The ‘natural resource rush’ and rural social movements in Madagascar

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?

4 Responses to The ‘natural resource rush’ and rural social movements in Madagascar

  1. Eva Keller says:

    The near absence of social movements in Madagascar is, indeed, a remarkable feature. Although this may not explain everything, there is certainly an important historical and cultural component here. As various anthropologists have discussed (e.g. David Graeber in “Lost People”, p. 21-22; or Jennifer Cole in “Forget colonialism?”), there is a widespread fear of anything to do with the state and the government among Malagasy people, especially in areas that have suffered from state intervention in the past (see here in particular Cole’s book mentioned above). The government is considered as predatory and alien. The general reaction when faced with the government (e.g. ANGAP) – as my own experiences in rural Madagascar confirm – is avoidance. This is partly rooted in a strong tendency in Malagasy societies to try to avoid direct confrontation. This is also true for kin relations. I am of course generalising as many kin end up in court fighting over land, for example. But on the whole, Malagasy tend to deal with conflict by avoidance rather than confrontation. Thus when faced with injustices, such as in connection with protected areas, rural people tend to keep away rather than fight. For example, whenever ANGAP announces its arrival in the villages where I work, people basically run away to their fields or find other excuses not to attend ANGAP kabary out of fear that they might be forced into something that is bad news for them. It’s better to keep away.

  2. Antonie Kraemer says:

    Thank you for this interesting blog entry, which I found via the MEJN forum. The issue of (lack of) representation of the “tantsaha” is indeed crucial, and too frequently ignored, in the context of all the current trends of “socially responsible” multinational resurce extraction, carbon offsetting through “participatory” community benefit schemes etc…

    There is a similar discussion topic on the MEJN forum, with contributions from Graeber, Ferguson and a Malagasy Paris-based activist (under the thread ” Malagasy Activist Groups in Environment/Human Rights of Natural Resources” from 16 July 2010).

  3. toavina Ralambomahay says:

    J’ai l’honneur et le plaisir de vous annoncer la sortie du livre intitulé « Madagascar dans une crise interminable », paru aux éditions l’Harmattan depuis le vendredi 28 janvier 2011. Il est disponible en librairie et en ligne, sur Amazon, Priceminister, Fnac, Gilbert Joseph et bien sur l’Harmattan. Vous souhaitant une bonne lecture,

    Contact de l’auteur:

  4. A recent report from The Graduate Institute (Geneva) on “Peace and Conflict” in Madagascar adds some interesting considerations observations on the lack of mass movements. They identify the “cellular stratification of Malagasy society that is expressed most visibly in the concept of ray-aman-dreny” as well as the “centrality of an oral culture of communication” as key reasons. Best to read their ideas in the original:

    Click to access PCIA_Madag_EN_COUL_WEB2-final.pdf

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