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numéro 19


Deforestation and impoverishment in rural Madagascar: Links between state governance, land degradation, and food insecurity over time1

Caroline Worth Seagle, Msc Candidate, Department of Anthropology Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, orchidcaroline@yahoo.com.

Date de mise en ligne : 20 janvier 2010


Alors que Madagascar est l'un des endroits ayant le plus de biodiversité sur terre, il est également l’un des plus pauvres. Aujourd'hui, Madagascar relève le défi énorme de réconcilier à la fois le besoin de réduire le niveau de pauvreté et de protéger l'environnement. Dans un pays où une majorité des ruraux sont des fermiers de subsistance, dépendants des ressources naturelles pour leur survie, la dégradation écologique menace les populations locales avec les risques de diminution de l'accès à la nourriture, à la santé et aux moyens de subsistance. La déforestation mène en particulier à l'érosion, à l'inondation, à la contamination, et à l’éboulement des sols; elle détériore la sécurité rurale de l’accès à la nourriture en abaissant la productivité agricole. La déforestation est généralement imputée aux cultivateurs locaux perçus comme poussés par la pauvreté; mais cette vue n’est pas complète car elle néglige le contexte dynamique dans lequel la déforestation s'est produite; elle néglige aussi les relations historiques de pouvoir entre l'état et les populations locales qui reflètent non seulement un conflit d'intérêts, mais également les politiques coercitives du travail forcé, de l'extraction des ressources naturelles et des monocultures dépendantes; enfin, cette vue néglige le contrôle de l'utilisation et de l'accès aux terres. Ces politiques perpétuent des problèmes de déforestation et de pauvreté à Madagascar : la croissance économique cause une inégalité des revenus, une destruction de l’environnement et une dépendance au marché mondial pour les besoins locaux de base telle la nourriture. L'application de ces politiques doit être réévaluée sous un objectif critique; créer ou discuter des politiques ne suffit pas, il est crucial de mieux comprendre la façon dont elles sont appliquées sur le terrain, ainsi que la façon dont elles affectent la vie des gens. Les politiques de développement ne peuvent bien fonctionner que si elles incluent les habitants et suivent les limites, les valeurs et les besoins des communautés et des établissements locaux. Cependant, de telles approches alternatives aux politiques de développement traditionnelles exigent une compréhension critique des relations de pouvoir, des discours, et des perceptions sur les gens et les forêts au cours du temps.


While Madagascar is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, it is also one of the poorest. Today, Madagascar faces the enormous challenge of reconciling the need for both poverty alleviation and environmental protection, which remain central concerns within the United Nations Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). In a country where a majority of the rural poor are subsistence farmers, relying on the natural environment for survival, ecological degradation in Madagascar threatens local populations by causing insecurities in food access, health, and livelihoods. Deforestation in particular leads to soil erosion, flooding, contamination, and landslides, and undermines rural food security by lowering agricultural productivity. Drawing from the theoretical framework of political ecology and various literary sources, this paper aims to historicize environmental degradation in Madagascar by clarifying the links between state governance and policies, land use patterns, and power relations over time. This paper will examine how socioeconomic status, environmental degradation, and governance affects rural livelihoods in terms of food security and subsistence activities. While deforestation is commonly blamed on local Malagasy shifting cultivators, who are perceived as being driven solely by poverty, this view is inaccurate as it neglects the dynamic context within which deforestation has occurred; historical power relations between the state and local populations reflect not only a conflict of interests, but also coercive policies of forced labour, natural resource extraction and cash cropping, and control over land use and access. These policies perpetuate problems of deforestation and poverty in Madagascar today; paradigms of economic growth have come at a severe cost by causing income inequality, environmental destruction, and dependence on the global market for basic local needs, such as food. Development policies in contemporary Madagascar must be re-evaluated under a critical lens; it is crucial that a better knowledge of how policies are taken up on the ground is considered, as well as how policy affects the lives of indigenous people. Development policies can only work if they include local people and are structured within the terms, values, and needs of local communities and institutions. However, such alternative approaches to mainstream development policies require a critical understanding of power relations, discourses, and perceptions about people and forests over time.

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Texte intégral

With a land area of 587, 042 square kilometres, Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island, boasting incredibly high levels of species endemism; its evolution in isolation from the African continent for the last 150-180 million years makes it one of the most biodiverse places on earth (Dewar and Wright, 1993). However, large-scale environmental degradation has occurred in Madagascar, sparking the attention of various international actors interested in conservation. Madagascar is one of the poorest places on earth; the per capita GDP in 2003 was $228, the life expectancy just 55 years of age, and the infant mortality extremely high at 78 out of 1,000 live births (The World Bank, 2005). The purpose of this paper is to examine the complex causalities that have led to conditions of rural impoverishment and deforestation in Madagascar. By looking at historical relations between Malagasy subsistence farmers and the heterogeneous nature of the state, it becomes clear that issues of labour, land tenure, natural resource use and access, economic growth, and state governance all play vitally important roles in the political economy of food insecurity and deforestation in Madagascar.

