Tree-planting drones for Madagascar’s lost forests

Madagascar used to be green. Really green.

But no more.

In the 2,000 short years that man landed on the East African island nation in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar has been balding worryingly fast. So fast that the country’s prime minister has announced that government will be purchasing tree-planting drones to reclaim some of the 90 percent of lost forest.

In a recent presentation to the country’s senate, Prime Minister Ntsay revealed that government would be purchasing the drones – with a capacity to plant around 400,000 trees per day – in order to avert the threat of deforestation that would be disastrous to the country’s economic prospects as far as tourism is concerned, as fauna and flora only unique to Madagascar in this world would be destroyed.

Since the arrival of mankind on the island a little over 2,000 years ago, 90 percent of the original forest cover has gone; 40 percent of it in the last 60 years alone. According to Dr Claire Kremen, biologist and conservation biology professor at University of California, Berkeley, population growth has been the bane of Madagascar’s former lush forests. The country’s rural population practises a form of subsistence farming called tavy (fat), which essentially slash and burn, where the farmers burn down a portion of the forest to grow their rice fields for a few years, before abandoning it and claiming another part of the forest. The shifting cultivation used to work long ago – before Madagascar’s population grew to its current 26million strong – because the farmers would give the exhausted lands enough time to recover before they returned.

Although outlawed, slush and burn farming is still practised in Madagascar. Picture: Mongabay

Population growth has put paid to those hopes though, and the situation is expected to get worse if its not addressed urgently. Madagascar’s population is expected to grow to 60million by 2060; a strong environmental management plan is need – otherwise the continued loss of natural habitat will be a mortal blow to Madagascar’s unique plant and animal species. The Masoala Peninsula for example, harbours one of the few remaining large areas of lowland rain forest on Madagascar, including habitat for the red-ruffed lemur, and for many endemic bird species extremely rare in other parts of the island, like the serpent eagle, the red owl, the helmet vanga, the scaly and short-legged ground rollers. Of the 35,000 species of plants in tropical Africa, and at least one third of them are found only in Madagascar.

In Masoala, the beautiful rainforest also meets up with white sand beaches, mangroves, fringing coral reef, and oceans and bays provide breeding habitat for humpback whales, dolphins and sea turtles. Coral reefs found around Masoala are some of the most pristine and diverse that Madagascar has to offer.

The government has declared some of these forests as national parks to protect them from advancing human population; and with the recent declaration, the government hopes to reclaim 4million hectares of deforested land by the year 2030. In 2019, reforestation actions covered 41,065 hectares, including 38,609 hectares of common land and 2,457 hectares of mangroves.

Prime Minister Ntsay said the ten drones would have been bought by the end of this year.

A typical tree-planting drone works with a combination of GIS mapping and digital technology. Areas to be reforested are identified using drone mapping technologies. The drones also collect data on soil conditions and topography, in order to determine the best places to put seeds into the ground. A flight path is then mapped which the drone will follow once its in the air. When this is done, the tree-planting drone is fitted with biodegradable seedpods which are then fired into the ground from the drone. The biodegradable capsule contains a germinated seed and nutrients, which the planters hope will take root and grow to be a big tree someday.

The purchase of the planter drones should enable trees to be sowed in hard-to-reach areas and optimise the results of the reforestation campaigns currently underway. Such efforts have been spearheaded by government in partnership with the likes of Eden Reforestation Projects, a non-profit reforestation organisation that launched its Madagascar project in 2007 by restoring ecologically devastated mangrove estuaries in the northwest of the country. The organisation also uses drones to scout denuded lands and also to monitor progress of reclaimed areas.

Madagascar’s rural population also depend on the forest in other ways – hunting, shelter, firewood, medicines, fibre, resin, construction, household implements and clothing – which has only added extra pressure on the forests. Over-collection or over-hunting is now leading to depletion of natural resources.

In their ventures, Eden Projects has partnered the local National Park systems, which aim to reforest and revive natural habitats for endangered and endemic animal species.


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