international organisations and are put to a variety of uses. Furthermore these data are often the basis for unsourced tables and gures in secondary and tertiary articles and reports. The Madagascar Environmental Action Plan (1988), supported by such pivotal actors as the World Bank, USAID, Cooperation Suisse, UNESCO, UNDP, and WWF also repeats the deforestation narrative and states that most of the island was covered with natural forest, and that only 20% of the original cover remains. Most of Madagascar was initially covered in natural forests. But now these forests have been totally destroyed in over 80% of the country. Deforestation has been particularly severe on the High Plateau. (Madagascar Environmental Action Plan 1988, p. 26)

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Table 1. Representation of deforestation in Madagascar. Presumed original vegetation Completely forested Mostly forested Mostly forested with tropical forest cover Totally forested Most of island covered with natural forest % deforested Reference Citing

88% 6085% Over 80% 7075% 80%

Bakke (1991) (supported by NORAD and WWF) World Conservation Monitoring Centre (1994) USAID (1998) Jenkins (1987) (Supported by IUCN) Madagascar Environmental Action Plan (1988) Supported by World Bank, USAID, Cooperation Suisse, UNESCO, UNDP, WWF

No reference No reference No reference Bastian (1964) No reference

So how has this gure come into being? The underlying ecological assumptions for such estimates are founded on an equilibrium-based view of vegetation, which can be traced back to the inuential views of Clements (1916). In this view the nature of the vegetation in a region is climatically determined. For example, in the case of most moist climate types forest would be predicted. It is assumed that in the absence of continuous disturbance human or natural forest is the equilibrium end-point of a process of succession that vegetation progresses through after a physical or biotic disturbance. Neither climatic uctuations over time nor the disturbances themselves are thought to play a signicant role in determining the status of the system. This paradigm has lately been strongly challenged, especially in the ecological literature of the temperate and dry tropical zones. The term new ecology has been used to describe a shift in focus to instability and disequilibria as important characteristics of many ecosystems and away from equilibrium and homeostasis (Glenn-Lewin et al., 1992; Botkin, 1990; Zimmerer, 2000; Leach and Farihead, 2000). Any ecosystem is composed of patches at different spatial and temporal scales, which are dened by the physical environment and the disturbance regime. In many ecosystems, disturbances such as re, wind damage and drought occur more frequently and over larger areas than previously thought, and they thus exert a major inuence on the dynamics and structure of the vegetation. In regions where rainfall is seasonal and variable, climatic variability may inuence ecological processes either directly or indirectly via the disturbance regime (e.g., re frequency). Thus, particularly in the drier tropical regions, the irregular spatial and temporal variations in the environment play an important role in the structuring of the ecosystem. Where the regional climate regime is such that there is a ne balance among the potentials of different types of vegetation to predominate (for example, trees vs. grasses in savannah regions), disturbance regimes, small shifts in climate, and other stochastic events may be the nal determinants of the vegetation. By focusing on heterogeneity at a range of temporal and spatial scales a better understanding of the highlands vegetation history can

appear. Only within such a view can the complex relationship between forest, woodland and savannah on the one hand and climate and re on the other be fully grasped. The deforestation narrative of the Madagascar highlands presupposes a natural climax vegetation of forest even though this way of thinking has been strongly challenged and even rejected in the modern ecological literature. So why is this view still so prevalent? One explanation might be that the new ecology has made a major impact in the eld of ecology only in the past two decades or so. Beyond ecology this paradigm shift has been picked up by social scientists and other academics in the 1990s. But to make a major impact among the policy makers, NGOs and aid donors outside academia it demands further time. In combination with this informational indolence other explanations can be sought. The policy narratives often resist change or modication in the presence of contradictory theoretical development or empirical evidence because they underwrite and stabilise assumptions for decision-making. Thus, they enable policymakers to act and give a rm basis for action. Leach and Mearns (1996) state that in the colonial period received wisdom8 about environmental change served to justify the funding of national environmental management agencies, a situation that has continued through the post-colonial era. Leach and Mearns write that: Government departments with responsibility for forest and wildlife protection and management, in particular, are often heavily reliant on revenue received from nes and the sale of permits. The underlying premise on which the continued ow of such revenues rests is that the stewardship over natural resources is properly the responsibility of the state. It depends on and serves to perpetuate the conventional view that local inhabitants are incapable of acting as resource custodians. (1996, p. 20) In this scenario, a government has strong interests in maintaining a view about the instrumental role of local inhabitants in bringing about environmental degradation. Roe (1995, p. 1066) takes the argument further and suggests

