Madagascar on My Mind

An unpublished paper on current controversies over resource use by traditional and modern societies in Madagascar.  I report some findings of a field team doing research in summer 2004.  As often happens, we found that a middle position worked best.  But read the paper.

Madagascar on My Mind:

Ground-Truthing Some Conventional and Unconventional Wisdom

Gene Anderson


A reasonably experienced field worker can often find out a great deal in a short time.  We all know that proper field work takes a year at least, but if other people have done the field work, we can read their books, go to the places in question, and observe.  If we have done a lot of field work over the years, in other areas, we can often tell a great deal about what is going on in the area we are visiting.

When published sources disagree sharply over rather fundamental issues, such rapid assessment by ground-truthing can be remarkably useful and effective.  Often, simple observations that would be totally inadequate to establish new facts are adequate to determine who is right in a controversy where the facts are laid out.

In summer of 2004, I was able to spend two weeks in Madagascar, as a member of a study tour of professors and graduate students, traveling with local help and guidance.  Thus, I was in a position to gather information relating to a recent controversy in political ecology.

Madagascar was settled only 1500-2000 years ago, with the dominant ethnic input coming from Borneo, though substantial immigration from Africa and elsewhere has occurred /1/.  Since settlement, much deforestation and erosion has taken place (Burney 2003; Dewar 2003).  At least 15 species of lemurs have become extinct, as well as some giant birds, a pigmy hippopotamus, and probably other odd creatures.  Fire, especially grassland fires and tavy (slash-and-burn) cultivation, probably had much to do with this, and still is everywhere.

The traditional western-scientist view of Madagascar has been of a desperately deforested and eroded country, where many animals are extinct and many more going fast, and where rampant human burning is wiping everything out.  Anthropologists have even used Madagascar as evidence that traditional people are not all good custodians of the environment—that, indeed, traditional local people can massacre the environment (Kottak and Costa 1993—an article I have, in all innocence, cited to this point myself).

Recently, a revisionist view has surfaced—not challenging the extinctions (which are well documented), but challenging the extent of deforestation and the seriousness of environmental decline.   Several highly sophisticated and intensive research projects have presented formidable evidence that the traditional view may have more to do with colonial and neocolonial stereotypes and agendas than with reality (Aubert et al 2003; Harper 2002; Kull 2003, 2004; Marcus and Kull 1999; a balanced, middle-of-the-road view is provided by Gezon and Freed 1999).

So I joined the international team to see what I could find out on the ground.  Obviously I am no instant expert, but at least I got expert advice.  Not only the Malagasy, but some of the Americans, knew considerably more about Madagascar than I did, and all the 23 people on the team were skilled observers and investigators.  We also had the benefit of advice from many others /2/.  Thus, I had much help in figuring out what was happening on the ground.


The traditional view goes back to, and even before, the work of the great French biologist Alfred Grandidier in the 19th century.  Kull (2004) gives an excellent and thorough summary of it, which need not be repeated here.  Suffice it to say that biologists widely considered Madagascar to have been covered entirely with forests, grading from lush rainforests on the eastern mountains to dry thorn-forest in the southwest.  Today, only about 3% of Madagascar is forested, mostly in the steepest and most inaccessible mountains.  (Estimates up to 20% include reforestation plantations and degraded scrub.)   The assumption has been that the Malagasy deforested the entire island in the mere 1500-2000 years they have been there.  The popular natural-history take on this is well exemplified by Hilary Bradt’s otherwise extremely good ecotourism guide to the island:  “Over a thousand years of tavy has destroyed the wet forest that existed on the central highlands” (i.e. almost all the deforested 97% of the island; Bradt 2002:73).

A crack in this view of the world appeared when pollen records emerged from highland lakes (Burney 2003; Kull 2003, 2004).  It appeared that the pollen showed a mosaic of forest, savannah, and (probable) grassland, not an unbroken forest canopy.  This should not have surprised anyone, in view of the fact that that is what one finds in other lands at the same altitude and latitude with the same rainfall, such as East Africa, central South America, north-central Mexico.  Also, the giant lemurs and flightless birds in the fossil record seem more like typical open-country animals than like forest creatures (Burney 2003).  Certainly, all large flightless birds that survive today live in grasslands and savannahs, with the partial exception of the cassowaries of New Guinea.

Kull adds the argument that burning would naturally occur in such a landscape, that it cannot be solely a human artifact (lightning is common), and that it is not necessarily worse than in other tropical landscapes.  A recent confirmation of Kull’s position is found on the National Geographic Society’s new map of the world at night (National Geographic Society 2004).  It shows Madagascar as having no more fires than the Maya regions I know so well, and far less burning than the drier parts of Africa, Australia, or South America.

From the pollen records and other data, including a thorough combing of historical records, Burney, Kull, and others have been able to show that much of interior Madagascar has been grassland or open savannah for a very long time (from a century to several centuries), and that modern burning has not changed this very much.

Our experience confirmed this.  The magnificent grasslands of the Bora highlands between Ihosy and Ranohira, for instance, are very mature in structure, and are densely populated with larks (Mirafra hova); larks everywhere prefer mature grassland and are not found, or at least are not common, in secondary grassland.

West of the high grasslands, an open, thinly wooded savannah grades up into the forests of the Isalo massif.  Here, Daniel Gade (1985, 1996a) showed some time ago that fire-maintained savannah and open woodland was evidently a natural formation, or at least a long-established one, since the tree species were fire-adapted.  The dominant tree is tapia (Uapaca bojeri), valuable, among other things, as a source of wild native silk.  (This comes from an endemic moth related to the silkworm.  Gade described the industry in 1985, and it still flourishes; a women’s cooperative makes and sells beautiful scarves and other items made from it).  Gade believed that the savannah had become steadily less wooded over time, but Kull’s historical research shows that, during the 20th century at least, little change occurred.  Our observations revealed, also, signs of human use (including old fields—apparently rice terraces) that indicate more manipulation of the environment in the past than now, in at least a few places.  Human burning and clearing may well have been a factor in thinning out the savannahs, as Gade originally suggested.  At a guess, I would think that the grassland has indeed expanded somewhat, at the expense of woodland.  How much, we have no idea.  The current picture of scattered old trees, with few if any seedlings, implies a declining cover (as Gade noted).

