In Madagascar, as rainfall decreases and temperatures soar, BCI Farmers are taking steps to save water and enhance the health of the soil.
The Climate Challenge
In Madagascar, cotton farmers rely solely on rainfall to water their crops. However, in recent years, particularly since 2000, rainfall in the South West region (where cotton is predominantly grown) has declined dramatically while temperatures have risen. In the last few years, the first rains don’t occur until January — rather than October — and only last until March. And it’s not just the rain patterns that have changed. Ahead of the cotton growing season, the Alizé wind blows for twice as long as it has in previous years, displacing the precious nutrient-rich top soil, which is already baked dry by the intense heat.
“Over the last few years, we’ve faced ongoing torrid heat, drying winds and insufficient rain. When there isn’t enough rain, or the rain arrives late, the seeds perish in the soil and we have to plant again, delaying the growing season and increasing our costs.”
In addition to forcing farmers to re-sow their seeds, unexpected floods prompted by sudden downpours can also damage their crops if heavy rain occurs later in the season.
In Madagascar, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) partners with TianLi Agri. They are responsible for delivering the training in line with the Better Cotton Principles and Critera to BCI Farmers, and providing support and ensuring the continuous improvement of BCI Farmers.
“Before 2000, Madagascar was among the African countries with higher cotton yields. With extreme weather occurring more regularly, cotton farmers have experienced as much as a 50% drop in yields and income. Some are even tempted to abandon cotton farming altogether."
How BCI Farmers in Madagascar are Learning to Adapt to Extreme Weather
Many cotton farmers in Madagascar struggle to afford life’s basic necessities. Learning new sustainable agricultural practices takes time, and they do not have access to technologically advanced equipment or precision tools. Therefore, every proven, low-cost technique is a valuable piece of knowledge that can be implemented and shared with other cotton farmers in the community.
Despite the recent low levels of rainfall and erratic weather, in the 2017-18 cotton season BCI Farmers managed to produce up to 750kg of cotton per hectare by applying sustainable agricultural practices learnt through BCI training sessions.
“By adopting best practice techniques such as protecting and restoring the soil and managing pests effectively, cotton farmers are able to make a modest living in challenging circumstances.”
Measuring and Monitoring
Madagascan BCI Farmers are learning to adapt to shifting rain patterns by preparing the soil and sowing seeds later than than they have done so previously but still ahead of the first rains. Through their pest management training, they learn to identify and count pests on their cotton plants, helping them to both apply pesticides in a more targeted way — resulting in less pesticides being used — and guard against pest infestations linked to extreme weather.
Taking Preventative Measures
To help lessen the impact of water scarcity, BCI Farmers in Madagascar take steps to keep the soil as healthy as possible and help it to retain moisture. Many of the country’s BCI Farmers sow their cotton plants on rows of raised soil, by building stone ridges across their plots to prevent water run-off, which improves the way the rainwater filters through to the plants.
Regular weeding helps to ensure that as much of the moisture in the soil as possible is directed to their cotton plants. Some BCI Farmers cover the soil in extracted weeds to help prevent evaporation. Many have invested in a special ‘sarclo-hoe’ for weeding, a hand-held farming tool that also helps to aerate the top soil, preventing water stored deeper in the ground from rising to the surface and evaporating. Some cotton farmers add oxen manure to the soil which increases the nutrient richness of the soil and benefits the development of cotton plant.
“Through our BCI training, we’ve also learnt that trees help biodiversity flourish. Farmers should plant fruit trees around their fields to produce fruits and create some shade. This also enhances biodiversity in and around our farms and can lead to increased yields and profits.”
To further deter pests, some BCI Farmers are sowing ‘trap plants’ (plants that attract pests, luring them away from cotton plants). They also add rows of corn and legumes which help to protect the cotton plants from wind, which also creates an additional revenue stream for farmers.
BCI Farmers take a careful approach to fibre quality too, by harvesting their crops gradually to avoid loss of fibre quality through unexpected rain or over exposure to wind and high temperatures.
“We’re reducing our costs by using the techniques we’re learning through the BCI training sessions, which is helping to raise our income.”
What’s Next for Madagascan Cotton Farmers?
TianLi Agri are exploring working with scientists to develop a more water-resistant variety of cotton, that Madagascan cotton farmers can use, with a shorter growing time in order to lower the risk of exposure to extreme weather.
The Pôles Intégrés de Croissance, the Madagascan government’s sustainable development fund, is also financing a micro-drip irrigation project to help cotton farmers partially offset the risk of low rainfall by taking a little water from the ground to grow Better Cotton.