A ﬁeld in the central highland region of Madagascar is hardly a conventional classroom, but the students working up to their knees in rice plants are learning valuable lessons about sustainable agriculture – lessons they will pass on to local farmers. As an old Malagasy proverb says, ‘education is the most beautiful heritage.’
Around 2 000 students from 12 Collège d'Enseignement Général (CEG) schools in Vakinankaratra province have beneﬁted from a new climate-smart agriculture project known as Manitatra 2, funded by the European Union’s ﬂagship climate change programme GCCA+. ‘We introduced agro-ecology into the school programme to give children experience of sustainable farming from an early age,’ says Rivosoa Vero Dina Ramanankihantana, a teacher at the CEG in the remote community of Ambohimandroso.
More than 3.5 million hectares of forest has been destroyed by slash-and-burn farming in the past two decades, while heavy rain causes soil erosion and ﬂash ﬂooding. Highland farmers traditionally grow irrigated rice, but suitable land is scarce and the rice paddies handed down between generations are becoming increasingly inadequate. Rain-fed rice varieties, which can grow on the steep hillsides, could be one solution.
Head teacher Franc Coeur Sousoukou hopes that new farming methods pioneered by the students – including the use of natural mulch made from maize or beans – will lead to a dramatic increase in rice yields. ‘We covered the ﬁrst plot in mucuna beans and estimate we could get around 5.5 tonnes per hectare – that’s a signiﬁcant increase.’
Half an hour’s drive away in Antsoatany, teacher Harson Andrianiaina teaches conservation agriculture theory and practice to 5th-grade students. ‘After visiting our test plots, the farmers have been convinced,’ says Harson. ‘Some of them have already replanted their ﬁelds and sown mucuna seeds. One of them who lives only a few hundred metres from the school has sown mucuna on half a hectare of land.’
Local farmer Lalaina Eric Arthur Vonjisoa says he has learned a lot from the experimental plots planted by school students. ‘Even if it is uncultivated land, as soon as rain-fed rice has been planted and fertilised by mucuna, the harvest has been impressive. Passers-by who have seen the rain-fed rice notice that the yield is better compared to irrigated rice ﬁelds nearby.’
Rakotondramanana says one of the main beneﬁts of the schools programme is that students are more open to new ways of farming. ‘They are really enthusiastic. They discover that what they are learning is different to the way their parents work. That means they can inﬂuence their parents. For the most part, these students are the sons of peasants, and there is a good chance that most of them will go on to become farmers after their studies, so they need to know about preventing soil degradation.’