Traditional farming methods vary from one ethnic group or location to another, according to population density, climate, water supply, and soil. The most intensive form of cultivation is practiced among the Betsileo and Merina groups of the central highlands, where population densities are the highest. At the other extreme are the extensive slash-and-burn methods of brush clearing and shifting cultivation in the south and the east.
The Betsileo are probably the most efficient traditional rice farmers. They construct rice paddies on narrow terraces ascending the sides of steep valleys in the southern portion of the central highlands, creating an intricate landscape reminiscent of Indonesia or the Philippines. The irrigation systems use all available water, which flows through narrow canals for considerable distances. Some of the rice paddies cover no more than a few square meters. Only those surfaces that cannot be irrigated are planted in dryland crops.
In parts of the central highlands two rice crops a year can be grown, but not on the same plot. The Betsileo use a variety of local species that can be sown at different times, employing irrigation to grow some varieties in the dry season and waiting for the rainy season to plant others. The fields surrounding the typical Betsileo village often represent a checkerboard of tiny plots in different stages of the crop cycle.
The cultivation cycle begins with the repair of irrigation and drainage canals and plowing, which is performed with a longhandled spade or hoe. Manure or fertilizer is then spread over the field. If the supply of manure or artificial fertilizer is limited, only the seedbeds are fertilized. After fertilizing, family and neighbors join in a festive trampling of the fields, using cattle if available. Occasionally, trampling takes the place of plowing altogether. If the rice is to be sown broadcast, it may be done on the same day as trampling. In the more advanced areas, the seedlings are raised in protected seedbeds and transplanted later.
Rice-farming techniques among the Merina resemble those of the Betsileo but are usually less advanced and intensive. The Merina territory includes some areas where land is more plentiful, and broader areas permit less laborious means of irrigation and terracing. Although rice is still the dominant crop, more dryland species are grown than in the Betsileo region, and greater use is made of the hillsides and grasslands.
In the forested areas of the eastern coast, the Betsimisaraka and Tanala peoples also practice irrigated rice culture where possible. The dominant form of land use, however, is shifting cultivation by the slash-and-burn method, known as tavy. The smaller trees and brush are cut down and left to dry, then burned just before the rainy season. The cleared area is usually planted with mountain rice and corn. After two or three years of cultivation, the fields are usually left fallow and are gradually covered by secondary vegetation known as savoka. After ten or twenty years, the area may be cultivated again.
Because the slash-and-burn method destroys the forest and other vegetation cover, and promotes erosion, it has been declared illegal. Government assistance is offered to those cultivators who prepare rice paddies instead, and those practicing tavy are fined or, in extreme cases, imprisoned. Despite the penalties, and much to the chagrin of forestry agents, tavy continues to be practiced. Even those who cultivate wet paddies often practice tavy on the side. The crop cycle for tavy is shorter than for irrigated rice, and generations of experience have taught that it is one of the only forms of insurance against the droughts that occur about every three years. Moreover, the precipitous slopes and heavy, irregular rains make it difficult to maintain affordable and controllable irrigation systems.
A similar system of shifting cultivation is practiced in the arid, sparsely populated regions of the extreme south and southwest. The dry brush or grassland is burned off, and droughtresistant sorghum or corn is sown in the ashes. In the Antandroy and some Mahafaly areas, however, the main staples of subsistence--cassava, corn, beans, and sorghum--are also grown around the villages in permanent fields enclosed by hedges.
Dry-season cultivation in empty streambeds is practiced largely on the western coast and in the southwest and is called baiboho. The crops are sown after the last rising of the waters during the rainy seasons, and after the harvest fresh alluvial deposits naturally replenish the soil. Lima beans (known as Cape peas) are raised by this system on the Mangoky River system delta, along with tobacco and a number of newer crops.
The traditional livestock-raising peoples are the Bara, Sakalava, and other groups of the south and the west, where almost every family owns some zebu cattle. The common practice is to allow the animals to graze almost at will, and the farmers take few precautions against the popular custom of cattle stealing. These farmers are also accustomed to burning off the dry grass to promote the growth of new vegetation for animal feed. The cattle generally are slaughtered only for ceremonial occasions, but these are so frequent that the per capita meat consumption among the cattle herders is very high.
Fishing is popular as a sideline by farmers who supplement their farm produce with fish from freshwater rivers, lakes, and ponds. Perhaps two-thirds of the total yearly catch is consumed for subsistence; transportation costs to the capital make the price of marketed fish prohibitively expensive to other domestic consumers. The introduction of tilapia fish from the African mainland in the 1950s increased inland aquaculture. Many families, particularly in the central highlands, have established fish ponds to raise carp, black bass, or trout. The breeding of fish in rice fields, however, requires sophisticated water control and a strong guard against dynamiting, poisoning, and poaching, which remain chronic problems.
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