“This looks like how I have always imagined Mars,”says my friend and coworker, Christa Szumski, on our drive to Vondrozo from Tana. And , indeed, the red hills of Madagascar are at once a strikingly beautiful and desperately sad sight to behold. The contrast of blue sky and red hills is dramatic and desolate and smacks of something straight out of The Lorax. The hills are bare of the rainforest truffula trees that once reigned supreme and have been replaced instead by the resilient and fast-growing ravinola (known to most westerners as the traveler’s palm), as well as the occasional thicket of bamboo, interspersed with open grassland and red, red earth.
Most Malagasy farmers practice a style of agriculture called tavy, which we in the West recognize as slash and burn. Though few acknowledge it, slash and burn agriculture can be a sustainable method of forest management in areas with abundant land and few people. If the forest is given time to regenerate, rotating patches of burned land are not inherently destructive. In Madagascar, however, the forested land is too sparse and the people (just under 20 million and growing more each year) are too numerous for tavy to function without significant negative impacts on the land. Every year, as much as one-third of the island of Madagascar is burned to facilitate the growth of fresh grasses, which feed the zebu (Madagascar’s strange, camel-humped cattle), and to make way for the planting of crops—chiefly rice, the staple food of any and all who inhabit the island, ourselves no exception.
We ride our creaking WWF bicycles beyond the the limits of Vondrozo, bumping over rutted road and and fallen tree. I vaguely wish our organization had seen fit to supply us with helmets as I race down the slope after the flapping T-shirt in front of me. To the left and up the slope, I hear a crackle of flame as the tavy burns close along the road, consuming brush and grass and all in its wake. There is smoke in the air—always—in this country, and inevitably the faintest trace of acrid ash suffuses in the nostrils. Now, I dodge falling embers as I cycle along the road. September and October are the seasons when the rainforest burns.
We play soccer on Vondrozo’s field, barefoot like the locals, and it is good to run and laugh and feel young and free. But the field—like so much of this country—is really a barren, flat expanse of red dirt. My feet are sore from kicking without shoes, not something I ever practiced much at home, and they turn red from the exertion, the contact of ball on skin, and the rusty dust that billows all around them. “You look like you’ve been walking on Mars,”says Christa. “Tavy feet,”is all that I can think to reply.