The four island countries of the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) sub-region have a total land area of 59.2 million ha, 99 per cent of which is Madagascar, the fourth largest island country in the world (UNDP 2004). Large parts of the sub-region are mountainous, rugged and dry.

Table 11: Arable land and permanent pasture
  Population Land area Population density Population growth Population growth Land use
Agriculture as
Countries Millions km2 Pop/km2 % per year ’000 per year % of total land km
Comoros 0.7 2 171 315 2.6 18.2 34 469
Madagascar 16.4 587 041 27 2.7 442.8 53 9 935
Mauritius 1.2 2 045 581 0.8 9.6 44 496
Seychelles 0.1 455 173 0.8 0.0 84 746
Total 18.4 591 712 31.09 2.56 470.6 53 11 646

Sources: FAOSTAT 2005, UNDP 2004; WRI 2005


Figure 9: Western Indian Ocean countries: agricultural areas (as a percentage of The main use of land is agriculture, although this has been steadily declining due to pressures from population growth and industrial development. As shown in Figure 9, only in Madagascar and the Seychelles is the majority of land still used for agriculture. Agriculture contributes 3 per cent and 6 per cent of the GDP for the Seychelles and Mauritius, respectively, and 35 per cent and 41 per cent of the GDP for the Comoros and Madagascar, respectively (FAO 2003).

The pattern of agriculture varies between the islands depending on climatic conditions for producing particular crops. The islands, however, remain net importers of cereals and staples such as rice and potatoes.

Agricultural expansion and tourism were the main growth factors for Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles.


Population growth in WIO countries puts pressure on land, as demonstrated in Box 8. Population growth in Madagascar is predicted to be 2.5 per cent per annum for the period 2003-2015: with the current population at 17.6 million this will give an increase to 23.8 million by 2015 (UNDP 2005). In 2003, population density in Madagascar was 29.9 people per km² (FAO 2005). In contrast, population density in Mauritius was 604.5 people per km² – the highest in Africa (FAO 2005), with the population expected to grow at 0.8 per cent per annum (UNDP 2005).

Box 8: Pressures on land use in Mauritius
The demand for housing in Mauritius is the single largest pressure on the future use of land and could involve conversion of 5 000 ha by 2020. About 800 ha of land could be needed for new business parks and industry, including small- to medium-scale enterprises, while 400 ha may be needed for new schools, colleges and universities and other institutions. To this should be added demand for integrated resorts, leisure complexes, public transport, highways and utilities including the proposed Light Railway system and new water storage dams.
   Because of land scarcity, residential estates have been built on hillsides and there is increasing pressure to develop housing on mountain slopes. Some 66 per cent of industry in Mauritius is located in the central urban zone. In many coastal areas, rapid development of housing and commerce has outstripped the rate of provision of environmental services and community facilities, especially waste management and sewage. Many coastal settlements do not conform to the planning guidelines for set-back, sea defences, access to the beach and height of buildings. The effects include a reduction in scenic attractiveness, restricted public access to the beaches, pollution of coastal waters with sewage and solid wastes, and beach erosion. The Tourism Development Plan for Mauritius (2002) predicts that provision for tourists will expand from around 9 000 rooms at present to 20 000 by 2020.
   Some 20 per cent of wetlands in Mauritius have been filled in the northern tourist zone, 50 per cent in the western area, and 50 per cent of the remainder are under pressure. Building has increased pollution of the lagoon by affecting the important functions of the wetlands in reducing nutrient loads and retaining sediment.
   The concentration of business, industry and residences in the Port Louis and central area of Plaines Wilhems has put acute stress on infrastructure and resources. These heavily built-up areas, coupled with a lack of adequate planning, give rise to serious problems of traffic congestion. The impact includes localized episodes of poor air quality, its effects on the health of the urban population and delays in travelling around the island and consequent higher transport and operating costs for business. The main challenge facing land resources in Mauritius is to ensure that land is readily available for the economic development objectives of the nation, while taking into account environmental concerns and social needs. One solution is to concentrate future major development in strategic growth clusters in the conurbations, promoting an urban renaissance, particularly in key town centres, thus enabling rural regeneration and tourism development in other settlements in the countryside and on the coast. Development should be planned so that, wherever possible, it minimizes the need to travel and facilitates safe and convenient movement on foot, by bicycle and by public transport. There should also be proper planning in order to make the best use of existing transportation networks whilst also having regard to strategic priorities. This will all require more attention from professionals, skilled in land development and urban planning, which the country lacks at present. The aim would be to manage development in ways which enhance and protect the environment and provide a better quality of life for the people.

Source: SADC 2004b

In Madagascar, frequent drought conditions and seasonal floods from cyclones create food emergencies. Climate change will also increase the pressure on land resources, through less predictable weather conditions and the impact of sea-level rise on the coastal regions, especially in the smaller islands.

The WIO islands are challenged to respond to the NEPAD policy to combat land degradation. This is being done through the Indian Ocean Commission’s (IOC) Environment Programme which calls upon each of the four countries to develop and implement action plans to promote sustained livelihoods and mitigate the past impact of land degradation on other resources. In Madagascar, an environmental awareness programme supports the national conservation strategy, focusing on habitat and biodiversity protection, the creation of a national environmental fund with research projects on land mapping and management, environmental education, training and institutional support.

The sub-region should also develop irrigation; over one million hectares of land has potential for irrigation. In a sub-region where droughts are prevalent, often destroying crops and exacerbating food insecurity, irrigation could be a key factor in enhancing food security.

Enhancing and extending property rights are key challenges for promoting development and conservation. Mauritius and the Seychelles have established more equitable mechanisms for distribution of land with effective protection of land rights. In Mauritius, 90 per cent of the land is privately-owned and more than 85 per cent of people live in owner-occupied property with government- registered deeds. By contrast, in Madagascar, land ownership has been without enforceable land registration, creating difficulties in its use as collateral for investment. This is now changing and land registration is being introduced as part of a general policy to improve land use, to reduce land degradation and short-term exploitation, and to promote the development of investment.

Controlling and managing pollution is important for the tourism sector which is an important part of the economy.