197 that crisis descriptions of African realities are the primary means whereby development experts and the institutions for which they work claim rights to stewardship over land and resources they do not own. Roe states that by appealing to what he terms crisis narratives technical experts and managers can claim rights as stakeholders in the land and resources they say are under crisis. In this way the more crisis the narrative generates, the more right the elite have to establish a claim to the resource they say is subject to crisis. In terms of biodiversity Madagascar ranks as extremely interesting to the worlds conservation and environmental organisations. The country is often described as a hotspot of biodiversity because of its unique natural history and high level of endemism (Myers et al., 2000). Following Roes line of thought, the deforestation narrative of the highlands, which is indeed crisis-ridden, serves as a justication for western experts to intervene and claim rights in Madagascars biodiversity. By employing the deforestation narrative one makes a clear case. A highland deforested as a result of human activities leaves no doubt about the fact that the local inhabitants are not managing their resources in a sustainable manner. This opens the way for a centrally governed environmental policy based on western expertise and western ideas about the conservation of nature. The narrative is held up as a warning sign of what will happen in other parts of Madagascar if action is not taken. In this way a contested theory of what happened in the highlands ve hundred years ago is used as an argument for action and the application of western conservation strategies in other parts of Madagascar. Even in environments totally different from the highlands in terms of both ecology and demography. In Madagascar, as in other places, one of the most powerful explanations for deforestation is the neo-Malthusian theory that links population growth and shifting cultivation. As stated earlier, this argument has little value in describing what happened at the time when the highland is supposed to have been deforested. Even concerning the more recent deforestation of the eastern rain forest it has limited explanatory power. Jarosz (1996) writes that in a period when a large amount of remaining primary forest disappeared, between 1900 and 1941, the national population growth rate was at, or below, the replacement level. This deforestation had little to do with population growth linked to shifting cultivation, but can be related to logging, forest product extraction, export crop production, shifting cultivation, grazing and burning. Jarosz argues that the role of the state was pivotal in these matters. As an example she uses the colonial states forest concessionaire policy, which in 1921 allowed the exploitation of precious woods such as ebony, rosewood and palisander. This resulted in the clearcutting and destruction of some of the most accessible forest on the island. Thus, not only are the narratives based on uncertain information in relation to the ecological/bioclimatic status of the vegetation, but also the means of its destruction are contradicted by available evidence. The practice of burning forest and grass has always been a central element in Madagascars traditional environmental management. Thus, re has generated conict between the government and local people for over a hundred years. The French colonial government, which regarded re as an important part of the deforestation narrative, sought to control re through legislation and banned its use. The laws of 1907 and 1930 were the result of French scientists claiming that res destroyed forests and impoverished the soil. After independence the legislation continued to reect the colonial laws. Penalties for illegal wildres were further strengthened as environmental money began to make a substantial impact on the countrys economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kull (2000) writes that the burning of pastures is a useful tool for the farmers and is an integrated part of highland farming. Burning contributes to improving forage quality, preparing grasslands for planting, and improving water run off for irrigation; it wards off invading locusts, and keeps the rat population low. The criminalisation of this traditional agricultural activity maintains the conict between western scientic view and traditional land-use methods, and closes the lines of communication and mutual understanding between local people and development experts. Because of legislation, the effects of the deforestation narrative have been severe on the local people. It has impoverished them through taxes, nes, prison sentences, and resource alienation. It has also denied the technical validity of local ecological knowledge, and undermined the credibility of outside experts in local peoples eyes. By criminalising burning it has denied value to their cultural forms, expression and morality. On top of this, the deforestation narrative in Madagascar and its executive policy can lead to increased deforestation when illegal burning becomes a symbol of peasant protest against state authority (Jarosz, 1996). Thus, the precautionary principle often highlighted in conservation matters, can trigger unexpected effects if the perspective employed is inadequately correlated with reality. Conclusion The deforestation narrative of Madagascar appears based on a simple causal explanation, that is, a neo-Malthusian view of the relationship between society and environmental change, and on outmoded concepts of stasis in climatevegetation systems that have been subsequently abandoned. This is not unique for Madagascar as many of the deforestation narratives in Africa are based on these notions. The neoMalthusian paradigm explains how population growth leads to deforestation and the Clementsian concept of a single vegetation type, unchanging in time and space, provides a baseline from which deforestation can be measured. As elaborated earlier in this paper, the neo-Malthusian paradigm can not give a satisfactory explanation for the origin of the grasslands of the highlands. Furthermore, increased knowledge of climate change and its implication for vegetation suggest that human impact occurred within a natural vegetation mosaic that was already subject to re. Burneys (1987, 1997) research in the highlands highlights long-term cycles of climate change and the dynamic nature of Madagascars vegetation. Heterogeneity across a range of temporal and spatial scales is a key element in the

