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Home > Last Stand > Tree Crops, Rail Lines and Miracle Grass

Farmers living on the edges of Madagascar's old-growth forests are trapped in an unending cycle of destruction. They clear trees for plots of annual crops, such as rice and cassava, but the soil is depleted in a matter of years, forcing the farmers to clear more forests.

Razing trees off the country's steep mountain slopes wreaks its own particular brand of havoc. The loosened soil washes away during the downpours of the rainy season. This erosion imperils the country's ecologically rich forest corridor -- a mountainous strip of virgin forests -- as well as the economically vital rail line that traverses through a part of that territory. The line carries forest-friendly fruit crops to domestic markets or to the port city of Manakara for international distribution.

To protect the forest corridor from further destruction, agriculturalists Mark and Karen Freudenberger are encouraging some of the area's farmers to plant slopes with perennial tree crops like coffee, bananas and lychee nuts. These trees don't degrade the soil yet produce cash crops farmers can trade for rice and other necessities.

The trainline was almost destroyed in 2000 when unusually heavy rains caused massive landslides along the train's poorly maintained route. Convinced that protecting the forest corridor required saving the train, the Freudenbergers have lead efforts to renovate the rail line. In the process, they've introduced a remarkable grass called vetevier to control soil erosion.

Video: The Forest Corridor
American agricultural specialist Mark Freudenberger explains the significance of the strip of virgin forests called the Forest Corridor.
Forest Corridor Photogallery: People of the Mountains
Communites in the shadow the mountainous corridor are growing, threatening some of the island's last remaning virgin forest.
Trainline Photogallery: Scenes from Along the Line
Madagascarís trains traverse some of the steepest grades in the world. The line opens markets to farmers who grow bananas and other tree crops that are less destructive to the forests than rice and cassava.
Video: A Vital Trainline
American agricultural specialist Karen Freudenberger describes the significance of the line to the country's economy and ecology and the discovery that the reedy vetevier grass was good for erosion control.
Vetevier Photogallery: The "Miracle Grass" in Action
Imported from Thailand, vetevier is used to anchor soil, thus mitigating erosion. It helps to shore up the steep banks of the islandís trainline.
Trainline Music Video
A music video that aired on Malagasy TV. The song celebrates the trainline and calls for its preservation.

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