The people of this area are the Bara; they live by raising zebus and farming manioc.  In spite of the traditional reputation of the Bara as cattle people, herds are small and stocking rates exceedingly low, for reasons unclear.  Manioc appeared to be the staple food; here as elsewhere, the young leaves are eaten, and their very high nutritional content makes up for the lack of nutrition in the starchy tuber.

Extreme damage to the environment is being done in one area, Ilakaka, where sapphire mining is out of control; the town is reminiscent of the gold-rush towns of the western United States in the 1870s.  Here one can see how much damage was not being done to the environment before—one can compare Bara management with what happens without it.  (See Walsh 2004 for a superb account of sapphire mining in Madagascar.)
Erosion is very minor in Bara country and, in general, in all the south; the horrific photographs one so often sees are from the interior north.  I am informed by those more expert than I that the northern interior of the island is a much worse picture than is that presented by Bara country.  The north clearly was forested; relict forests still exist, and the climate is wet.  It is now horribly eroded.

East of Ihosy, the savannah thickens as it approaches the forests that still survive on the Andringitra massif.  Bara give way to Betsileo, settled rice cultivators (Kottak 1980).  Here the evidence of human thinning and clearing is uncontrovertible (one can easily see square fieldmarks, old terraces, etc.), but the climate and geography suggest

that the area was originally a savannah grading into open woodland.

The climate of all the Bara and Betsileo country dry and cool.  Lightning storms are evidently frequent.  We witnessed spectacular thunderstorms, even in a relatively dry time of year.  Comparable areas elsewhere in the world are grassland and savannah, and it would be very hard indeed for any other type of vegetation to endure, given the dry and lightning-prone climate.  Madagascar’s dry forests begin somewhat farther west, in lower, hotter, less lightning-stormy country.

By contrast, the highlands of the north center and the eastern spine of Madagascar were clearly forested in past times.  Surviving chunks of forest are common, and some higher parts of the range are continuously forested.  Much of this area was forested within historic times.  Deforestation has been steady, serious, and devastating (Gade 1996a and 1996b provides the best review; Gade 1995 is a short introduction).  Malaria is one consequence; Anopheles mosquitoes follow the opening of the forest (interview data with local medical personnel).

The eastern (windward) side of the range is steeper and wetter, and retains a great deal of forest; most of Madagascar’s surviving forest is here. The forest grades from typical tropical rainforest, with huge trees, at low elevations to high-elevation cloud-forest with short, gnarled trees hung with dense epiphytes.  In these forests, a number of small ethnic subgroups practice tavy.

Perhaps best known of these are the Tanala (“Forest People”), a mixed-origin group in the Ranomafana area and points nearby.  They were the subjects of well-known but brief ethnographic research by Ralph Linton in the 1920s (Linton 1933).  Linton’s pictures of their material culture are quite striking to one who has traveled in Borneo.  Similarities with Bornean swiddening groups are amazing.  Many basket forms and other items are identical.  Burning and swiddening practices are similar, but seem generally less well managed and controlled than what I observed and photographed in Borneo, let alone what was standard practice in highland Sumatera.

At least one group, the Zafimaniry (sometimes lumped as “Tanala”), actively courts deforestation, preferring the open views and the humanized, managed rice landscape that result from transforming the forest lands (Bloch 1995).  They have a view somewhat reminiscent of 19th-century America and early-20th-century Mexico:  nature is bad, and landscapes are good in so far as they are humanized.  At least part of the reason seems to be envy of the Betsileo, who inhabit a thoroughly humanized land (see below).

Aubert et al (2003), studying a different swiddening group, found quite careful practices.  However, her group was long resident and had a close cultural identification with the land.  Tavy in many areas is practiced by recent migrants, often driven by land shortage to move in from non-tavy areas on the plateau.  They have neither the knowledge nor the vested interest in the land to allow them to practice sustainable cultivation.

Douglas Hume (2004), studying tavy management by the Betsimisaraka, found that ceremonies decline as communities contact the outside world, including conservation NGO’s.  The ceremonies are apparently major ways to transmit information and organize culturally informed labor.  In so far as NGO’s have helped this erosion of tradition, they may be unwittingly contributing to deforestation.

One odd cause for burning in Madagascar is protest against the government (Gade 1996a, 1996; Kull 2004).  Often the protest is against the banning of fire.  As Gade points out, this hurts local people, not the government.

Little forest is left on the west side of the main island divide.  Small and degraded patches show that the entire highland spine was once forested, at least above 4000′.  Two large parcels on the road from Antananarivo (“Tana”) to Fianarantsoa (“Fianar”) are particularly revealing.  First, where the road goes over a high summit (approx. 5000′) south of Tana, the ranges are covered by a woodland very similar in appearance to the oak woodland of northern Californa:  an open woodland of short, gnarled, often very large old trees.  It is clearly an old-growth woodland, since it occupies areas too steep to have seen much cultivation and too wet to see much burning.  Second, north of Fianar is a large patch of solid, dense, tall forest at about 4000′.  It is protected, but suffers encroachment from burning and alien plant invasion.  The trees reach 2-3′ thick and 50-100′ tall.

Here—especially in the highlands above Fianar—reforestation is very common.  Thousands of acres are covered with eucalyptus, pine (mostly Pinus patula and P. caribaea, with some others), and alien Acacia spp., often with an understorey of Lantana camara and guava Psidium guajava.  These plants all grow well, confirming that the area would naturally be forested if left to itself.  In areas where there is still a seedbank, native trees sometimes come up among these introductions.  The pine and eucalyptus provide fuel, charcoal, and construction wood.  Madagascar depends largely on wood for fuel and construction timber, and is thus desperately short of those commodities.  People depend almost entirely on these reforestation efforts (and, locally, the tiny bits of natural forest) for fuel and small-scale building.