Deforestation, which is embedded in the history of Madagascar and dominates current discourse on degradation in the tropics, is a threat to rural livelihoods for several reasons; it induces flooding, soil erosion, lower agricultural productivity through soil nutrient losses, and landslides. All of these processes undermine rural sources of food security, which consists mainly of subsistence activities and natural resource use, perhaps exacerbating existing poverty (Kramer et al. 1997).

This paper first traces the history of colonization in Madagascar and the effects of state policies on indigenous resource use and access. Here the common myth of Malagasy shifting cultivators as being the primary agents of deforestation is revealed to be not only false in practice but also ideologically-driven (Jarosz 1999). The pre-colonial era also marked the beginning of forced labour in Madagascar. Issues of slave labour and production are crucial to consider, since state policies aimed at economic growth took labour away from subsistence activity, putting it instead towards export production (Campbell 2004). The colonial period also accompanied an increasing vilification of shifting cultivation (called tavy) as it was seen as inefficient, archaic, and destructive; however, mass deforestation was simultaneously carried out by the French through commercial logging and export agriculture (Jarosz 1999).

In the years following independence (1960-present), food insecurity, an indicator of poverty, continued to be a problem in Madagascar, which was exacerbated by environmental degradation and shifting government policies. Governance and distribution became key issues that inhibited the rural sector from benefiting from “economic growth” (Pryor 1990). Decreased yields of rice, the staple food in Madagascar, have occurred as a result of environmental degradation (Minten and Zeller 2000); however, economic liberalization policies that increased the amount of imported rice subsequently caused a drop in rural incomes and access to markets. In turn, many studies have shown that decentralized, local forms of governance and institutions have immediate and widespread side effects of better environmental management and decision-making (see Horning 2003; Agarwal 2002; and Morris 2001).

An overarching obstacle to environmental protection in Madagascar is impoverishment. In a country where 70% of the population lives below the poverty line (World Bank 2006) and relies on the environment as a means of day-to-day survival, environmental protection that neglects the blatant impoverishment of local people would be unconscionable. Bryant (1998) mentions that the poor are often disproportionately affected by environmental degradation. It is thus crucial to better understand processes of marginalization, since the poor are often less positioned to sustain costs of natural disasters and major environmental, socioeconomic, livelihood changes (Bryant 1998: 84).

Political ecology is concerned with the need to re-evaluate natural resource degradation by historicizing and contextualizing environmental problems. Instead of looking at history as a series of linear progressions and causalities, it is crucial to look at historic changes more horizontally: examining the various perceptions of different actors within different geographic and socioeconomic contexts. Land degradation can then be better described in relation to current governmental policies, relations between states, and global capitalism (Bryant 1992). Political ecology presupposes that local level institutions, such as indigenous cultures and communities, are deeply connected to broader political-economic structures (Bryant 1998). Political and ecological factors must be seen not as separate, but as interrelated forces that drive environmental changes (Ibid).

Political ecology also looks at how relations of power negotiate the decisions that are made about the environment and people living within it. Power must be understood as “actions upon other actions” and ubiquitous within society, for a “society without power relations can only be an abstraction (Foucault 1982: 208)”. Power is thus an active, material process as opposed to an ideological construct; this concept is crucial in better understanding how impoverishment in Madagascar is tied to relations of production and state control over natural resource use and access over time.

The pre-colonial and colonial periods in Madagascar were particularly turbulent, resulting in increased food insecurity, environmental degradation, and social and political unrest. Issues of labour, economic activity, and governance all contributed to interrelated problems of impoverishment and deforestation.    

Antananarivo, the urban center of the pre-colonial Merina state, became a potent economic and political force beginning in 1810 and remained deeply influential in Madagascar until the French conquest in 1895 (Campbell 1993: 111). The Merina state implemented forced labour policies to meet specific political and economic objectives, particularly the slave trade—which was very important to Madagascar’s economy. A system of highly unpopular corvée labour was forced on the Malagasy people during this period, which helped to supply young male soldiers to the Merina (and later colonial) army (Ibid).

Forced labour policies interrupted the indigenous use of forests for subsistence and took young male labour away from subsistence and small-farmer cash crop production; the effect of this removal was a decline in subsistence rice production during the pre-colonial era (Campbell 2006). The Merina state encouraged growth in the agricultural sector, leading to increased populations and expansion in the military and economy (Campbell 1991). As a result of increased demand, incidences of unpaid, forced labour grew during the period, which resulted in patterns of negative population growth—an outcome of rises in disease, malnutrition, stress, and decreased agricultural production. While the Merina state oversaw forced labor and slavery, which depressed populations, drought-induced famines lowered demographic growth even further (Ibid).

French imperialism in Madagascar played a paramount role in shaping the political economy of deforestation on the island, as state policies aimed at resource extraction led to accelerated rates of environmental destruction during the colonial era (Jarosz 1999). In the period between the colonization of Madagascar in 1895 and 1925, 70 percent of Madagascar’s primary forest was destroyed (Hornac 1943 in Jarosz 1999: 375). While the loss of primary forest was often attributed to local populations and tavy, Kull (2004) has shown that tavy often occurs in secondary forests and that it only becomes unsustainable when both food insecurity and populations are high.

