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Environment and History

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Environment and History

Farming at the Forest Frontier: Land Use and Landscape Change in Western Madagascar, 1896-2005

Ivan R. Scales

Environment and History 17 (2011): 499-524. doi: 10.3197/096734011X13150366551481

Over the last twenty years Madagascar has become a poster child for global biodiversity conservation. The environmental discourse is dominated by the issue of deforestation and the blame for forest loss is usually placed on poor rural households, who are portrayed as being caught in a Malthusian spiral of increased population and decreased land productivity. Whilst there has been a wealth of research on deforestation in Madagascar, it has tended to assume a priori the importance of population growth and poverty as drivers of forest clearance, without exploring the role of other factors in shaping land use. It has also suffered from temporal and regional biases. In this paper I use a multidisciplinary approach to better understand the drivers of land use and landscape change in the Central Menabe region of western Madagascar between 1896 and 2005. I draw on a diverse range of methods including material from the French colonial archives, aerial photographs, imagery from Landsat satellites, a review of project reports and interviews with key informants. I show the importance of cash crops in landscape change, in particular booms in the cultivation of maize. I also show that economic and political factors operating at a range of spatial levels have been critical in stimulating the expansion of these crops.

KEYWORDS: Madagascar, environmental narratives, deforestation, slash-and-burn, forest history

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