Eucalyptuses coppice well; they are generally cut down when they grow large, then allowed to resprout from the stump.  Acacias and guavas are sometimes cut when large, and they too resprout.  Pines do not stump-sprout, so they are “shredded”:  large branches are lopped off, leaving a naked trunk.  The branches regrow.  Native trees seem not to stump-sprout well, nor do they tolerate shredding.  The aliens have a competitive advantage after clearing.  These alien plants appear to grow much faster and to be much more aggressive than native trees.  They are actively invading the natural forests, taking advantage of any clearing, natural or human-caused.  Pine and eucalyptus contain chemicals that inhibit other plant growth.

Many other alien species are locally invasive, including such things as Aframomum spp., African ginger or wild cardamom, which has become a major pest at Ranomafana and elsewhere.

The great traditional settlements and the early states of Madagascar were in the westward-draining highlands in the center of the island.  Most important of these settled areas were the Merina region centered on Tana, and the Betsileo world centered on Fianar.  Both these cities are relatively recent foundations, but the area was densely settled long before.

The Merina developed a state that took over most of Madagascar in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they are still well represented (many Malagasy would say overrepresented) in the ranks of the educated, politically active, and well-to-do.  The Merina and Betsileo are intensive rice-farmers.  Their landscape looks a great deal like south China:  carefully constructed and managed paddy fields in the lowlands, burned-over grass and brush slopes on the hills.

Rice is grown in (Southern Hemisphere) spring and summer; in winter the fields are fallowed or used for cool season crops, largely peas, beans, wheat, Chinese cabbages, and potatoes.  Taro grows in places too wet for rice, manioc in places too dry for it (including places that could be irrigated but are not worth the effort—given the ease of raising manioc).  Overall, the Merina-Betsileo paddy landscape is extremely closely, neatly, and carefully cultivated.  Yields are high as a result.  Fertilizer availability is limiting, but dung and compost are used.  Plowing with zebu teams appears to be the ideal, but most people were spading up the paddies by hand, without help.  Draft animals appear to be a scarce commodity in most areas.

When we passed through, rice seedlings were growing in seedling beds, and transplantation had begun.  Large groups of people worked together to transplant.  Men and women shared all agricultural labor, with little bias except that men usually did the heavy spading.

The highlands regularly burn.  We saw many fires in progress, and recent burns everywhere.  The introduced trees are fairly resistant, and are protected.  If burned, they regrow fast.  By contrast, the native forest seems much less well adapted to fire.  Perhaps some surviving groves have been overprotected and become too thick.  However, the east-slope forests seem too wet to burn under natural conditions, except for very local fires.

Obviously, people set most of these fires, and the fire return interval seems likely to be much shorter than any natural one would be; this is the conventional wisdom, and seems probably correct (if often overstated in the literature; see again Kull’s work).

However, we do not know how much shorter the interval is.  Lightning storms are common in Madagascar.  The open woodland at 5000′ referred to above looks in every way like the fire-adapted woodlands of California, the southwest US, and Mexico.  All but the wettest parts of Madagascar must have known fairly frequent fire, and the drier woodlands must have evolved with it, as dry woodlands have everywhere in the world.  More research is needed on this point.

To a person with much experience in south China, the Madagascar highland scene was familiar.  Throughout southern China, the lowlands are rice paddies; the highlands are burned waste.  The natural forests have been burned and cleared over time, and fires are now set, keeping the highlands in grass.  These fires are often accidental, but many are set to eliminate thorny brush, snakes, tigers, bandits, and other annoyances, or to open up the landscape for grazing or traveling (on the general question of deforestation in south China, see Anderson and Anderson 1973; Elvin 2004; Marks 1998).  Kull lists similar reasons for burning in Madagascar.

Many sources (reviewed by Kull) allege that these slopes were once tavy-cultivated and are now abandoned because of soil degradation.  There is no evidence for or against this.  (There is, however, much soil erosion—up to 3,000 tons of soil per square km; Gade 1996a.)  Most of the comparable areas I know in China and Mexico did go through that historical transformation; in Mexico and the remote parts of China, the slash-and-burn cultivating continues.  However, other areas of China were simply logged and burned, with little or no cultivation before the soil eroded away.

Some of the slopes are cultivated today—either terraced for rice (where water is available) or planted to manioc.  There seems no reason not to do more with terracing and cultivating on these slopes.

The result of burning these areas is a thought-provoking case of a suboptimum—a situation that is stable, that has benefits, that is difficult to change.  People do benefit from fires.  Also, the fires make reforestation very difficult and expensive—one can’t just plant seedlings and expect a crop of trees.  Either the seedlings burn, or fire-following grass and brush chokes them.  Kull seems less than adequately aware of the differences in fire cycles.  A fire every fifty years may open the forest usefully; a fire every year simply destroys all woody plants.  The optimum burning interval for various types of communities has not been established even for North America, let alone Madagascar, but obviously the annual burning to which much of Madagascar is subjected destroys almost everything.

There is no question that everyone would benefit if the burning stopped and the highlands were reforested.  As Daniel Gade puts it, discussing Kull’s points:  “To me, it all depends on the time frame used.  It is adaptive to the people living now; burning promotes tender grass growth that their cattle need.  But from a long-term point of view, burning has impoverished the land enormously” (email to ENA, 7 Jan. 2004).  Erosion control, flood control, and water retention benefits alone would more than repay the money and effort of fire control, if the south China analogy holds.  Siltation of reservoirs, for instance, is devastating China’s water situation, and requires huge expenditures; this is one of the main reasons (though flooding was the main direct reason) for China’s ban on logging and on slash-and-burn cultivation.  Only 29% of Madagascar’s people have access to potable drinking water, even using a very elastic definition of “potable” (interview information from Ministry of Health).

Of course the wood from even low-quality reforestation groves is valuable for desperately-needed fuel (Gade and Perkins-Belgram 1986) and local construction.  More broad choice of reforestation trees—to include fruit-bearing trees, valuable timber trees, and above all native trees—would enormously increase the benefits.