Campbell (1991: 416) mentions that the slave trade, which was of considerable importance to Madagascar’s economy in both the pre-colonial and colonial eras, caused severe blows to Malagasy populations and local subsistence economies. The onset of colonial rule resulted in “social dislocation” and an “unprecedented level of violence” which further depressed population levels by causing a series of diseases (Campbell, 1991: 416). Population growth then returned in the 1920's with improvements in colonial health standards and public security (Ibid).  If the colonial state was characterized by low populations among the Malagasy, a primary causal factor being forced labour policies, slavery and disease (Ibid), then tavy certainly cannot be blamed for such massive deforestation during the colonial period.

Moreover, increased deforestation during the colonial period was coeval with a long-term ban on tavy (Jarosz 1999). These factors combined refute the neo-Malthusian link between population growth and environmental degradation, which asserts that poverty and uncontrolled surges in populations are the leading causes of deforestation—a discourse which still dominates today (Ibid: 376). Lambin et al. (2001) also argue that impoverishment and population growth are not sole factors in determining land-cover changes; rather, peoples' reactions to economic opportunities within institutional contexts are primary causes.

The colonial period was also characterized by shifting land-use patterns, which were brought about by disparate access to and control over resources, colonial capitalism, and export agriculture (Jarosz 1999). Major exports included coffee, rice, and beef. Coffee, which is heavily cultivated on the humid tropical east coast-- the only remaining area with the dense forest cover-- remains one of the major staple exports today (Ibid: 371).

Temple (1972) estimates that rates of soil erosion are very high on coffee plots due to the level of unprotected bare soil underneath the bushes (in Jarosz 1999: 371). Soil erosion, which reduces agricultural productivity by stripping ground of nutrient-rich topsoil, continues to be a main contributor to food insecurity among subsistence farmers in Madagascar and will be discussed later.

Coffee cultivation also resulted in lowered rice production since it competed with tavy shifting cultivation (Jarosz 1999). Tavy, a form of slash-and-burn shifting cultivation that is carried out in forests (Kull 2004). Tavy has been used by Malagasy as a sustainable form of landscape use which has provided families with food for centuries (Ibid). Declining rice harvests were related to transfers of labour attributable to cash cropping during the colonial period; low producer prices from coffee cultivation attracted both Malagasy and European farmers, while higher wages attracted Malagasy workers (Jarosz 1999). Rice fields were abandoned as many subsistence farmers found work on plantations, which were monopolized by the French; this period also accompanied the increasing vilification of subsistence rice cultivation which later manifested in a nationwide ban on tavy, an increase in rice imports, and forced wage labour (Ibid).

Conflicts between cash cropping and rain-fed rice arose in light of tension over land-claims and labour on Madagascar’s east coast (Razoharinoro-Randriamboavonjy 1971; Althabe 1982; and Rakotoarisoa and Richard 1987 in Jarosz 1999: 371). While most fertile, low-lying areas were reserved for coffee cash cropping, the colonial government set aside additional land for subsistence which was mainly on forested slopes—which probably contributed to hill-top deforestation and erosion (Jarosz 1999: 372). Cash cropping naturally took priority over rice production. Over time, rice imports were commonplace and depended on the flow of capital; food insecurity thus increased dramatically in the east coast due to coffee cultivation due to a mixture of labour shortages, drops in producer prices, and famine-causing droughts (Jarosz 1999).  

Forced indigenous labour was not only directed at state-run cash crop plantations, but also for the state corvée: unpaid service to the government. Jennings (2001) has described the destructive policies of France’s authoritarian National Revolution regime within the context of colonial Madagascar. Colonial activities during this time upheld a powerful French ideology built upon the values of “work, nation, and family” that exploited local Malagasy values and traditions in order to appropriate political power for the national government (Jennings 2001). Colonial officials did this in part by manipulating local culture, implying colonial frameworks within the structure of the Malagasy monarchy and justifying positions of power (Ibid).

The shift of labour forces from the local subsistence sector to the government export sector was based on “colonial capitalism” was manifested in policies aimed at resource extraction and export agriculture (Jarosz 1999: 367). This labour shift was concurrent with a 1913 government ban on shifting cultivation tavy, apparently “in the interest of forest conservation” (Jarosz 1999: 370). The ban on shifting cultivation during the colonial era turned “former surplus producing areas…into net importers” (Razoharinoro-Randriamboavonjy 1971 in Jarosz 1999: 372). Thus the reliance on imported rice increased during this time period.

In order to enforce the ban, the colonial government attempted to group the Malagasy into pre-set villages, but this process was driven by ulterior motives to better enforce tax collection (Jarosz 1999: 373). Shifting cultivation, a main source of food security and subsistence in Madagascar, is traditionally a nomadic practice carried out by extended families that erect provisional living arrangements near the burning sites (Ibid). Grouping the Malagasy together allowed the colonial regime to better control and to supply its “forced labour parties” (Ibid: 373).

The ban on shifting agriculture had ideological implications. The main focus of the colonial government was to execute “rational forest resource management (Jarosz 1999: 373)”. The government proposed several intensified forms of rice cultivation that were perceived by the French as more sustainable (Ibid). However, Bryant (1998: 88) asserts that much colonial discourse on soil erosion and deforestation has been used to justify coercive environmental policies that regulated farmers’ land-use practices and access to resources. The ban on shifting cultivation reflected this discourse by undermining farmers’ access to subsistence activity, which, particularly under low populations, has been proven to be a sustainable practice (Barrett 2000).     

