Article as published on National Geographic on July 29, 2019.

After decades of deforestation, locals in Mahajanga, Madagascar, are showing the rest of the world that we can be the solution to the growing global threat of forest fires.


We lose around four per cent of our forests to wildfires annually. And without action, that number has the potential to grow. In the first half of this year, traditionally low-risk Europe saw an 8-fold increase in wildfires, and last year the UK alone suffered its most ever recorded in a single year. In that same year, the Woolsey fire in California burned its way through 97,000 acres; destroying 1,643 buildings and necessitating the evacuation of 300,000 people. By the time it was out, an estimated $6 billion in real estate had been destroyed. Sadly, this year has shown no signs of the fire problem improving as China’s Sichuan province succumbed to one of the costliest wildfires in recent years; claiming the lives of 27 firefighters and four others. So what’s causing all of these wildfires?

The simple truth is that these fires don’t happen spontaneously. Lightning strikes and drier weather brought on by climate change do contribute to the rise in numbers, but these factors pale in comparison to the fires – accidentally or deliberately – caused by people. Although humankind is the leading cause of global deforestation by fire, we’re still capable of reversing the damage done. And, as a reforestation project in Madagascar demonstrates, individual actions can add up to huge changes for the better.

In recent history much of Madagascar’s forests have fallen to fire; mostly due to slash and burn agriculture (traditionally known as tavy) for charcoal production, pasture and logging.

It’s a process that has lead to the disappearance of around 90 per cent of the original forest cover. In recent years though, a new approach to try to reverse this situation has emerged.

Supported by NGO Eden Reforestation Projects, the local Malagasy people are managing the restoration of mangrove trees and dry deciduous plants to the area, garnering local buy in by running the project in ways that work best for them. “Projects designed to work in first-world countries don’t translate well to the developing world. If they’re not localized to the cultures they’re integrated into, they often end in frustration,” says James Shattenberg, International Director of Eden Reforestation Projects.

Attitudes toward reforestation seem to be one of the hardest hurdles to overcome, with the general view being that forests have always been there, they regrow, and are not something that people need to specifically care for. Luckily these attitudes are changing as more trees are planted and the benefits become more obvious to communities: mangrove roots fortify mud banks to protect against land erosion, and better biodiversity supports fruit, honey and fish. Even the canopies of grown trees form shade over populated areas, bringing the temperature down to comfortable levels during even the fiercest midday heat. As with most things, people believe it when they see it.

For a lot of Malagasies, helping to reverse deforestation by fire also has a positive impact on their own quality of life. In the most extreme examples, those who have lost their livelihoods – mostly due to disappearing resources – find renewed purpose in benefitting their communities. Even those not directly involved in replanting can reap the rewards, as commodities like shrimp, fish and crab numbers begin increasing, affording fisherman more diverse and plentiful catches. It’s the combination of these elements that support a grassroots effort to protect and preserve forests that are slowly, but surely, regenerating.

Changing their attitudes toward fire and the forests is bringing the Malagasy people into a closer symbiosis with the natural world around them. They protect it, and it provides for them. What’s happening in Madagascar has huge potential to become the benchmark for how other countries deal with their fire problem; a change in attitude and an acceptance of responsibility for our impact on the planet leads to a much more sustainable way of life.

Madagascar may be one of the countries most affected by forest fires, but it’s certainly not the only one that is. Many countries are seeing the decimation of entire ecosystems due to forest fires, and there’s a finite amount of time before the air-cleansing trees and wildlife within those ecosystems are gone for good. Everyone has their part to play: on a global level, the UN has set a target to replant more than 850,000,000 acres of forest by 2030 – an area larger than India – and more businesses are shouldering their responsibility too.

Zippo, for example, is planting trees in Madagascar as part of it’s Fighting Fire with Fire project. In partnership with WOODCHUCK USA’s BUY ONE. PLANT ONE® program, each lighter purchased through the initiative funds the planting of one tree in Madagascar. Across the globe, individual actions like taking proper fire safety precautions, raising awareness and supporting the right initiatives are vital to achieving lasting success in replanting the planet. Just like the Malagasy reforestation project, we can all do our part in a way that works for us.