Even granting that Kull is correct about the advantages of burning, the case for burning these naturally forested areas is exceedingly weak.  Few people actually graze stock on the hills.  The economy is overwhelmingly agricultural.  The agricultural economy suffers huge losses from erosion and flooding, and the farmers have to find fuel somehow in a treeless environment.  Tiny benefits maintain the burning; the huge benefits from stopping it are hard to realize.

The case is different in the savannah and grassland environments, where burning would naturally occur, and the Bara seem to know how to manage fire for maximum benefit (our limited observations are in accord with Kull on this).  However, even there, more economic plantations (of tapia etc.), and protection of groves and riparian vegetation from fires, would produce much benefit.


The Ranomafana situation requires special attention.
At Ranomafana, Patricia Wright, who discovered the golden bamboo lemur there in 1986, was able to get a national park designated.  This involved moving a large number of Tanala cultivators off the land and closing it to tavy cultivation and to most forest exploitation of all kinds.  (Light impact is tolerated—not always legally, but quite openly.)  This was done with a minimum of tact and planning.  Considerable hardship resulted.  Janice Harper tells the whole story (Harper 2002; I admit to finding this book hard to believe before we went there, but our detailed and wide-flung interviewing completely confirmed her; for further confirmation of Harper’s observations on the dismal health situation of Ranomafana, see Hardenbergh 1997).

Today, planners are trying to make up for the damage.  A large (though extremely spartan) government clinic exists at Ranomafana town /3/.  Many NGO’s have projects to improve agriculture, bring cash-cropping, stimulate handicrafts, help the tiny local-enterprise museum, and otherwise “develop” Ranomafana.  The World Wildlife Fund, which has a firm commitment to working with local people but which was lured into support for Patricia Wright’s project, has taken a lead here.  (WWF officers we interviewed were visibly embarrassed about the earlier situation.)  Things are thus considerably better than when Harper wrote, but the root causes of the problems are only beginning to be addressed.  Some 50% of the population was in poverty (by Madagascar standards!) when the park was established; the rate today is the same.

For one conspicuous thing, the receipts from the over 17,000 visitors (per year, in recent years) are theoretically shared with the local people, but there is no open accounting of how much money that represents, and the local people see little or no funds.  Apparently the money disappears somewhere, but lack of transparency prevents anyone from finding out how or where, according to local authorities.  Such funds as do trickle down must be applied for in context of a program of development; such de facto grant applications are not easy for Tanala, and small, isolated communities that need the money most are the least likely to benefit.  About 50 of approximately 123 hamlets and villages have benefited, and the 50 tend to be those in or near the town.

One problem is that the developments (e.g. tourist hotels) often benefit sophisticated, business-wise Betsileo from Fianar and elsewhere, rather than the Tanala.  (However, many other, less sophisticated, Betsileo have come in a desperate search for work, and are employed by Tanala farmers.)  The Tanala can thus add to dispossession and impoverishment the fact that they are becoming a lower class in what was, very recently, their freehold.  Naturally, they are less than enthusiastic.  The mayor of the district, an exceedingly intelligent young man (he had taught himself fluent English and French—learning it from tourists) who came from a tiny tavy village, told us that “at least 80%” of the local people were opposed to the park.  The other 20% would include the in-migrant Betsileo who have profited, the local Tanala who serve as guides, and some Tanala cultivators too remote to be disturbed much by the park but able to profit from the development schemes.

Insult is added to injury.  All efforts seem to have been made to rub it into the local people that the park is strictly for foreign researchers and foreign tourists.  There is no welcome for Malagasy people, no picnic ground, no interpretive materials, no facilities of any kind.  The research station is closed to local people except by special permission.   (One almost expects a sign saying “No Malagasy or dogs,” on the pattern of the mythical “No Chinese or dogs” sign that urban folklore locates in the European-dominated part of old Shanghai).  The museum is a struggling local effort, not visibly supported by researchers or government.  It is surprisingly good, nonetheless.

I cannot imagine why the Tanala are not hired as consultants and forest experts.  They have the incredible knowledge of forest animals and plants—including medicinal plants—typical of tropical forest peoples, and could doubtless tell the researchers a correspondingly vast amount about these matters.  This would, at the very least, save thousands of person-hours of valuable researchers’ time  in looking at basic biology (cf. Johannes 1983).

Quite apart from the moral issues, the expel-and-keep-out strategy for park building does not work very well, in Madagascar or anywhere else.  Local people have every reason to poach, and no reason not to.  Being there all the time, and numerous, they are not effectively controlled by wardens—any more than they were in the days of Robin Hood, Johnny of Bredislee, and the other poacher heroes of old England and Scotland (see Hobsbawm 1959).

On the other hand, the park at Ranomafana was desperately needed, and the whole of the surviving Madagascar forest needs real protection.  The lemurs are important enough, but the chief reasons are that watershed protection and wood are far more critically needed in Madagascar than a few extra acres of marginal agriculture—and, in any case, a very few years of tavy, as practiced at Ranomafana, would eliminate both the forest and the possibility for further tavy.  The land would become barren, eroded, near-worthless highlands like those above Tana.  The scientific reasons for preserving the lemurs and other endemic animals need no elaboration here, but they are enormous (see Goodman and Benstead 2003, passim).

A source of concern and interest is the nature of tavy in the area.  There appear to be no sacred forests (as there are in other parts of Madagascar) or other local conservation systems.  Burning is done without any of the care, precision, and effort to protect the local environment that is (or used to be) widespread in southeast Asia and Mexico.  We observed several tavy fires burning, and saw the results of many recent and ancient ones.  By contrast with the Yucatec Maya and southeast Asians that many of us on the research trip know well, the Tanala lack conservation methods.  They do not use firebreaks, do not time their burns to coincide when the forest is too wet to burn, do not take care to weed out introduced pests in their fields, do not appear to manage of swiddens to maximize desirable regrowth, do not scatter their swiddens widely, and do not allow swiddens to regrow to forest before recutting.