Threats to Malagasy subsistence and food security also appeared in 1930-31, when the colonial state intentionally introduced cochineal insects in the semi-arid South of Madagascar. The insect devastated a widely used species of prickly-pear cactus which was utilized for food, water, and nourishment for cattle (Kauffman 2000: 143). Local Malagasy, who were largely nomadic cattle herders in the South, suffered greatly from this decline as they were reliant on the cactus for subsistence and also an impenetrable defense system (Ibid). The species of cactus that did survive the onslaught by the insects were not of use to the pastoralists.

Kauffman (2000) asserts that the insect detrimental to the prickly pear cactus was purposefully introduced by French colonists as a way to better tax and control nomadic Malagasy pastoralists, in hope that the Malagasy could provide a viable workforce. However, pastoralists were also seen as “barbaric,” and the removal of the cactus was seen as a way to push the Malagasy towards civilization (Kauffman 2000: 146). Without the prickly pear cactus, pastoralists moved into forested areas in order to maintain their livelihoods as cattle herders  (to provide food for increasingly undernourished herds of zebu) instead of succumbing to French authority; however, this further contributed to deforestation in Madagascar’s xerophytic South (Ibid: 147).      

It is thus important to realize that environmental degradation and poverty are not “isolated” or “self-perpetuating conditions” (Peluso 1992 in Jarosz 1999: 367); rather, they are constructions which are specific to historical land-use changes and involve social conflicts over resource access and distribution over time (Ibid). Local subsistence practices were seen as barbaric and inefficient, reflecting a fundamental intolerance for indigenous livelihoods and ethnocentrism of the colonial government. Traditional shifting cultivation was depicted as an antiquated practice, wherein “starved peasants” deforest readily for subsistence purposes (Jarosz 1999). This ideology has carried over into much development discourse of modern day.

Following Madagascar’s independence in 1960, President Tsiranana put most of the country’s development budget towards improving the rural sector; most government aid was aimed at the wealthiest small-holders in the rural economy (Pryor 1999). This period also witnessed an unprecedented increase in poverty, as measured by infant mortality rates, undernourishment, and lowered birth weights. National capital was redirected into forming a strong military and bolstering industrial production, which took resources away from rural agricultural activity (Ibid).

In 1975, President Didier Ratsiraka’s socialist regime halted all investment into rural areas, concentrating instead on industrial growth. During this time, Madagascar’s per capita GDP decreased by an annual rate of about 1.1% (Pryor 1999). Agricultural credits were directed again toward the richer small-holders with larger estates, and money set aside for improving infrastructure was redirected to other areas of economic growth. Negative effects of these state actions were felt primarily in rural, lower income areas, wherein road transportation was gravely needed, since a lack of infrastructure is a major problem in rural access to banks, economic activity, and other public goods and services (Ibid).

A breakdown of rural infrastructure followed, in which rural markets collapsed, exacerbating the problem of income inequality (Pryor 1999). Ratsiraka’s policies, aimed primarily at heavy investment, resulted in a “quintupling of the foreign debt” as well as a decrease in per capita GDP (Ibid: 31). During this period, wealthier farmers who had the resources to engage in bribery benefited most from the socioeconomic disarray. As Ratsiraka nationalized agricultural companies and internalized trade, foreign exchange became scarce, lowering rural access to insecticides and fertilizers, which in turn may have put more pressure on forests due to an intensification of shifting agriculture.

The Malagasy government tried to alleviate urban/rural income inequalities between 1977 until 1979 by subsidizing urban food consumption with rural rice production, rice being the main staple food among the poor (Pryor, 1999: 28). This move was briefly successful in urban areas, but it increased overall income inequality on a national level, as the rural workers who subsidized rice to the urban centers received less than they would have if they had done business on the free market (Ibid).

In the 1980s, the political situation changed in Madagascar; the Ratsiraka regime faced mounting criticism due to major food shortages which were exacerbated by frequent natural disasters. Ratsiraka appealed to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who pressured the Malagasy government to open its economy to trade liberalization, decentralization, and export resource extraction (CIA World Factbook). These structural adjustment policies were connected to a broader set of neo-liberal economic requirements, characterized by the IMF and World Bank’s focus on export economies and world trade. Some involved cutting off rice imports (which, at this point, supplied a staple food source to the Malagasy), limiting an increase in public sector salaries, raising the producer prices of both rice and coffee, and devaluing the Malagasy franc (Ibid).

The negative effects of economic liberalization in Madagascar were widespread. Stratifications of wealth amongst different rural groups and the urban sector led to increased income inequality during the 1980s (Pryor 1990). Land tenure arrangements became privatized, which resulted in an unequal distribution of land among the rural poor (Ibid). In the mid-1980s, income inequalities rose in Malagasy cities due to unemployment and the removal of a major rice subsidy: all effects of the nation’s new economic liberalization program (Ibid).

