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Forest and Labor in Madagascar: From Colonial Concession to Global Biosphere

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Protecting the unique plants and animals that live on Madagascar while fueling economic growth has been a priority for the Malagasy state, international donors, and conservation NGOs since the late 1980s. Forest and Labor in Madagascar shows how poor rural workers who must make a living from the forest balance their needs with the desire of the state to earn foreign revenue from ecotourism and forest-based enterprises. Genese Marie Sodikoff examines how the appreciation and protection of Madagascar’s biodiversity depend on manual labor. She exposes the moral dilemmas workers face as both conservation representatives and peasant farmers by pointing to the hidden costs of ecological conservation.

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1. Geographies of Borrowed Time

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On June 13, 2010, a story about the plunder of rosewood trees out of several national parks in Madagascar made the cover of the New York Times (Bearak 2010). Not only Malagasy citizens but also international readers concerned about biodiversity protection had been following the story for several months, ever since the coup d'état of the previous March that ousted the pro-conservation and pro—United States president, Marc Ravalomanana, and left Madagascar's hinterlands open to a new scramble for Madagascar's untapped resources: A new wave of imperialist expansion, now launched from the East rather than Europe.1

A ring of Chinese and Malagasy merchants, dubbed the “rosewood mafia” in news reports, armed gangs of “thugs” to intimidate residents and park guards around the rain forests that line the northeastern Antongil Bay. The “Timber Barons,” as they are also called, having Malagasy names such as Bematana, Bezokiny, and Body, and Chinese ones such as Chan Hoy Lane and Sam Som Miock, infiltrated major towns on the east coast (Wilmé et al. 2009). They hired local villagers for dirt-cheap wages and shipped in extra hands from “deep China” (Gerety 2009a). North American and European expatriates were flown out to safer havens. Conservation activities ceased while local officials, colluding with the Timber Barons, gave the loggers free rein in the national parks.

 

2. Overland on Foot, Aloft:

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An Anatomy of the Social Structure

A European traveler to Madagascar in the early nineteenth century, say 1825, would encounter a mosaic of rolling grassland and humid rain forest outside the limits of the eastern port of Toamasina. The traveler would likely head westward to pay his respects to King Radama I and his court in Antananarivo, the seat of the Merina Empire on the central high plateau. The trek from the coast to the capital was over 200 miles long, and the traveler, possessing heavy trunks of clothing and food provisions, faced an uphill and uncomfortable journey through a rain forest that, for all of its botanical and zoological wonders, could be lethal. Malaria had felled many. It was said that King Radama's military strategy relied on “General Hazo” and “General Tazo” (Generals “Forest” and “Fever”) to shelter the Merina kingdom from foreign invaders (Gallieni 1908:149; Campbell 2005:245).

Madagascar's east coast had heavily trafficked ports because of the relatively calm waters of its harbors. Toamasina in particular was reputed to offer the best anchorage of the island (Lloyd 1850:59). The east coast was thick with precious timbers, minerals, and fruits, and it possessed a well-trafficked footpath between Toamasina and the highland capital, Antananarivo. Automobiles would not appear on the island until 1900, four years after France's annexation of Madagascar and two years after Governor-General Gallieni actually purchased the cars from abroad—two Panhard-Levassors (Gruss 1902:194). In 1900, a celebrated “road to the east” from Antananarivo was opened (Gallieni 1908:170). The Tananarive-Côte-Est (TCE) railway would not be completed until 1913, built with the exertions of Malagasy laborers who were drafted by the French state during a huge public works campaign (Gallieni 1908:226; Porter 1940).

 

3. Land and Languor

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On What Makes Good Work

Shortly after Madagascar was annexed to the French Empire in 1896, the colonial administration began to make a concerted, large-scale effort to bring the forest of eastern Madagascar into capitalist production. Official foresters made reconnaissance missions to distant outposts such as Mananara-Nord to survey regional resources and to assess how best to exploit and transport these resources to ports. Extracting the rain forest's natural wealth would necessitate the development of a wage labor force. Betsimisaraka peasants would have to become dependent on wages rather than earning a living as independent cultivators. A constant problem for private entrepreneurs and colonial officials throughout Madagascar was the refusal of Malagasy subjects to offer up their labor. Betsimisaraka and Tsimihety horticulturalists and fishermen fled into the deep forest to escape taxation and coercion into industrial work sites. Colonial officials did manage to round people up, however, and by the mid-1920s the state instituted a forced labor regime called the Service de la Main-d'Oeuvre des Travaux d'Interêt Général (SMOTIG) in which conscripts (“pioneers”) would serve the state for two years, and often private industrialists would “borrow” the pioneers from public work sites for their own logging, plantation, and mining operations, as they could rarely muster enough voluntary hands (Sodikoff 2005a).

