I recently returned from my 11th trip to Madagascar in 22 years. My main goal was to scope out potential field sites for an ARC-supported research project entitled “A weed by any other name? Comparing local knowledge and uses of environmental weeds around the Indian Ocean” (with collaborators Priya Rangan, Charlie Shackleton, and Nitin Rai). I took two week-long trips from the capital, first south to my old highland stomping grounds around Antsirabe and Ambositra, and second east to the rice bread-basket of Lake Alaotra, the rainforest escarpment at Andasibe and Beforona, and the coastal plains and hills around Vatomandry. It was also a good opportunity to renew personal and professional connections, including at the University of Antananarivo’s forestry school (ESSA-Forêts), where I was invited to give a presentation. What did I find?
At a general level, my overall impression is of economic and political stagnation. During Marc Ravalomanana’s presidency (2002-2009) each one of my visits impressed me in terms of the changes, optimism, and progress. Economic ambitions, dynamic new leaders, revised laws, and attendant visible changes in roads, buildings, and actions. With time, though, Ravalomanana gained autocratic and oligarchic tendencies and his brusque management style annoyed even his allies, hence the 2009 coup d’état. This was followed by five years of ‘transition’ during which foreign donors laid low; this year there is finally an elected president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina (seen as a ‘proxy candidate’ of the transition president). This new president seems to be quickly accomplishing nothing, hamstrung by different interests. It even took four months to select a prime minister. At least he hasn’t changed the currency, administrative divisions, or constitution, like many of his predecessors. Poverty is as widespread and severe as ever, and the mood is not optimistic even though the USA just re-opened preferential trade relations with Madagascar which should boost the moribund textile industry (under AGOA). The big talk in town is about the Ambatovy nickel mine (operated by Sherritt), which recently started production on its site northeast of Moramanga, and which will dominate the export economy. On a lighter note, mobile phones (and mobile phone money) continue their incredible penetration, a new beer ‘Skol’ (an international brand, brewed locally) is competing with the venerable local brand Three Horse Beer (known as THB), and solar panels are proliferating among wealthier farmers.
As far as our ‘weeds’ project, I began by looking for Lantana camara as this plant is the combined theme of our project across sites in Madagascar, South Africa, India, and Australia. This thorny, tangly bush with attractive little flowers was present everywhere I went – mainly along roads and paths and ditches. The plant is most commonly known as ‘radriaka’ but it has a wealth of regionally specific common names, including the troublesome ‘voandelontsinoa’ (Chinese snot). While the plant is on pretty much every international hit-list of environmental weeds and invasive aliens, the people we chatted with did not consider it a weed. It has medicinal uses, and is appreciated as a hedge plant – its dense growth and thorns keep dogs, cattle, and people out of yards and fields. Usually it is spontaneous, but I did meet some people who planted it (and even trimmed it).
If lantana is not a weed, then what is? Farmers in four places could point to ‘new’ plants in their cropfields that looked like weeds to me. All had come within a season or two (or three). None of them had names. Farmers were hesitant to call them weeds, as they didn’t know yet whether they were bad. The only one I could identify was Argemona mexicana (poppy family, pics above), which is apparently common in the southwestern part of the island and was even a medicinal plant for sale in the outdoor market in Tana before 1990. But it is brand new to the farmers around Ambatondrazaka, and its spiky leaves and stems and copious seeds certainly do make and impression.
The most surprising landscape I saw was what one might call the ‘neo-Australian’ hills of the eastern coastal hills. This is a region that was previously largely fire-maintained grassland, with occasional travellers palms (Ravenala madagascariensis). Now there are large swaths of ‘grevillea’ or silky oak (probably Grevillea banksii) covering major portions of the landscape from Tamatave south to Mananjary. This tree has been expanding rapidly for a few decades now. The young, heavily-exploited grevillea is interspersed at times with Melaleuca quinquenervia (‘niaouli’ in French; an older weed that dominates the coastal sand plains), complemented with Eucalyptus woodlots, and dotted with tropical phyllodinous Acacia agroforestry trees. All are appreciated and used. The niaouli is on jealously held private lots harvested for its oil; the grevillea is actively encouraged for woodfuel and charcoal; the other two for their wood.
So now I’m home with many ideas for how to take this research further in collaborations with partners in Madagascar and the ARC grant team. Thanks to all who helped on this trip, particularly my longtime field assistant (and now Lutheran pastor) Herizo Tantely. I leave you with a hint as to what occupied my evenings: