Climate & Agriculture

Tropical variations

Madagascar has a tropical climate, with a wet hot summer from March to November and a mainly dry, mild winter from April to October.

Cyclones

Madagascar is often struck by cyclones. The worst storms can leave hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless. They can occur any time between October to May and the east usually suffers worst, but all parts of the island are vulnerable.

However the weather varies greatly across the island. Westerly trade winds frequently drop their moisture on the mountain slopes running down the eastern side. While the land to the west is mainly hot and dry. Regions here are particularly prone to droughts in some years.

There are significant variations in temperature around Madagascar, depending on the altitude (height) and latitude (north-south position) of each place.

A rice affairRice fields, by Zigomar (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rice is the staple food in Madagascar – see Food & Daily Life – and one of the kings of the Merina people famously said ‘rice and I are one’. In the central highlands, it is mainly cultivated in irrigated paddies on hill terraces. In some places ‘hill rice’ is grown instead, which relies on rain water.

Small farmers tend to grow rice to feed their own families, while larger growers will store the grain to sell. However, home-grown production does not meet domestic demand from a growing population and some rice has to be imported into the country.

Traditionally, paddy rice is planted in bunches 10cm apart in water-logged fields. However, some farmers are adopting a different method of cultivation to increase yields. This new method – called System of Rice Intensification (SRI) – gives a wider spacing (25cm) between each seedling, so each plant receives more nutrients from the soil. Stalks then grow longer and produce more grain-bearing branches. And fields do not have to be flooded, with only the soil around each plant needing water. Invented by a Jesuit priest in Madagascar during the 1980s, the SRI method is spreading across the globe.

Farmers' favourites

Zebu hump-backed cattle are reared and prized by many Malagasy Zebu cattle, by Alex Dunkel (Visionholder) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commonsfarmers, and Zebu milk is an important part of many people’s diet. Cattle meat is normally eaten only for special occasions.

Cassava, mangos, fruit and bananas are also commonly grown, as is sugar cane for exports of sugar. Palm, soybean, coconut and sunflower oil are produced by some growers, often for sale abroad.

But Madagascar’s most famous export is vanilla; the island is the world’s most successful producer.

Slash and burn methods to clear forest for farm land have caused massive deforestation across the island – see Forests – and led to problems with erosion. Storms carry away soil from cleared slopes and hill land becomes unproductive after a few years. Traditionally, farmers have always cleared a new section of forest to create fertile land. Environmentalists are trying to work with local people to find alternatives to this long-established method of farming.