In addition to income inequality, food insecurity rose during the liberalization period. Although farmers’ plot-sizes increased, productivity decreased as a result of increasingly poor soil quality, and an overall lack of viable alternatives (Pryor 1990). While population growth rates were 2.8%, food growth rates were stagnant at only 1.6% (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2006).

Perhaps the most significant barrier to alleviating impoverishment in Madagascar is food insecurity, which is closely related to environmental degradation in terms of subsistence livelihoods. Agriculture makes up 70% of the economy in Madagascar, with industry comprising only 7% (FAO, 2006). Rice is the staple food in Madagascar, accounting for 992 of the total calories consumed on a daily basis; decreases in rice yields, a result of soil erosion from deforestation, have had severely negative effects on food security as mqny rural livelihoods are based on subsistence (Minten and Zeller 2000). The per capita daily consumption of food dropped from 2370 to 2040 per day in the period between 1979 and 2003 (FAO, 2006). Despite the fact that rice is heavily cultivated within Madagascar for subsistence, it continues to be a major import in the country (FAO, 2006). Dependence on imported food has been cited as a main barrier to poverty alleviation in developing countries (Ray 2007).

Roughly 80% of the Malagasy population relies on subsistence agriculture as a means of daily survival (Kremen 2002). This often involves tavy (shifting cultivation), which apart from providing food, serves a social purpose by reasserting land tenure. However, fallow periods have declined within the past twenty years, which indicates that soil degradation is a serious problem; soil infertility resulting from erosion decreases rice yields and pressures poor subsistence communities to either expand into new areas or exhaust pre-existing ones (Kull 2004).

Decreases in rice yields have resulted in two things; first, an increase in national dependence on rice imports. The FAO (2006) revealed that significant increases in imported rice have occurred within the past thirty years. Rice production in rural areas dropped significantly during the 1970s, and in the ten years that passed between 1972 and 1982, Madagascar became a net importer of rice, buying nearly 200,000 tonnes of rice per year—an amount equal to the urban demand and 10% of domestic production (CIA World Factbook). Agricultural activity was placed under tight authority by the state during the 1970s, with one institution, the Association for the National Interest in Agricultural Products (Société d'Intérêt National des Produits Agricoles—SINPA) controlling a monopoly on the collection, distribution, processing, and importation of rice. SINPA was, however, associated with vast corruption and rice shortages were commonplace due to corruption on the part of parastatal agencies which were in charge of distribution in specific areas (Ibid).   

Secondly, reduced rice yields result in lower rural wages, which are paid to Malagasy workers outside of urban areas in the form of rice (‘kapoaka’: “a tin can that holds 285 gm of rice”) (Minten and Zeller 2000: 211). In the ten year period between 1987 and 1997, as rice yields dropped considerably, there was a simultaneous decline in the number of ‘kapoaka’ of rice paid to workers per day (Minten and Zeller 2000: 211).

During the period between 1985 and 1992, the production of roots and tubers, such as cassava and sweet potatoes, increased dramatically (FAO 2006), which coincides with data showing mass decreases in rice yields between 1987 and 1997 (Minten and Zeller 2001). This could suggest that roots and tubers were being used as a staple food instead of rice. The FAO (2006) estimates that today, cereals, roots and tubers make up the bulk of consumption in Madagascar; these are also the foods that make up the bulk of production in the country. Food production decreased from 117 in 1990 to just 94 in 2003 (FAO 2006) and Minten and Zeller (2000) note that between the period of 1987-1997, yields of rice declined from 1,765 kg per ha to about 1, 540 kg per ha (p. 211). In 1999, 76.7% of the rural population in Madagascar was classified as impoverished, compared to 52.1% in urban areas (the national rate was 71.3%) (FAO 2006). Westoby (1987) argues that it is impossible for developing countries to emerge from mass impoverishment if they are unable to feed themselves (p. 307).

Although per capita income has increased in recent years, access to food security among peasants residing in lower-income nations has decreased (UNDP 1996 in Barrett 2001). The World Bank (2005) has also disclosed that “broad” policies of economic development did not benefit the rural poor (p. 3). Links between declining agricultural productivity and environmental degradation, which directly involve rural farmers, have been inadequately addressed (The World Bank 2005). Moreover, the effects of stochastic market prices on food security have been rarely considered in regard to subsistence communities.

Market activities have had profound effects on not only forests but also subsistence livelihoods. Barrett (1999) states that food pricing on the market and general access to food influence farmers’ incentives to either conserve or clear forests. In this regard, market reforms that increase the mean or variance of food prices may cause deforestation in areas where most of the lower-incomes farmers are net buyers (Barrett, 1999). Dodds (1998) also notes that participation in global trade involves trade-offs that may help or hinder the environment and subsistence lifestyles.

However, the notion of a “free” market is a misnomer because it overlooks vast imbalances of power and wealth among nations and individuals that mediate the world market. The idea of a “reasonable price” in the market is misleading since it “conceals the fact that what is being exchanged are intact resources for products representing resources already spent” (Hornborg 2001: 127).

