The islands of the Indian Ocean have much in common in terms of agriculture, but also specific characteristics such as their geology, climate, history and socio-economic situations.
By sharing their agroecological techniques and expertise, the islands are now working towards a more sustainable agriculture to face the new challenges of climate change, while preserving their rich biodiversity.
"The island continent" with great agricultural potential
Madagascar is the largest of all islands in the Indian Ocean. Landscapes extend over thousands of miles, forming a very varied geography. The warmer temperatures of coastal areas are ideal for tropical crops (litchi, pepper, cocoa, vanilla, cloves), while the central regions lend themselves to temperate crops (fruits and various vegetables). Rice is grown on about half of the cultivated land, especially in the mountain areas.
Cultivated areas are characterized by very small farms (70% of farmers occupy an area of less than 1.5 hectares). These small farms suffer from: absence of crop rotation; cultural practices such as slash and burn that further erode farmland; planting of traditional crops which causes degeneration of seed varieties; lack of irrigation systems; inappropriate use of pesticides.
Madagascar is seeking to increase its yields and returns. There is, therefore, a development potential for agriculture, and there is no shortage of cultivable areas (unlike other islands in the Indian Ocean). Today in Madagascar, 80% of the population is destined to work in agriculture, which represents 39% of GDP. Agriculture provides 70% of export earnings from vanilla, coffee, tea, cloves, pepper, litchi and crustaceans.
The Comoros: subsistence farming
Similarly, in the Comoros islands, cultivation of land is central to the economy. Agriculture in the Comoros generates nearly 50% of GDP and employs 80% of the country’s workforce. This archipelago of volcanic islands has very fertile soil. This allows several types of crops to be grown alongside each other: bananas, vegetables, fruit trees, tubers and other products destined for export, such as vanilla or ylang-ylang.
Seychelles, where tourism reigns supreme
The Seychelles archipelago comprises 115 islands of which only 40 are of continental origin with a granite soil (the rest are coral). The three main islands, Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, harbour 98% of the population. The Seychelles’ economy is still based primarily on tourism, which brings in foreign currency for imports of agricultural products. To meet the daily demand of hotels, vegetable production has developed in recent years. Unfortunately, the availability of farmland slows the development of the sector.
Mauritius: Sugar cane & history
Mauritius is a rather flat island - the highest point is only 800 meters. The tropical climate mixed with a relatively well-irrigated volcanic soil has led to an important Mauritian industry: that of sugarcane. Although sugar cane production is still the dominant industry on the island, secondary crops such as fruits and tea are now being successfully grown. Sugarcane was the backbone of the Mauritian economy until 1970, but now only counts for 4% of total GDP.
The highest peak in Rodrigues, Mount Limon, rises to only 398 meters, but the island has a typical mountainous topography with steep ravines. The valley bottoms tend to remain dry and are flooded only during heavy rains and cyclones. The majority of the population subsists on fishing and agriculture. On the mountain slopes, the island produces maize, cassava and beans for local consumption and for the market in Mauritius. Rodrigues suffers from a chronic shortage of agricultural water.
On the roof of the Indian Ocean: diversified agriculture
Réunion is a volcanic island culminating at 3069 m altitude with the Piton des Neiges, the highest point in the Indian Ocean. Réunion has been able to implement advanced agricultural infrastructure, and has a substantial technical workforce. Agriculture is based on three sectors: sugar cane, fruit & vegetable crops and livestock. Although sugar cane is the most important crop in terms of surface area, the three sectors are virtually identical in terms of economic importance. Other, more traditional, crops like vanilla, geranium and vetiver are still grown, but their economic importance has declined over the years.
Agro-ecology techniques for the future
Agro-ecology, although still in its infancy, enables farmers to reduce their production costs while increasing revenues. The areas using the new agro-ecological techniques are moving toward a balanced management of natural resources, meaning better fertility, plant protection and water conservation. The challenge facing agro-ecology today is improving these three areas, reducing the use of chemicals, while maintaining a satisfactory level of production. National authorities have given priority to the development of agro-ecology in order to address future climate change issues.
Farmers in each island are implementing new agro-ecology practices. Research centers also have access to the results of successful experiments that could help further improve production. Identifying and share these practices and experiences with others is one advantage of the agricultural cooperation being implemented by the islands (IRACC projects / e-PRPV). A positive outlook for the agricultural sector in the Indian Ocean.