198 new reconstruction of Highland vegetation history. Burneys interpretation acknowledges that the climate of Madagascar has probably changed signicantly during the Holocene, and that in a region of complex topography the vegetation cover is likely to be a mosaic depending upon local conditions. By focusing on global dynamics and the importance of addressing scale factors in understanding vegetation change Burney subscribes to modern ecological concepts. This work combined with palaeontological, archaeological and historical investigation in the highlands serves to form the contours of a counter-narrative on the history of the highlands vegetation. The counter-narrative sees the treeless rolling plains as a result of several abiotic and biotic changes and not as the work of one single agent; the role of human agency might have served to enforce other factors, but is not the underlying cause of the highland vegetation as it appears today. The underlying cause then seems to be a natural response to climate changes, probably amplied by human intervention in an ecosystem predisposed to be highly sensitive to changes in the climate or disturbance regime. Kull (2000) attacks the deforestation narrative of the highlands and writes that the dominance of a certain narrative depends on its correspondence with observed facts and on the power of those telling it. But what are the facts? By simplifying the term fact one might construct a new narrative at the same level of epistemological sophistication as the old one. Stating that the new insight is objective truth is close to a positivist framework incompatible with the social constructivist approach that is used to analyse the narrative. Proctor (1998) states that for critical realists the truth content of different ideas can be compared on a relative basis, that some explanations are more adequate representations of reality than others. Thus, they will always be partial truths and cannot be separated from the institutions that create the knowledge. This insight must of course also apply to the counter-narrative, it is not the objective truth about the highlands environmental history. But based on new research and increased understanding of man-nature relationship it is possibly a more accurate representation of reality than the traditional narrative. So where does this leave us in terms of environmental policy? Is it possible to integrate the counter-narrative based on new ecological insight into a policy that also embraces the needs, wants and perspectives of local people? Zimmerer (2000) proposes a solution to this question by linking the studies of nature-society hybrids with the new ecologys emphasis on ux. By regarding conservation areas and their new discursive constructions (e.g., conservation-withdevelopment, parks-with-people etc.) as examples of the intensied couplings of nature and society, he proposes a framework for a way ahead. The creation of the new conservation strategies is conditioned by, and contributes to the dynamics of non-equilibrium processes. Zimmerer (2000) makes the interesting point that nature-society hybrids and non-equilibrium landscapes can support a range of strategies that moves from parks and other protected areas and towards a fuller understanding of utilised nature. By highlighting ux rather than xity the environment stand a better chance of enhanced understanding in the policy process. In the case of Madagascar this means that conservation programs must recognize the local land managers as adapted to local environmental realities that are dynamic by nature. As a response to the changing rhetoric of conservation, integration of local communities has been incorporated in the environmental policy documents of Madagascar for the past fteen years. Yet, the effect on actual conservation effort has been limited. Maybe this is due to the fact that the narrative triggered in conservationists head when mentioning environmental management in Madagascar is one of ignorant peasants slashing and burning a forested tropical island into a deforested wasteland. Debunking the presuppositions that substantiate these ideas could be a rst step in moving from rhetoric to applied resource management. Notes
1 One

might distinguish among these viewpoints as follows: radical relativism claims everything is true; nihilism claims nothing is knowable; neo-Kantian constructivism claims truth is always what the powerful believe it to be. 2 Demeritt (1998) lists four distinct uses of the construction metaphor. These four are: social object constructivism (the socially constructed reality is distinct from objective facts given by nature); social institutional constructivism (the objective reality is distinct and independent from belief about it); artifactual constructivism (there are no absolute ontological distinction between representation and reality); and neo-Kantian constructivism (nature is whatever society makes out of it). 3 The rst people arrived in Madagascar approximately 2000 years ago (Rakotoarisoa, 1997) 4 This is believed to include more than two dozens of species, the most known being giant lemurs, elephant birds, dwarf hippos and giant tortoises. 5 E.g., trionychid and emydid turtles, elapid, viperid, teptotyphlopid, phytoninie snakes and amphisbaenid lizards. 6 E.g., caecilians and salamanders. 7 The humid east coast is separated from the highlands by an sharp escarpment, and is the host of the dense endemic rainforest of Madagascar. 8 By received wisdom Leach and Mearns mean an idea or set of ideas sustained through labelling, commonly represented in the form of a narrative, and grounded in a specic cultural policy paradigm. It can be understood as a form of discourse, in the sen se meant by Foucault (1972, 1980) to draw attention to the way in which it embodies relations to power that are constituted through everyday, familiar acts that go unnoticed because they are taken for granted. (Leach and Mearns, 1996, p. 8). Acknowledgements I gratefully thank Mary Edwards for inspiration and constructive criticism throughout the work of this paper. I am also grateful to Haakon Lein, Tor A. Benjaminsen and Piers

199 Blaikie for valuable comments. This research was supported by the Interdisciplinary Program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and by Hedmark University College. References
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