During the 1980s, the high rates of biodiversity loss in Madagascar came to the attention of the international community (Horning 2003). However, environmental conservation projects didn’t consider resource-users themselves until the late 1990s (Ibid). Similar to the ideology of the colonial era, many actors involved in international development generally labelled “farmers…who were poor, growing in numbers while remaining uneducated,” as the main culprits of deforestation (Horning 2003). This widely held belief, which linked and equated poverty and deforestation, whichout considering the inherent complexities of the relationship, resulted in development projects based on the premise that improving socioeconomic status of people living in the forest periphery would inevitably lead to better conservation outcomes (such was the logic of Integrated Conservation and Development Projects or ICDPs). However, this view neglected the impacts that state actions may have had on deforestation and poverty in Madagascar throughout history. According to Horning (2003), development projects were focused at the national as opposed to community [rural] level. A later recognition of this gap resulted in a “decentralization” effort, integrating local communities in natural resource management. Within these efforts, the growth of “institutional support,” which was more of an ideology than anything else, coincided with an increase in the number of actors involved in conservation efforts which, instead of improving livelihoods, resulted in “a great deal of confusion (Sussman et al 1994: 349)”.

Failures of development implementation also relate to the short-term investment of various actors on the development level; for example, from 1985 to 1990, “USAID changed personnel three times (Sussman et al. 1994: 349).” This frequency, along with the fact that very few of the development workers spoke Malagasy (Ibid: 350), posed enormous problems in terms of communication between NGOs and local communities. The reason for transferring personnel so frequently is, according to USAID and the World Bank, so that they will remain “objective” (Mahar 1990 in Sussman et. al 1994: 349). Kottak (1990) has found that projects which are more attentive to local culture and society are twice as like to succeed as those that are not (in Sussman et. al 1994: 349).

There is little to no discussion of local land-use practices within the context of development projects in rural areas; instead, most of the dialogue between western NGOs and local Malagasy takes place in Antananarivo, the capital (Sussman et. al 1994). Horning (2003) has mentioned that it is necessary to redefine “institutions” as a set of normative values, beliefs, and ideologies; upon this reclassification, the internal knowledge of development policies proposed by various development institutions might be better illuminated. Policies that uphold a primarily western view of modernization, which is based on capitalism and the notion of the “growth imperative” (Hay 2004), may be ideologically incommensurate with the views and needs of those who the policy directly affects.

Governance and enforcement also appear to hinder conservation efforts in Madagascar. For example, the National Association for the Management of Protected Areas (ANGAP) is not legally able to police Madagascar's protected areas, which include 46 parks and reserves. This legal power lies with the Ministry of Water and Forests (MEF), which is primarily focused on logging management and practices. The MEF is being encouraged by bilateral donors to create resources from commercial logging. Government regulation of protected areas continues to be a problem. Since there are few forest service guards, there is little supervision of commercial logging and corruption is commonplace as wages for security guards tend to be very low (Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, 2003).

The interrelated problems of socioeconomic inequality and land degradation in Madagascar relate strongly to disparities in resource distribution and economic growth. While many theorists agree that economic growth generally promotes poverty alleviation, it does little to mend income inequalities between the urban and rural sectors (Angelsen and Wunder 2003). In turn, Mikkelson et al. (2007) have shown that biodiversity loss increases with higher levels of income inequality, as measured by Gini ratios. It is thus vital to investigate the link between economic growth and income benefit distribution (Fields 1989). The World Bank (2005) states that “rural isolation is one of the most important causes of poverty in Madagascar (p. 4)” and suggest that the only remedy is economic growth and “integrating farmers into the domestic and world economy (Ibid).” However, this “solution” conceals the problem of unequal distribution associated with the world market. In Madagascar alone, income inequality is a significant problem, with 97% of all financial assets in the country being concentrated in the central government (The World Bank, 2003).

Moreover, it is crucial to consider how rural integration into the world market may become possible, when the primary means of economic security in Madagascar has been the use and exploitation of the natural environment. Agriculture, which makes up over 70% of the economy in Madagascar, is the primary activity of the rural poor, for whom it provides both subsistence and market access. Environmental degradation, accelerated by increasing populations, government policies of resource extraction, and impoverishment, has led to a decline in agricultural productivity (Minten and Zellar 2000: 213) thus undermining the rural population’s ability to feed itself and participate in the domestic or global market.

Reforms in market access from 1997-2001 increased economic growth by 4.6%, exceeding the population growth rate for the first time in several decades. However, although the growth benefited the urban poor, there was a simultaneous increase in rural poverty (The World Bank 2005). A growing challenge to poverty alleviation is improving governance so that the distribution of basic services to the extreme poor is accomplished, in addition to improving infrastructure, health, and agriculture in rural areas (The World Bank 2003).

Government policies favoring agricultural growth also fail to guarantee income benefits to rural farmers (Pryor 1990). Therefore, the concept of an “agricultural sector” is not homogeneous; disparities of wealth, status, and power exist even within local conditions, and the effects of government policies can be diverse and widespread (Ibid). Policies that fail to address income distribution can have adverse effects, sometimes inadvertently exacerbating pre-existing poverty. However, the redistribution of wealth presents another challenge to the Malagasy government, which is already faced with financial losses and massive international debt (Ibid: 41).