On the other hand, the Tanala do know the forest thoroughly, do or did protect game animals (to at least some extent—otherwise there would be no lemurs), do cultivate carefully their mixed plantings, and do try to maintain a mosaic of regrowth such that erosion is minimized.  Aubert and her collaborators (Aubert et al. 2003) have shown that tavy in Madagascar is a carefully practiced, highly elaborate procedure, comparable to—and of course derived from—insular Southeast Asian practice (on which see Spencer 1966; Aubert’s data come largely from north of Tanala country, however).  It also is culturally embedded in complex ways—again as in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.  Thus, stopping it not only deprives people of their livelihood, but also deprives them of a whole network of meanings that is basic to their lives.

However, the bottom line is that swiddening is not done with the technical skill and precision needed at the current population densities.  The result is that much of the area, here as elsewhere in eastern Madagascar, is degraded to a scrub of largely nonnative vegetation.  Much, if not most, of the problem is due to crowding, caused by rapid population growth (around 3% per annum; poverty is widespread and malnutrition runs over 40% of the population).  At Ranomafana this is exacerbated by the displacement of people by the park and by the growth of ecotourism facilities in the town.

One wonders why population pressure has not made people intensify cultivation more rapidly (as Boserup 1965 would lead one to expect).  The answer appears to lie at least partly in the absence of markets to buy the inputs for, and sell the products of, intensive cultivation.  This is rapidly changing, thanks to NGO efforts and regional economic development.

The World Wildlife Fund, which got badly burned in the Ranomafana case, has demonstrated a learning curve.  It has become a leader (perhaps the leader) in working with local people and with their own ideas and traditions of conservation—shoring up protection of sacred forests in Madagascar, for instance, and working throughout the island with programs that try to bring conservation benefits to local communities (WWF 2004).  The learning process continues.  But Ranomafana needs help.


The recent research, then, shows clearly that Madagascar was never as totally forested as many biologists thought; that the deforestation was not wanton carelessness; and that the Malagasy generally knew what they were doing.  In many dry areas, opening the land for pasture was reasonable and profitable.  In much of the forest belt, tavy cultivation, at traditional low population densities, was perfectly reasonable, and long fallowing allowed full regrowth (and repopulation by lemurs—most of which are well adapted to young forests).

An ethnographer with a lifetime of experience in Asia and tropical North America is also struck by the bad press Madagascar has gotten.  The level of destruction of forests and wildlife is about the same as that in China (Elvin 2004; Marks 1998), central Mexico, Java, or for that matter much of the United States.  Madagascar still is 3% covered by fairly old-growth forests; only 3% of the US’ forests (outside of Alaska) are unlogged old growth.  One can be properly horrified by the wasteful destruction of forests in China.  However, the usual narrative is one of success in developing a wet-rice system that feeds millions (Anderson 1988).  Madagascar has done that too; no one seems to notice /4/.

And yet—the forest was already sorely impacted before significant outside contact, and many species were exterminated.  The causes of extinction must have been various.  Early authors—simplistic, again—blamed hunting, presumably for food.  In fact, we know that island habitats are fragile, and that human impacts were not limited to hunting.  Human-set fires, competition with cattle, introduced diseases, predation by dogs and cats, and other causes surely mattered (Dewar 2003), as they have in other island areas.  I believe these must have all been more important than hunting.  Evidence of burning increases steadily and rapidly over the last 2000 years.  Fires were thus probably the major cause.  Those fires also devastated watersheds and eroded fragile soils.


It would appear from archaeology and paleontology that, as in other “virgin” environments, especially islands, the pioneering period in Madagascar was accompanied by massive destruction.

As on other islands, Madagascar’s biota was not adapted to frequent fire, cattle competition, and the rest—unlike the biota of neighboring East Africa, which had been evolving with frequent fires and human impact for millions of years.  Lacking sizable predators (except for the rather feckless fossas), Madagascar’s fauna must have been easy for dogs, rats, pigs, and cattle, as well as humans, to attack or outcompete.  The fragility and weak competitive abilities of Madagascar’s vegetation is all too clear at Ranomafana and other forest belts.  Trees recover weakly and slowly from fire (see also Gade and Perkins-Belgram 1986).  Eucalyptus, pine, acacia, guava, Aframomum, and other aliens are rampantly spreading into all but the most isolated and virgin forests.  The forest fails to hold its own and recover the way forests do in other tropical areas.  (Even nearby Reunion Island, far better protected, has lost much forest to invasive guava, Casuarina, rose-apple, eucalyptus, and other pests.)  As noted above, Madagascar’s fires, from satellite photographs, do not look any worse than those of Maya Mexico, but the forests in the latter place are long adapted to burning—including human burning.  Madagascar’s evidently are not.

There is no question that there has been deforestation due to human agency in Madagascar over the last 1500 years, and that this deforestation has been a disaster in most areas.

This raises the question of why people continued with landscape management strategies that were, in many cases, tantamount to suicide.   In most island environments, early devastation by pioneers led to a learning curve: initial devastation was followed by hard times, which led in turn to the slow, gradual development of more and more successful strategies (Kirch 1994, 1997: Stokstad 2004).  The same has obviously happened in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, where the Maya slowly built up a civilization over millennia, crashed due in part to environmental problems in the 800s and 900s CE, and then recovered (Anderson, research in progress or in ms state; see also Webster 2002).  In fact, contra some claims in the literature, it is clear that humans normally learn to manage their environments fairly well, reaching stable accommodations over time.  When they do not, it is the failure that must be explained.  A place may simply be too fragile and its people learn too late, like Easter Island (Stokstad 2004).  Rampant privileging of certain primary-production activities may lead to devastation, as in the United States, where logging, farming, and mining are heavily subsidized and virtually above the law.  Or sheer runaway population growth and government failure to deal with it may overwhelm common sense, as in south China (Elvin 2004, Marks 1998—with some reading between the lines based on my own research).

