How bringing back the wild yam is feeding the hungry in drought-hit Madagascar (2024)

Every December, the arrival of rain signals the beginning of the “hungry season” in Madagascar. It will be months before the next rice harvest on the island, which is experiencing the worst drought in 40 years in the south of the country. One million people are struggling to find food in the region due to what the World Food Programme described as the “first climate-induced famine”.

Global heating was not the main cause yet, scientists concluded in a recent study, blaming poverty and a heavy reliance on annual rains instead. But in the face of increasingly unstable rice production – the main staple – as Madagascar becomes hotter and drier, the yam, an unloved tuber, has become a source of hope in the one of the poorest countries in the world that is not in conflict.

“We have a lot of yam species in Madagascar. It was a staple food for Malagasy ancestors but, after the introduction of rice and cassava, we forgot about it,” says Mamy Tiana Rajaonah, a botanist with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew), who has led a project cultivating wild yam species for low-income families on the island, which lies in the Indian ocean off the east coast of Africa.

Three-quarters of Madagascar’s more than 27 million population live below the poverty line, and 17 million live in rural areas, relying on rosewood, rice, vanilla and other natural resources to survive.

Some of the island’s 40 or so native species of yam are enormous, growing to more than a metre in length in potato-like contortions. They are a nutritious source of starch, micronutrients and protein in a country where child malnutrition is rife. But they, too, are threatened by deforestation, global heating and land use change, putting already fragile livelihoods at further risk.

Jean Zamany, a farmer from Mahagaga, a village in the north of Madagascar, said the Kew project had helped his community to confront a belief that cultivating yams would bring famine. He is now part of an association of yam farmers and the crop is used to make fried meals, soups and cakes.

“We are concerned about climate change because we don’t have enough rain, and when it rains the amount of water in a few days causes a flood and destroys our crops in the field. It brings more sand in our rice field,” said Zamany.

“We have produced more and more yams to store for the hungry season. We also sell yams to buy rice during the rainy season but try to keep a lot of yams back to feed our families.”

Daniel, a farmer from Andafirano village in central Madagascar, agrees that yam cultivation has improved food security as the climate changes. He was part of a project run by RBG Kew (its Madagascar base is its only one outside the UK) and the NGO Feedback Madagascar, and now has 120 yam plants from three native varieties.

How bringing back the wild yam is feeding the hungry in drought-hit Madagascar (2)

“People aren’t used to eating yams, so it’s strange for them. That might be why some people aren’t keen to eat them,” he said. “Farming yams requires work like digging the holes. It also requires water – but water is increasingly insufficient.”

RBG Kew is one of four charities supported by the Guardian and Observer 2021 Climate Justice charity appeal, which is aimed at helping communities at the sharp end of the climate crisis. The others are Global Greengrants Fund UK, Environmental Justice Foundation, and Practical Action.

Through RBG Kew’s work in Madagascar, a team of mainly Malagasy botanists, researchers and conservationists is working to document and preserve the country’s biodiversity, which will be crucial to improving resilience in a changing climate.

According to Kew research on the impact of the projects, yam cultivation has helped to double the mean household income, and production has continued in many communities.

Money from Guardian and Observer readers could help expand community-based cultivation approaches such as growing native yams to feed primary school students, and developing community nurseries to protect forests on which millions of Malagasy rely – all while documenting and protecting the country’s unique biodiversity.

Madagascar is drying out – there’s no harvest, only hunger | AnonymousRead more

“Yams are inherently relatively resilient things. You can’t grow them in no rainfall, but you can grow them certainly in seasonal climates with relatively low rainfall. So they are crops which have some potential for the future,” said Paul Wilkin, head of ecosystem stewardship at RBG Kew.

“These species are unique to Madagascar, they’re only found there and are a key part of cultural and dietary heritage for people who have no other options.”

How bringing back the wild yam is feeding the hungry in drought-hit Madagascar (2024)
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