Westoby (1987) argues that “institution-building,” which has dominated recent development discourse in Madagascar, has led to the rapid crumbling of pre-existing institutions, such as indigenous communities, clans, tribes, and rural trade unions (p. 306). Institutions should instead be understood in terms of their systems of values and beliefs (Horning 2003). Since the values of governmental or non-governmental institutions may differ from those of resource users-- whose needs are often more immediate than long-term, and who have more at stake to lose in environmental degradation-- the notion of “institutional support” should be re-evaluated (Horning 2003: 2). In this regard, it is crucial to consider local Malagasy institutions in environmental development discourse (Horning 2003). Several community-level institutions in Madagascar have negotiated to provide environmental protection and economic well-being (Ibid). In turn, lower-levels of governance within communes may be the key to poverty alleviation in rural areas (The World Bank 2003).

There is a growing recognition among scholars that the primary “stakeholders,” those affected by policy, are people who interact with the land on a daily basis, mediating their own livelihood strategies. These observations are leading to the realization that development organizations and state agencies do not always “empower the poor (Booth et al. 1999: 3)”. The activities and efforts of impoverished people are slowly emerging at the centre of development studies. These individuals, who offer a profound insight into human-environment interactions and sustainability, are too often excluded from decision making because they lack political power. However, recent approaches to development consider indigenous peoples’ own perceptions of what impoverishment is and what leads to it, thus providing a more holistic definition of what “poverty” is from a resource-user standpoint that considers local “coping strategies” (Booth et al. 1999: 3). Poverty is not a homogeneous concept; it is defined differently within various development contexts (Booth et al. 1999). Local social relations and structural dynamics often generate “multiple paths of impoverishment or dis-impoverishment” rather than “homogeneous national or regional trends” (Booth et al. 1999: 2).

The understanding and dissemination of local perspectives is often blocked by notions of poverty as an ideological construction and not an experiential process that is diverse and context-specific (Angelsen and Kaimowitz 1999: 4). This ideological/material disparity relates to Foucault’s (1980) notion of biopower: the idea that state control over the health and management of bodies in a population involves relations of power and surveillance that sometimes lead to oppression and subjugation. Foucault (1980) saw power as an active, material experience rather than ideology which acts upon people (who are too often presumed to be passive and lacking in agency). Impoverishment could be seen as an effect of political power on subsistence bodies, or as a form of biopower; within the context of rural Madagascar, by controlling the use of forests, land, and other natural resources, the state compromises human health by indirectly causing impoverishment and environmental degradation. Rural communities are most directly affected by deforestation and other types of environmental degradation as they rely most heavily on natural resources for survival. Deforestation resulting from commercial logging or mineral extraction not only causes food insecurity but also disrupts hydrological cycles, causing floods, runoffs, contamination of water supplies, and landslides.

Environmental degradation and poverty often causes rural communities to compromise health. Larson et al. (2006) found that the average household use per capita water intake in Madagascar is much less than the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of 20 litres per day (p. 27). Households which are better off economically typically consume more water from private sources: on average 89 litres per day (Ibid). People with private water connections use water “improvement” methods, such as boiling or water purification tablets or filters, more often than collecting households (Ibid). Bosch et al. (2000) have mentioned that when water is expensive or hard to access, poor people often reduce “hygienic uses” of water (in Larson et al. 2006: 27). Tropical forests provide watershed protection in the form of flood alleviation (Kramer et. al 1997). The loss of forest cover also causes flooding to decrease agricultural crop production considerably (Ibid). Nelson and Chomitz (2004) also assert that deforestation in upland areas with low socioeconomic status is a threat to biodiversity, increasing flooding, sedimentation and several other negative hydrological processes. Many flood alleviation benefits result from forest conservation, such as increased crop production and thus an increase in the economic welfare of local Malagasy farmers (Kramer et. al 1997).

The United Nations have pledged to meet eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the year 2015 (United Nations, 2005). However, the MDGs of improved access to safe drinking water, education, and poverty reduction are all linked endeavors, since improvements in poverty and in education will change decision-making patterns regarding water use (Larson et al. 2006). Water remains a pivotal aspect of challenges to health improvement and poverty reduction in Madagascar; it is expected that 70% of all endemic illnesses in the country are water-borne (Rabemanambola, 1997 in Larson et al. 2006). Urban areas have substantially more “access” to clean water supplies while access in rural areas is limited (Larson et al. 2006).

The complexities of policy implementation, as well as social relations between different actors involved in development, are often misunderstood and the source of much uncertainty. Anthropological studies provide valuable insights into the complex ways in which poverty reduction measures are taken up “on the ground” by primary stakeholders (Booth et. al 1999). Focusing on “thick” descriptions of impoverishment often reveals multiple layers of unequal social conditions and distribution of resources (Vigdis Broch-Due 1995 in Booth et al. 1999: 8). As Jarosz (1999) argues, “The particular way environmental ‘problems’ are defined, delimited, and discussed shapes the possibilities for solving them (p. 366)”. Bottom-up development approaches can thus redirect the needs and interests of primary stakeholders (the people who are directly affected by policy) from the periphery to the centre.

Problem definition and resolution are both highly politicized acts, according to Bryant (1998: 88). There should be an effort to shape policy in the terms and conditions of local primary stakeholders, in this case: rural Malagasy farmers. Alternatives to purely capitalist solutions to poverty must be development and researched. Wealth may be defined differently within different contexts; whereas Pastoralists may think of wealth in terms of heads of livestock (Booth et al. 2001), a Malagasy man might equate affluence with the possession of land (Jolly 1989).

