From Hobson's Choice
A large island nation of Africa. Madagascar is approximately the size of California or France, and home to an immense rain forest climate that has suffered abject devastation since the 1920's.
Madagascar's problems are perennial; economists can point to unresponsive leaders such as Didier Ratsiraka and Albert Zafy, the colonial legacy of almighty lumber firms (that denuded the island during the 20th century, then exported trees and profits to France), political instability, and social stratification. Population growth on the island is quite rapid (over 3% annually) and the country is heavily dependent upon foreign aid. The ultimate cause of Pres. Albert Zafy's impeachment in '96 was an effort on his part—along with Raoul Ravalomanana, the chair of the central bank—to surreptitiously promise to pay off foreign debts. That it should come to this—a constitutional crisis over the repayment of sovereign debt—reflects badly on the country's financial reliability.
Madagasgar's godfather was, from '75 to '02, Didier Ratsiraka—a Roman Catholic member of the Betsimisaraka group of côtiers who initially sought close ties with Moscow, Havana, Hanoi, and Pyongyang. This reflected the nature of the military council that took power in 1972, during a period of acute civil strife. Later, Pres. Ratsiraka became very pliant towards Western aid donors; like many initially radical leaders, he was jerked back into line with so much the greater brusqueness Yet the nation's economy did not diversify; rather, it retreated from many traditional enterprises. It balances the budget now with foreign aid; it must import rice, and is currently plagued by soaring prices for rice. In April, it was struck by two typhoons with devastating results. It suffers from ongoing political violence, which—while not especially bloody, compared to places like Colombia—is still definitely terrorism.
The country's precarious medical services are, naturally, frequently hit by challenges like the cholera epidemics or lethal flu strains. So far, thankfully, AIDS infection rates are low.
DeforestationAt the back of most of these problems is deforestation, a process described in detail by Prof. Tim Tietenberg:
Madagascar's domestic economy, from the beginning, has been geared toward export promotion. Exports consisted primarily of coffee, but rice and beef were sold abroad as well. Coffee was originally planted on only the east coast, but expanded across the island when it became apparent that producers were able to generate large profits. Because of this expansion of coffee, the island's economic development was uneven. Rice shortages resulted as early as 1911 because of the excess demand for labor in the coffee sector, and the nation's "food security" began to erode. Rice was also more vulnerable to changes in the weather and cyclones, which exacerbated the shortages. Peasants that once worked cultivating the nation's rice moved into regions where they were able to cultivate coffee because of the higher wages. These peasants would then clear additional land so that they could practice shifting cultivation and generate enough food to subsist. In response to the increasing shifting cultivation, or tavy as it is called locally, the Governor General prohibited its practice in 1909. The state's objective of this ban was to try and save what was left of the nation's forest as well as impose "rational forest resource management" (Jarosz 373). However, the land set aside by the state for nation's rice cultivation was inefficient because of soil problems. The policy was therefore ineffective in erasing Madagascar's rice production problem. The government also thought that the ban would give them a greater ability to collect taxes because it would be easier to locate citizens if they were forced to remain in one place. The Malagasy interpretation of the ban was almost entirely opposite of the state's intentions. They viewed wage work as equivalent to enslavement and many revolts took place. Not only did the Malagasy ignore the ban, but they illegally burned many acres of forest in protest. "The ban elevated the practice of tavy to a symbol of independence and liberty from colonial rule" (Jarosz 373). The Malagasy viewed shifting cultivation as a sacred means of survival that they were taught by their ancestors. Because of the protests and the fact that the ban was largely unenforced, whatever good intentions the government had were never realized. The forest degradation problem became even more serious when the state decided to open up the island's forests to concessionary practices in 1921. Many viewed it as ironic that the state allowed massive clear cutting on concessions while the ban on shifting cultivation was still in effect. More than just the claimed lands were ruined however, because many owners clear-cut lands beyond their concessionary limits. The Forest Service was unable to regulate the concessions because of shortages in labor and "a lack of political will." Much of the illegal felling of trees was completely overlooked and the fines that were levied for violation of the permits were far lower than the actual damages. The combination of these detrimental government policies meant that "roughly 70% of the primary forest was destroyed in the 30 years between 1895 and 1925" (Jarosz 375).