 

4. Toward a New Nature

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Rank and Value in Conservation Bureaucracy

With the great push toward protecting biodiversity in the late 1980s, conservation representatives coined a neologism, tontolo iainana (“the lived-in world”), to translate the concept of “environment,” for which the Malagasy language had no good equivalent. The phrase was meant to replace the more familiar term for natural resources, zavaboary, which, as the biosphere conservation agent Jafa explained, was usually understood as that which lies “on top of the land, on the surface.” Zavaboary are gifts bestowed by God (Zanahary) to human beings for their consumption. Rather than being an indigenous idea, however, zavaboary was most likely also introduced by outsiders, specifically British missionaries, in the early nineteenth century to translate the concept of “Creation.” Tontolo iainana, in contrast, denotes “everything all around, even in the ground, the land, animals, people, cities, cars,” Jafa said. It suggests a more global and secular idea, the idea that humans are elements in an interdependent ecosystem.

 

5. Contracting Space

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Making Deals in a Global Hot Spot

The first time I saw Mananara-Nord was in July of 1999, when I made an exploratory visit there with Haja. We went overland from Toamasina, where about fifteen passengers piled into the back of a camion-brousse, a vehicle that the Lonely Planet guidebook describes as an “army style truck fitted with a bench or seats down each side…used for particularly long or rough journeys, which you may well wish you had never begun” (Andrew et al. 2008:284). We sat atop bags of used clothes and rice, and on other people's legs and elbows, as a torrential rain pummeled the canvas cover, making the interior stifling, and at nightfall pitch-black. Once we passed the river town of Soanierana-Ivongo, Route Nationale 5 became a narrow dirt road. Thirty-six miles separated that town from Mananara-Nord, but the rocks that bulged from the road's surface, the deep mud slicks, ramshackle bridges, and portions of soft, sandy beach extended those miles into twenty-five hours of driving time. Route Nationale 5 had been neglected for years—at least, people say, since the early years of President Albert Zafy's term (1993–1996), a brief and hopeful interlude to Didier Ratsiraka's hold on the state since 1975 that ended with Zafy's impeachment.

 

6. How the Dead Matter

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The Production of Heritage

In Madagascar, several cultural and natural heritage sites have been included on UNESCO's World Heritage List, including the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, consisting of a royal city and burial site, the cathedral-like limestone formations (tsingy) of Bemaraha, and the rain forests of Atsinanana, “relict” forests of the east coast. World Heritage sites possess at least one of ten criteria of value, including such things as exceptional biodiversity, ecological service, beauty, historical and archaeological significance, and creativity (UNESCO, World Heritage Convention, http://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria). UNESCO's World Heritage Convention web-page defines “heritage” as “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration” (UNESCO World Heritage Convention, http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/). The World Heritage preservation program has identified between eight hundred and nine hundred built and natural sites, as new sites are being evaluated for possible inclusion on the list (Breidenbach and Nyíri 2007:322). The geographical sites and material culture that constitute world heritage are further disaggregated by indigenous cultural formations and endemic species, which denote “cultural heritage” and “natural heritage” respectively (Brown 2004:49). By reifying discrete elements of a place, heritage preservation particularizes the homogenizing force of globalization in different geographical locations and brings into metropolitan consumers' view digital data images and texts about life at the global peripheries.

 

7. Cooked Rice Wages

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Internal Contradiction and Subjective Experience

Most conservation agents of the Mananara-Nord Biosphere Reserve thought at one time or another about quitting the ICDP. Jafa said in May 2001:

I'm lazy, tired…. The reason for being tired is that the wages aren't fair. It's been three years and the wage hasn't moved, hasn't risen, and the work is hard. It was already only like cooked rice wages. And we're stuck there. (Field notes 5/11/2001)

“Cooked rice wages” (karama vary masaka) was an idiom for the bare minimum needed to buy rice for one's household—rice being the foundation of all meals in Madagascar. Since Jafa, like the other conservation agents, never got the raise he expected with the biosphere project, he felt structurally stuck (tsy mietsika, “to not move”). The job dashed his ambition and made him feel lazy (kamo) and exhausted (visaka).

The phrase “cooked rice wages” conjoins two “media of value,” rice and money, which are “the concrete, material means by which…value is realized” in the subsistence economy and in capitalist workplaces of the eastern Malagasy forests (Graeber 2001:75). Wages (really the monthly salary) equal money, the medium of value par excellence. As David Graeber (2001:66) writes, money is the “very embodiment of value, the ultimate object of desire” in capitalist society.

 

Epilogue: Workers of the Vanishing World

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Workers of the Vanishing World

As I write these concluding remarks, Madagascar remains in a suspended state of “transition”: a presidential election to legitimate state officeholders has not yet occurred. Not seeing an end to the political turmoil, the international political community has resigned itself to recognizing Andry Rajoelina, the usurper of Ravalomanana over two years ago, as interim president. State authorities continue to abet the illegal timber operations, despite certain officials' public statements of disapproval. Conservation activities remain paralyzed there by the threat of violence, but elsewhere in Madagascar they forge ahead, always up against powerful forces of industry from the West and East. The forward momentum of strip-mining, logging, and palm oil production quickens time and shrinks space, as species, habitats, and conservation paradigms fade away, and social life adapts to the new terrain. The extraction of rosewood, teak, and ebony from Madagascar's national parks by Chinese and Malagasy exporters invites comparison between a rapacious, old-school brand of capitalism in the eastern forest and the relatively salutary form undertaken by the United States and European agencies under neoliberalism.

 

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