Green and Sussman (1990) argue that development policies are not addressing the various causes of impoverishment and deforestation effectively in Madagascar. There is often very little understanding of local peoples’ needs and problems as most development officers do not possess knowledge of local languages, customs, and livelihoods (Green and Sussman 1990). It is imperative that a comprehensive method of empirically assessing the successes or failures of conservation groups is created in order to determine if policy implementation is actually working (Ibid). According to Green and Sussman (1990) most development groups are willing to spend a lot of money, but very little time, which results in several misunderstandings between local people and development workers. Many policies are faulty because they are inflexible, setting rigid guidelines for how to utilize funds, while the immediate needs of local people and their environments might be quite different or change constantly. In turn, a better understanding of local land-use patterns and resource allocation is critical to effective policy implementation.

Decentralization has dominated recent development policy in Madagascar in the hope that poverty alleviation will ensue. However, after ten years of decentralization, Madagascar still remains a centralized country; implementation has been non-existent since the central government still controls the “policy-planning, personnel management, and budgeting” of the whole country (The World Bank 2003). After ten years, the central government acquires 97% of total fiscal revenues in Madagascar, while the rural communes continue to live on less than $1 US per capita per annum (Ibid: ii). In turn, though government officials were been elected to Madagascar’s six “autonomous” provinces in 2003, these communes only hold 2-3% of total revenues and most of it goes to the urban sectors within each district (Ibid). Since wealth and political power remain incredibly centralized in Madagascar, the redistribution of revenue will continue to be a problem unless true decentralization is actually implemented.

In order to effectively implement development policy in Madagascar, it is crucial to consider that deforestation, land degradation, and impoverishment are linked; decreases in crop yields indicate that soil fertility is dropping due to unprecedented deforestation on the island (Minten and Zeller 2000); however, it is more crucial to consider the causalities which lead to deforestation, which may be linked to various actors and processes: local, national, and multinational alike. In such regard, it is important that these causalities are delimited contextually in order to meaningfully address environmental changes and food insecurity over time.

It is also necessary to re-evaluate historical patterns of land-use change from a more holistic perspective so that commonly accepted paradigms for development, such as economic growth and capitalism, are not seen as immutable truths but rather as products of knowledge, power, and history (Marx in Bloch 1983). Disparities between policy-planning and actual implementation must be addressed in Madagascar as well. Various aspects of development ideology, such as decentralization and community-level forms of governance, are theoretically crucial to consider; however, these Millennium Development Goals are useless if implementation of these goals fail. Policy-making must address not only ideas of how to develop, but also detailed processes through which goals are to be achieved. In other words, it is not enough to talk about social, political, and economic changes—it is necessary to act, and to evaluate the effectiveness of policy implementation within systematic terms.

Effective policy implementation cannot occur without the approval and inclusion of indigenous people and local agents. Madagascar is an incredibly diverse country, not only biophysically but also culturally; it is thus vitally important that every development issue is looked at within a specific context, from multiple angles, within a local and global framework. By closely examining human-environment interactions over time within the context of localities, oral histories and knowledges, researchers can better understand ecological processes and the diversity of environmental wisdom in the world. In turn, these understandings may create the framework upon which effective environmental policies can be realized; in short, local actors are not only possessing the most reliable environmental knowledge about a given locality, but they also have the most at stake in terms of environmental degradation; their inclusion is thus critical.

This paper has revealed that a complex set of interrelating processes contribute to environmental degradation, food insecurity, and impoverishment in Madagascar. State policies which control the material conditions of life, such as food, water, and environmental services, are having a profound impact on rural Malagasy subsistence economies. Impoverishment may then be seen less as monolithic concept than as a dynamic process of material oppression. Environmental degradation continues to threaten local populations by causing insecurities in food, health, and livelihoods. However, better governance must coincide with conservation if poverty alleviation is to occur, as the health of the environment is inextricably linked to human health in Madagascar. The challenges of policy implementation at the ground-level should be taken into account in development studies; this can be accomplished through the provision of context-specific fieldwork that considers the cultural and biological diversity which exists on the island. It is crucial to consider and meaningfully include local perspectives and agency so that development policies are benefiting to everyone involved.

Acknowledgements: Thanks so much to Gwyn Campbell (McGill University) for all his support and help in funding my participation in this conference; also special thanks to Ismael Vaccaro for his co-supervision of my Undergraduate honours thesis; finally, many thanks to conference organizers, particularly Sandra Evers and Martina Van den Haak, for their patience and assistance.


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Notes de bas de page

1 This paper presents the results of an undergraduate honours (BA Anthropology) thesis presented to Dr. Gwyn Campbell and Dr. Ismael Vaccaro at McGill University, in May of 2007.

Pour citer cet article

Caroline Worth Seagle. «Deforestation and impoverishment in rural Madagascar: Links between state governance, land degradation, and food insecurity over time1». TALOHA, numéro 19, 20 janvier 2010, http://www.taloha.info/document.php?id=859.

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