“Scarred” Hillsides in Madagascar May Actually be Agricultural Gold Mines

Aerial view of eroded Malagasy highlands. Photo:
Aerial view of eroded Malagasy highlands. Photo:

National Geographic Young Explorer Alizé Carrère is researching an innovative method of agricultural adaptation in the Malagasy highlands that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as “lavaka”, literally meaning “hole”, they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic benefits, turning a deforested landscape into one of opportunity, not hardship.


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
Fresh lavaka cut eroded into hillside. Photo: Team Lavaka Collection, R Cox
Agriculturally occupied lavaka outflow. 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 as a side valley with intensive agriculture and homestead buildings. Photo: Jon Unruh
Mature lavaka with terracing 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.

Aerial view of eroded Malagasy highlands. Photo:
Aerial view of eroded Malagasy highlands. Photo:


  1. Christoper Nance
    El Paso Texas
    August 6, 2015, 4:08 pm

    I met you and heard you speak at the CTAT conference in Fort Worth Texas this year and was truly impressed. I really want you to come and speak to my students as I believe you bring a great perspective on life and opportunity to our students.

  2. Setra
    Ambositany, Talatanampano
    April 11, 2014, 6:09 pm

    I guess I missed you at the Madagascar Workshop 2014, Gwyn Campbell also missed this year, as the Leaf’s fan would say. There’s always next year.

    Talking about holes, Canada and Madagascar now share the same “hole” story. Sudbury/Ambatovy, Bemolanga/Athabasca

    They used to expropriate the first nations (Crees and Denes, now they start expropriating the second nations (Quebecers, Ontarians)

    The story will mostly repeat in southern areas, (Sakalava and Betsimisaraka).

    Well, why not? and who cares anyway? MH3670 revealed that the Indian Ocean is already a big trash, why would we care about International Waters? That’s others responsibilities. but who’s ?

    Since you are our new National Geographic explorer after late Alison Jolly to cover Madagascar, hopefully you can pick whatever subject you’ll see fit.

    Veloma finaritra

  3. Naeem
    Toronto, CA
    October 21, 2013, 11:43 am

    An interesting read. Never thought problem of erosion could be turned into an opportunity. I actually spent a bit of time looking the pictures. Yes, it looks great that the bottom of these gullies is turning green. Looking at the first picture the surface area occupied by Lavaka is about 25-30 percent. Steps should be taken to control the erosion at this point. Any further erosion will reduce the hilly area and thus reduce the nutrient rich runoff coming into this these gullies and might level off entire landscape eventually. I don’t have any scientific figures but i think 1:4 ratio of area under Lavaka to hills would be a optimum measure to maintain a sustainable landscape. I am excited to learn more about your findings. Keep it up!

  4. Leila
    October 20, 2013, 12:00 pm

    I would think that a recovery would be the greatest news in the world but right now I know we have destroyed and stripped this land, now, it is trying to recover from our destruction and we are only thinking of the human value again! That that originally raped these lands is making it’s next approach, like a serial rapist after the same victim over and over… until complete death…. just leave it alone. No farming, no irrigation, no nothing from us except Peace… for once!

  5. Susan Dingle
    New Suffolk, NY
    October 19, 2013, 11:36 pm

    I look forward to following your exploration, particularly as you learn more about the resiliency and creativity of the local people. It will be interesting to know how it happened that they turned what might have seemed like a disaster into an opportunity.

  6. Evan
    Oakland, CA
    October 18, 2013, 7:28 pm

    As a recently returned Peace Corps Volunteer who lived in the highlands of Madagascar for two years, I find this a very interesting new perspective on erosion gullies. However, I would like to point out that gullies can indeed be deleterious to local agriculture. In some cases, perhaps many cases, sand is carried down the gullies by rain into rice paddies below, completely destroying them and eliminating the prospect of growing anything but a few stunted corn plants. The formerly fertile soil resembles a beach instead.

    I think farming in erosion gullies is a potentially beneficial way of dealing with deforestation, but I’m curious to see whether it will work in all cases. I have my doubts.

  7. David DeRousse
    October 18, 2013, 4:14 pm

    Who would have thought such an opportunity could arise from such denuded land? Still, tree planting projects to arrest erosion would highly benefit the landscape, particularly along stream and river banks, where so much of the soil is being eroded away and washed out to sea.Bring some of the bird life back.
    A mix of uses. I’m happy for the farmers. It is a good story. It would be nice to see Madagascar sustainably thrive.

  8. Julie Geels
    October 18, 2013, 2:44 pm

    It sounds encouraging: the lavaka funneling the water to feed the lower lying land. However, unless the lavaka are somehow fixed, the soil will continue to wash away, to eventually end up in rivers and then flow into the sea. The challenge is therefore first of all to ensure the erosion is halted. If you find a solution to that, I am most interested to hear about it!

  9. tom berkas
    October 18, 2013, 1:23 pm

    Redeemable yes, but “gold mines”? Poor metaphor

  10. Pocodot
    Toamasina, Madagascar
    October 18, 2013, 11:52 am

    I worked with an environmental scientist, Dr. Yohaan Rall and we discussed these very events, he noted that if these erosion events or lavakas occur naturally they tend to carry the top soil and apparently seeds with them. He said he’s never seen it anywhere else in the world but these natural slides will begin germinating with pioneer plants.

  11. Dave Wood
    October 18, 2013, 6:00 am

    Apart from agroforestry filling the holes, there is another key advantage of erosion. You get soil from a steep, dry, hillside eroded down to a nice flat valley bottom where land can be terraced and irrigated. This is common to, for example, highland Yemen. It has even been suggested that erosion can be `induced’ (Spriggs for Pacific islands) to move soil to where is can be better managed.

  12. Kai S. Lee
    October 17, 2013, 10:06 pm

    Paradise… gold!! Ha ha ha!!

  13. Michael D. Cooper
    October 17, 2013, 5:27 pm

    This is a fascinating perspective on a once-abandoned
    wasteland, now opening to the possibility of a rich
    green transformation!

  14. Michael D. Cooper
    Ithaca, New York USA
    October 17, 2013, 5:25 pm

    Fascinating perspective on a once-abandoned wasteland,
    now opening to the possibility of green transformation!

  15. Peggy Haine
    Trumansburg, NY
    October 17, 2013, 4:42 pm

    Fascinating! What are they growing in those gullies? Do they worry about flooding? Has plant material been swept down the hillsides, and, if so, has it come to rest at the bottom, or does it continue to erode? Are they able to raise livestock there? I’m eager to read your findings.

  16. Teodora Baila
    Toronto, ON
    October 17, 2013, 1:19 pm

    What a wonderfully challenging and exciting adventure ! Success does not come from spending more money; it comes from taking a fresh approach to what we already have. Good luck – I can’t wait to hear how this unfolds !