Today’s attention-grabbing environmental issues in Madagascar are certainly different than a decade or two ago. At the time, deforestation and biodiversity conservation dominated attention, and social justice researchers worried about how the establishment of new parks and forest-use regulations affected rural communities living off the land. Today, we add to these concerns a burgeoning litany of events representing a globalization of Madagascar’s environment: we read about agricultural ‘land grabs’, booms in gem mining reminiscent of the Wild West, the actions of international mining companies in exploration and major mining projects, land potentially sequestered for biofuels or carbon sequestration, illegal exploitation of tropical hardwoods, and the refocusing of biodiversity conservation towards reducing deforestation carbon emissions via the REDD+ process. Barry Ferguson calls these new trends a ‘natural resource rush’ in his excellent blog posting.
The social justice impacts of these trends are as yet unclear. They can provide benefits, but, given history in Madagascar and elsewhere, they have the potential to be problematic: farmers losing access to ancestral land, farmers unwillingly moved into low-paid wage labour, social divisions exacerbated by elite capture of the benefits of foreign projects. What surprises me is the apparent lack of rural social movements in a position to contest, shape, and negotiate with such trends, projects, and events.
The first question posed by colleagues working on Latin American or South Asian issues of a similar nature would be “how is the farmer’s union responding?”, or “are the political parties agitating over this issue”? At a national, urban level, Madagascar has a clear potential for social mobilisation – witness the hundreds of thousands of street protesters in Antananarivo during periods of regime change, and the plethora of Tana-based associations and alliances. Accusations of selling ancestral land – mivarotra tanindrazana (referring to the failed Daewoo land deal) – contributed to the ousting of President Ravalomanana. Blog sites and internet chat groups of urban elites and among the Malagasy diaspora busily discuss these issues. But what of the tantsaha, the peasants, the farmers and herders? In Bolivia, in India, elsewhere in the world, they have local and regional associations, they make political alliances, they speak and are heard.
Are we missing something? Does Madagascar truly lack such social movements, or if they exist are they ineffective, or have we missed their importance? In fact, the island does of course have many very local farmers associations set up under a variety of community-based natural resource management initiatives, but these are often driven by conservation projects. Genese Sodikoff’s article in J. Political Ecology shows that there have been local labour strikes in conservation projects. There is the Coalition Paysanne de Madagascar (CPM), which I hear represents a genuine network. There is a Plate-Forme Nationale des Organisations de la Société Civile de Madagascar (PFNOSCM), with 3500 member organizations. But what importance, and what relationship to and relevance for rural tantsaha, do these NGOs, associations, and ‘mouvances’ have? Do local groups have national connections, and do national groups have local tentacles? Are they politically important voices? Can they make a difference in making sure the ‘natural resource rush’ is socially just and environmentally sustainable?