In Madagascar, the pioneering period probably came to an end somewhere between 1000 and 1500 B.C.  By then the island was filled up, and large, complex polities were emerging.  But—and I believe this was critical—at the same time, the outside world was impinging.  Even before 1500, there was much contact with the outside world (see e.g. Verin 1986).  After 1500, massive contacts with slavers, pirates, adventurers, traders, would-be colonizers, and miscellaneous voyagers insured that Madagascar was never left alone (Kent 1970; Verin 1986).  Granted that Defoe’s rather surrealistic tale of a pirate utopia is fictional (Defoe 1926), there were certainly many pirate nests and other incipient colonies on the island.  Slaving increased, reaching a peak in the 18th and 19th centuries; much of the Indian Ocean region was supplied with a large and steady flow of Malagasy slaves.  (Judging from the evidence we saw and heard in Mauritius and Reunion, the extent of slaving in Madagascar has been underestimated in the literature.  Those sugar islands got a huge number of slaves from Madagascar, and they were not the only places so to do.)

At the same time, Malagasy state-building was taking place, leading to the rise of the powerful Merina state, as well as the Sakalava confederacy, the Betsileo power, and many local statelets or incipient states.  The warfare endemic to state-forming situations was as savage and disruptive as elsewhere (see e.g. Kent 1970; Verin 1986; the rather biased observer’s account by Ellis, 1859; and the rather strange but generally reliable travel book by Arthur Stratton, 1964).

All this could not have helped the Malagasy learn how to practice “sustainable development.”  Quite the reverse; it seems like the perfect plan for preventing either that or anything else particularly desirable from taking place.  Presumably it led to the sort of psychological trauma so incisively described by Lesley Sharp (1993, 1994) for modern Madagascar.  Such social conditions are as productive of chaotic resource management as of chaotic management of people and emotions.

Later, colonialism certainly had much to do with blocking environmental learning and practice.  Jarosz (1996) showed that almost three-fourths of the deforestation that took place during French colonial times was caused by the French themselves, through logging and cash-crop development.  The nearby island of Mauritius, which is much better known, was almost completely deforested by colonial enterprise (see e.g. Staub 1993).

Probably the worst single problem facing Madagascar today is a leftover bit of French colonial policy:  a homestead act similar to that once found in the United States.  Clearing and working land for ten years makes it the property of the clearer.  This is leading to vast clearances that have no economic purpose except to secure land title.  One cannot own unworked forest.  This rule is being changed, but is still having devastating effects (information supplied by World Wildlife Fund personnel and other consultants we interviewed in Madagascar).  Other legal structures have had a very negative effect on conservation, also (See African Studies Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 2, passim, especially Gezon and Freed 1999, Marcus and Kull 1999).

Aubert, Harper, and Kull have argued that the traditional narratives of massive deforestation, wanton uncontrolled burning, and resultant mass erosion are colonial narratives, often used to justify colonial practices.  The French (Madagascar’s colonial power), in their allegedly superior wisdom, took over control of the forests, because the Malagasy were allegedly being irresponsible in managing same.  The French could then wreak havoc with the forests, presumably because the worst they could do was still an improvement.  At least some French did use deforestation as an excuse for control, and therefore exaggerate its scope.  The French did not invent the idea, nor is it merely some sort of discursive trope.  The devastating damage to Madagascar’s environment is real, and the people are suffering because of it.  But the French seem to have exaggerated the damage to excuse their own failures.

Perhaps—and this is strictly my unconfirmed hypothesis—the real damage the French did was through controlling the landscape in a highly centralized colonial manner.  (See also Gezon and Freed 1999.)  They did not allow the Malagasy to find their own way to conservation.  Why did the Tanala, Betsileo, and others not intensify their agroforestry systems as population and economic linkages grew?  Why did they keep engaging in practices that were decreasingly adequate?  The only answer I can find is that French colonialism—and, after it, neocolonialism and then political chaos—created massive disincentives to change.  Faced with political and cultural marginalization, economic loss, and bureaucracy in all its Weberian convolutions, groups like the Tanala were discouraged from actively pursuing progress (however defined).

When Malagasy during and after the colonial period did pursue progress, it was often through left-wing political action; this failed dismally, for various local reasons outside the bounds of this paper.  This set the stage for post-colonial problems, including further left-wing politics and further failure.  Suffice it to say that Madagascar’s per capita income fell 40% in the first 40 years of decolonialisation, and 40% of the population is now malnourished.


Yet, there is no question that Madagascar has to save its environment, including its surviving forests, if it is to rise from poverty—or even to avoid sinking farther and farther down.  Environmental devastation is certainly a major reason for the 40% decline.  Meanwhile, rampant population growth has far outrun economic development.  The rising population certainly cannot be accommodated in the agricultural sector any longer without major reform in the ways agriculture is managed.  Those ways are socioeconomic as well as narrowly environmental ones; I believe those are not two separate categories of analysis, but two sides of the same coin.

Madagascar’s endemic wildlife could be enormously valuable not only for ecotourism and research, but also for medicine.  Significant is the fact that Madagascar’s greatest contribution to the world, the cancer-curing Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), was discovered to be a cancer cure only in the United States in modern times.  Local knowledge of medicinal plants, and other useful plants and animals, is high (Descheemaeker 1990; Novy 1997; Randrianarivelojosia et al 2003;  Samyn 2001), but that knowledge is not valued (so far) by officials or outsiders.

It is clear that Madagascar’s lemurs will become extinct if the forest is reduced to small, alien-invaded remnants.  This would not only be a major loss scientifically and aesthetically; it would be immoral by almost any standard.  One need not go as far as Mary Midgeley or Peter Singer to see that animals have some rights, at least to have their sufferings minimized and their species line continued.  Most people, I think, would agree that animals—and perhaps especially near relations, like the lemurs—should give way to humans in a forced choice, but that every effort should be made to find alternatives to such a choice.

Possibly development and modernization will relieve pressure on the land by providing employment in less unprofitable activities, as has happened in many parts of Latin America (Aide and Grau 2004, and my own research).  This, however, would require much more success at development and at population growth rate reduction than has been achieved to date.