Today the country is suffering a population boom driven partly by the introduction of vaccines and foreign aid-financed medical care. At the same time that the aid has reduced mortality, it has not acted to alter the economic relations that led to sequestered women and high fertility rates. Likewise, these economic relations have driven slash-and-burn farming into the remaining forested areas, just as they did all through Southern Asia during European imperialism. Eighty percent of the country remains rural, poverty is crushing, and the forest's disappearance from this gigantic island has left nothing of value in return.
Ethnicity & Demographics
Linguistically, the country is homogenous: the people speak a standard version of Malagasy. A majority of the population adheres to indigenous religious beliefs, while there are also Roman Catholics and Protestants (about 40% Christian). It appears that religious association is a matter of degree rather than kind 
Politically and culturally, the main groups are the highlanders (comparatively affluent, aristocratic; fair-skined and Asiatic); and the coastal people (côtiers; African, dark-skinned, poor; Malagasy society tends to be highly stratified). The main group in politics is the Merina, a highland people who ruled most of the island during the 19th century, and who agitated against French rule after it became a colony. Ironically, this meant that the political parties associated with the aristocratic Merina were ideologically leftist, hostile to close relations with Paris, and favored the USSR during the Cold War. The leftist associations were entirely superficial, though, as Merina politicians like Pres. Zafy (s.1993-1996) called for economic liberalization.
In contrast, côtier political leaders like Didier Ratsiraka attempted—initially, at least—to implement populist economic policies. Fear of Merina domination has tended to make côtier politicians favor close ties to Paris. The end of the Cold War and economic desperation has altered this. Current President Marc Ravalomanana, who made a fortune in oil and motor products, is Merina.
- ↑ Didier Ratsiraka was appointed director of the military council that was attempting to restore order to the country during the political crisis of early 1975. He managed to get a constitution passed, and himself elected president for three consecutive 7-year terms. In 1991, two years into his third term, Ratsiraka was overthrown by massive popular opposition (stimulated in part by a misguided effort to implement a command economy, and partly by his compliance with an IMF structural adjustment program). In June '91, during anti-government demonstrations and general strikes, Ratsiraka's palace guard gunned down thirty protestors and he was compelled to agree to new elections.
His opponent, Albert Zafy, won these elections and Ratsiraka went into exile in France ('93). Zafy was president for three years before being impeached. He was suspended while impeachment proceedings went ahead; in 1997, Madagascar held new elections in which Ratsiraka defeated Zafy. Again, the constitution was revised to give the president more power, and again (2001) Ratsiraka was compelled to flee to France as a result of deadly clashes between anti-government protestors and the military. In this last case, the controversy was over whether Ratsiraka's opponent in the presidential elections had won a majority, or merely a plurality (necessitating a run-off). In the event, supermarket tycoon Marc Ravalomanana became the new leader of Madigascar.
- ↑ Library of Congress, "Madagascar: Social Structure and Family"
- ↑ ReliefWeb, "2nd deadly cyclone wreaks more havoc on vulnerable Madagascar people", 24 May 2004
- ↑ Amnesty International, "Political violence in Madagascar" (July 2002);
- ↑ BBC, "Madagascar floods worse than thought" 15 March 2000
- ↑ Library of Congress, "Madagascar: Traditional Beliefs and Religion"
- BBC Country Profile
- CIA World Fact Book
- Ethnologue linguistic information
- UK FCO country Profile
- Norwegian Council for Africa
- United Nations agencies & bureaux
News & Analysis
- AllAfrica listing
- Amnesty International
- IRIN—UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- Minorities at Risk (MAR): The Merina of Madagascar
- Prof. Tietenberg's site listing on deforestation in Madagascar
- "Deforestation in Madagascar"
- F Smitha World History site query
- Gwyn Campbell, ed., An Economic History of Imperial Madagascar, 1750-1895, Cambridge University Press (2005)
- "Madagascar's Battle for Independence," GlobalSecurity.org
- Marcel Fafchamps & Bart Minten, "Relationships and Traders in Madagascar" , Oxford University (October 1998)
- Andriantefinanahary & Yanariak, "Madagascar and the Future of the Nusantarian World" Merina Nation (1998)
James R MacLean (00:43, 8 November 2007 (PST))