Grass Grows 13-Foot Roots of "Steel"

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In past years erosion has devastated the rail line, however. Four years ago back-to-back cyclones whiplashed Madagascar over a two-month span. The storms sent over 5.3 million cubic feet (150,000 cubic meters) of debris sliding onto the tracks of the FCE railroad, putting the rail line out of service.

Karen Freudenberger conducted the initial USAID-funded study of the Madagascan railroad. She is now leading a 13-million-dollar (U.S.) FCE Rehabilitation Project to restore the rail line. The project will keep the forest corridor between the national parks intact.

Working with local leaders, Freudenberger developed a program to enlist farmers who live and work along the track to grow vetiver hedges to stabilize surrounding slopes.

The program emphasized the farmers' dependence on the railroad and demonstrated the connection between agricultural practices and landslides.

"Once a few farmers began using vetiver, the word got out quickly and the demand for vetiver systems increased significantly," Rachmeler, the Vetiver Network president, said.

Today more than 600 farmers have planted an estimated three million vetiver plants in hedges along the tracks of the FCE railroad. Between rows of vetiver, farmers are growing crops ranging from rice and cereals to fruit trees.

"This year we had one cyclone that did a U-turn and came back again, very similar to [cyclones] Eline and Gloria [in 2000]," Freudenberger said. "Instead of 150,000 cubic meters of debris, we had 300 cubic meters. So our strategy is working."

Stabile Plant

Because vetiver seeds are sterile and the plant's roots grow straight down, the grass stays wherever planted, Rachmeler said.

Vetiver is an exotic grass everywhere except India. But since the plant's seeds are sterile, the grass does not spread like an invasive species. (The plant can be raised from cuttings.)

When vetiver is planted in hedges—as it is in slope-stabilization projects—only water, not soil, can pass through. Over time, natural terraces are formed that are permanently stabilized.

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