The revisionist authors, to varying degrees, advocate accommodating local people.  Aubert et al. (2003) support tavy, but admit it has to change somewhat and somehow.  Erdmann (2003:134) speaks of “the dilemma of reducing shifting cultivation.”  Kull, in the conclusion to his book (Kull 2004), provides a long, detailed, thoughtful set of recommendations (which seem excellent, from all evidence presented), but his introduction seems much more pro-fire and much less nuanced, and it is this position that is picked up and highlighted on the publisher’s jacket statements and other publicity materials.  Thus, secondary-literature summaries of his book, in inevitably oversimplified form, become more supportive of local burning, with only some qualifications preserved (Robbins 2004:159), or with no qualifications at all (informal communications, best left anonymous).

Harper (2002) in her book was more forthright, taking a “locals vs lemurs” position essentially the same as the “jobs vs owls” position espoused by the American radical right (e.g. Barbour 1996; Pombo and Farah 1996 /5/).  As with the lumberjacks and the owls, the truth is otherwise; no forests mean no lemurs or Tanala (“Forest People”), just as no forests in the United States mean no owls or lumberjacks, a situation already reached in much of America’s formerly forested land.  Harper has recognized this fact and now advocates protection for the forest (personal communication, April 7, 2005).

In fact, while the revisionists have valid and important points, they have been guilty of defending low adaptive peaks against the possibility of getting people to move to much higher peaks on the adaptive landscape.  The earlier writers were guilty of exaggerating the role of local people in the damage, and sometimes had colonialist and even racist attitudes, but they were correct in assessing the situation.  It is serious, and if it is not remedied, the Malagasy—and especially the poorest of the Malagasy—will suffer and perish.

On the other hand, the extreme counterposition is also a low peak.  If the government of Madagascar could actually succeed in controlling fire in the landscape—which, as Kull points out, it cannot possibly do—the result would probably be as bad as it has been in the United States.  In the United States, control of forest and range fires has led to overgrowth of dense, crowded, often senescent vegetation.  Such vegetation goes up in a holocaust when a fire does come (as must happen sooner or later), or it dies of stress, from crowding, when drought supervenes.  San Diego County (CA) and large parts of Arizona and New Mexico have lost their coniferous vegetation in the last three years because of this.  Eliminating fire would probably have similar effects in Madagascar.  Fire suppression done without thought is a very low peak in the adaptive landscape.  Thus, one hopes for a middle, course, in consultation with local people (Kull 2004).

Stalwart defense of local people is a long tradition in anthropology, and one which I share, having gone out on a limb several times myself to defend local resource users against government policies (e.g. Anderson and Anderson 1978; Anderson 2005).  However, defending local practices that are genuinely destructive, and are dubiously traditional in any case (being at least partly a result of colonial oppression), is clearly beyond the pale.  Yet this overdefensiveness seems rather well established in political ecology; even Robbins’ moderate, scholarly textbook retails considerable material that pushes the envelope, not only for Madagascar but for many other areas (Robbins 2004).

Certainly, we do local people nothing but harm by siding with oppressors and exploiters who wish to destroy their resources for short-term profit.  However, we also do local people no favor by allowing destruction of their livelihood, even if they are subsistence farmers who “choose” (in a forced choice!) so to destroy their own future.  We do local people no favor by claiming—falsely—that conservation is “colonial” when, in fact, colonialism’s main contribution was to make destructive practices worse.  Conservation is the antithesis of colonial exploitation; it is the only hope for survival for local and indigenous people, as for the rest of us.  It was, indeed, often introduced by colonial powers, and often misused or abused due to bad science or predatory greed; but this is no reason to condemn the whole agenda.

Fortunately, there are win-win solutions that allow local people to profit from saving their own livelihood, heritage, and rightful holdings (Rabetaliana and Schachenmann 1999; and see Kull’s actual recommendations noted above).  For instance, NGO’s such as LDI are experimenting in Tanala and Betsileo country with “champion communiy” programs, a transform of the “model farmer” programs of my American youth.  Communities are helped to develop model practices, and then used as teachers and examples.  They are to achieve 80% vaccination coverage, ensure that at least 70% of children get vitamin A doses, and work for better child health and family planning in general, as well as practicing optimal farming and forestry techniques.

Misunderstanding governmental and NGO ideology and practice could well bring about a lose-lose situation when a win-win solution is possible.  Local people who depend on a healthy environment could lose it.  Environmental protection could wind up falling to agencies that may indeed have other interests at heart, and in any case will be ill-informed about local realities.

In short, what I found from inspecting the situation on the ground was that the traditional narrative of local environmental destruction is basically accurate, but was exaggerated, apparently for colonialist reasons, and is still exaggerated in the literature.  More serious is the tendency to blame Malagasy culture in general for it (Kottak and Costa 1993), rather than seeing it as the result of specific historical and political-ecological circumstances.

The revisionist literature has the advantage of being based on better research, both on local environmental management and on these wider political-ecologic matters.  The revisionist writers, to varying degrees, propose solutions that tilt the balance in favor of local use.  There are good reasons, both moral and practical, to restore local rights and give priority to the concerns of these local resource users, who are often desperately poor and sadly marginalized.  However, when they are negatively impacting a major public good (be it forests, watershed, or scientific treasures), the balance has to be maintained in such a way that this good is preserved and protected.  Wider benefits simply cannot be ignored in the modern world, crowded and interlocked as it is.  Balancing local rights and needs with national and global concerns is not easy, but it has to be done.

Our experience in Madagascar was that even the best-intentioned NGO’s needed more information about such local realities.  Informed choices require serious input from political ecologists who recognize that there is a world-class problem here.

/1/  On this and related issues, see Kottak (1980) and other sources cited below.  Malagasy is a Ma’anyan language, close to relatives in south-central Borneo.  The island seems to have been settled chiefly from there, but settlers also drifted in from other Indonesian islands and the East African and Arabian coasts.  The chief early African input seems to be from a cattle-grazing people known as Wazimba (Vazimba in Malagasy).  While sometimes rather oddly referred to in the literature as mythical or semi-mythical, the Wazimba are in fact a large (and rather vaguely-defined) population of grazers in Mozambique (Marcuse 1914), and there are still people calling themselves Vazimba in Madagascar itself (Ruud 1960; see esp. Plate 14 following p. 226).  They are presumably the source of the Bantu animal names in Malagasy (see also Kent 1970).

