Land, forests and environmental protection in Madagascar

Madagascar – an island in the Indian Ocean, about 400 kilometres off the coast of East Africa – is a hot spot for environmental conservation. The island is known for its indigenous fauna and flora that ‘cannot be found anywhere else in the world – for example, lemurs,’ as a rice and vanilla farmer stated in my field workplace in north-eastern Madagascar. About 10% of the land and forest areas on the island are in fact reserved for nature conservation areas, the establishment of which is the result of active cooperation by European and North-American natural scientists and environmental conservationists in particular, together with the state of Madagascar.

Although current environmental protection projects do consider cooperation with people living in the vicinity of nature conservation areas, the primary purpose of projects is to keep people away from remaining forest areas with the help of various management and technological solutions, such as legislation, marking the boundaries of nature conservation areas, more efficient use of land (from slash-burning to the cultivation of irrigated rice), and the cultivation of cash crops, such as vanilla. Ecotourism is one way to create a source of livelihood outside national parks. The Marojejy National Park in north-eastern Madagascar was established in 1998, and the area that was previously used as a reserve and accessed only by researchers, was opened up to tourists. In the four villages that I studied, ecotourism brings income to more than a hundred people, of whom only one lived on tourism alone. All others also farmed land in addition to tourism.

There are not enough ecotourism activities for all 52 villages that surround the park. In addition, the land and forests are not only resources for Malagasy farmers.

The land areas within the nature conservation areas are not separate from the use and family histories of farmers. For example, a couple of farmer families resided in the area of the reserve, and the forest and water administration of the state of Madagascar allowed them to live there as long as they would not cut down more of the forest. However, the families cut down forests and cleared them as fields, and they were therefore removed from the park area. The descendants of families have not requested land for their use, but according to the local conception, they have a relationship with the land in the park area. A 30-year-old rice and vanilla farmer talked about their family history:

‘My father arrived here [the village in which I carried out my field work] from Bealanana, which is a four-day walk from here. My father’s sister, who was already living here, gave my father land for farming. After a while, she told him to cut down forest and clear it for a field. And so my father went to Antsahabehasina and cleared a field there. Years later, when I was older, my father and aunt decided to give me my aunt’s fields. I have to organise the second burial of my aunt (famadihana) and send her bones to our family grave in Bealanana. Bealanana is the land of our ancestors (tanindrazana). I can go there any time and ask for land for my use.’

This story shows how land is bound to the relationship networks of farmers. Typically, a relative has looked for a suitable region to live in, settled there and invited other relatives to live there as well. They have cut down forests and cleared them into fields, constructed houses, got married and had children. When farmers say that they go to a forest (atiala), they end up on rice or vanilla fields that grow together and in relation to a forest at various stages of its growing process. In other words, forests are not cleared of people, like national parks. The historically cumulated network of relationships extends to forests and fields, villages and tombs.  In terms of these living processes, people will become more intensely anchored to the land and their environments.

The network of relationships consists not only of living people, but also of ancestors who have already been buried. In north-eastern Madagascar, people bury their deceased relatives twice: first, right after they have passed away, and for the second time after about five to seven years, when the bones are taken out of the grave and buried again in a family grave above ground. The second burial in particular requires expensive arrangements. For example, the responsibility of the person who told the story about his father was to take care of the second burial ritual of his aunt as he had inherited land from her. For the second burial, he had to acquire a cow, a coffin, rice for around 500 guests and other cooking supplies, such as cooking oil and petrol. He complained to me that this kind of ritual was too expensive for him considering his current life situation, but he had to organise it as otherwise, he could suffer misfortune and not get what he wants. Relationships with the land are not only use or ownership relationships of resources but also moral relationships in which it is evaluated how a person takes care of their relatives, fields, and whether they work or not, and whether they take care of their social responsibilities.

Local concepts and practices also have political effects. When the previous President of Madagascar, Ravalomanana, was following the World Bank’s discussion on modernisation and development according to which Madagascar is one of the countries that has resources, such as uncultivated land, but that it is still lacking necessary technology, institutions and infrastructure, he considered leasing 1.3 million hectares of land to South Korean Daewoo, and the opposition and multinational civic organisations mobilised the concept of the land of the ancestors. In 2009, more than a hundred people were killed in the capital city during acts of violence that opposed the government of Ravalomanana and the contract made with Daewoo. President Rajoelina of the transitional government stated that the land of Madagascar is not for sale.

In the case of Madagascar, it must be understood that land is not only a productive resource, and that it is difficult to separate land and specific places from people and their history. Anthropological field work, long-term residing and living in the living environment and conditions of people being studied, enables an empathetic researcher to learn various nuances of the social world and thus challenge our customary concepts: The forest is not just forest cleared of people, but it is specifically a place in which farmers, ancestors, European conquerors and the state of Madagascar are present. These relations are crystallised in the concept of the land of the ancestors. Discussion and cooperation are enabled by a present and investigative relation with people and issues, and ethnography, describing people, issues and phenomena in a rich and multi-layered manner. In this way, we are not only left to prove our views of what is true and correct and what is wrong.


Jenni Mölkänen

Graduate student Social and Cultural Anthropology University of Helsinki Kone Foundation supports her Doctoral dissertation study on the politics of protected and cultivated nature in north-eastern Madagascar.