Madagascar has been thoroughly investigated by anthropologists, but most of them were interested in an exceedingly narrow range of phenomena at the intersection of kinship, state, and ancestor worship.  These accounts often present a weird sense of action taking place in a vacuum.  They display a deafening silence about the environment, environmental degradation, marginal subsistence cultivation, herding, and poverty, as well as political-economic process and history (a partial exception is Kottak 1980).  It is rather striking, even amusing, to read works by “Marxist” anthropologists who appear to believe that the phrase “means of production” refers to verbal accounts of ancestors.

Superior recent research, taking account of wider political-economic concerns and are exceedingly valuable for showing the relationships of local systems thereto, has been done by Rita Astuti (1995), Sophie Godefroit (1998), Michael Lambek (esp. Lambek 2002), Lesley Sharp (1993, 1994) and others.  Discussion of these is outside the bounds of the present paper, but Sharp’s work has been profoundly influential on my view of what is “really happening” in Madagascar.  Sharp shows that current unrest due to political-economic factors, the local outcomes of wider forces, shows itself in spirit possession—especially of types seen as deviant, wild, or out of control.  Having seen exactly the same process playing out in Malaysia (Anderson and Anderson 1978), I think this is important and revealing work.

Only about 5% of Madagascar is intensively cultivated; this can be compared with about 10% of premodern Indonesia and South China.  Deforestation is currently running about 3% per annum (information from government sources interviewed).

/2/ I am particularly indebted to Barbara Anderson, Judith Carney, Daniel Gade, David Dyjack, Alan Fix, and Mark Freudenberger, but also to the whole team, to personnel at the ValBio center in Ranomafana, to Janice Harper, and to countless Malagasy consultants.

/3/  The name means “warm water,” with reference to the thermal springs at the town.  It covers four different entities:  the thermal springs, the town, the national park, and the district (ca. 26,000 people) of which the town is equivalent to a county seat.

/4/  There has been a fascinating change in the China literature in this regard, however—from a celebration of Chinese success at feeding itself, even at the expense of the forests (Anderson 1988 and literature reviewed therein), to a view aware of the advantages of wet rice but emphasizing its environmental costs (Marks 1998) to a thoroughly sour view of China as a country that has messed up its landscape and wildlife (Elvin 2004).  Clearly, colonialism is not the driver of this change from positive to negative evaluation.

/5/ Barbour (1996) is a quasi-official document, a book version of the Republican party platform for the 1996 election.  Their platform in that year was staunchly and vocalliy anti-environment on all counts.   Pombo is a Republican legislator, real estate dealer, and “rancher” (in quotes because it is not his real livelihood or occupation).  His defense of private property rights contrasts interestingly with John Locke’s classic defense thereof, which theoretically was the basis of American law.  Locke defended an individual’s rights to what he or she had actually created by working with or on natural resources, as long as no one else’s rights were damaged thereby.  Pombo merely defends the right of anyone to do anything he or she pleases with anything he or she happens to own.

In addition to the “jobs vs owls” trope, there is another, deeper right-wing influence on political ecology.  It is not seriously present in the literature on Madagascar, so it will be relegated to a footnote here.  This is the view, traceable to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer via vulgarized forms of the ideas of the Nazi philosophers Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man, that there is no truth, or at least no verifiable truth, and that all we have are “discourses” constituted in relationship to power.

This view is itself a modern version of classical Platonic idealism—the extreme form, holding that we can know only ideas, not reality.  This form of idealism has been identified with political conservatism from Plato onward.  The corollary, that we thus construct the world from our will, was basic to Nazism (see Heidegger; and recall Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph des Willens).

Marx held (and I follow him here) that those with power make the rules and generate ideology, but that they do it in connection with their real economic interests, provoking a reaction among the working classes, who see reality well enough to construct their own consciousness.  By contrast, the idealist/constructionist view holds that ideologies are constructed purely from power.  This being so, the beliefs that resources are finite, that extinction is a bad thing, or even that starvation and landlessness are problems, all become mere political rhetoric—and if they are stated by people with any sort of power, they are necessarily generated in the service of power.

In the case of conservation, governments often do regulate land use, and often do mix unfortunate or downright sinister motives with more worthwhile ones.  This allows some political ecologists to damn all conservation and environmentalist rhetoric as governmental oppression—since facts do not exist, and truth claims are irrelevant.  This rules out the possibility of testing government notions, or sorting them out.  It ignores the fact that environmentalist positions are inevitably the product of a great deal of dialogue and debate.  At best, it provides a very thin notion of analysis; when one has shown that Position A is stated by someone with some power, one has said everything about it.  At worst, it is outrageous deception.

The position of the dominant elite in the United States, for instance, is anti-environment, and is in fact identical to the more extreme readings that an anti-environmentalist could read into the works of Harper, Kull and others.  In the US and in Madagascar, the environmentalist positions are largely confined to relatively less affluent and less politically powerful segments of society, even though some of them seem “elite” to the loggers and miners who have sometimes been forced by local politics to side with the (genuinely elite!) timber barons and mining corporations.  This is not to say that environmentalist positions are always virtuous; often they are indeed elite claims that disempower and dispossess locals.  But environmentalist positions of any sort are certainly not the ideology of America’s ruling class, cosisting as it does of oilmen, energy interests, tobacco and agribusiness firms, chemical companies, and similar primary producers.

In fact, a Marxian might well conclude that the popularity of the idealist social-constructionist view and the anti-environmental view in current political ecology is a result of the dominance of academia by elite private schools and their elite white faculty.  Ruling-class interests win out, even if (especially if) they are called “progressive” or even “radical.”

The point is that there are actual truths here, which need investigation and unpacking.  Some of those truths are exceedingly important, indeed life-and-death matters.  Aubert, Harper, and Kull all bring a great deal of empirical observation to bear in their investigation of local people, and bring out real and major abuses.  They are certainly not pure idealists; they are, in fact, superb ethnographers, recording the reality on the ground with impressive accuracy. The problem comes when they analyze, or fail to analyze, the negotiations and debates among other parties involved, including both governmental and nongovernmental agencies.


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