Malagasy farmers are often said to be engaged in agricultural practices that will inevitably lead to the eventual destruction of the exceptional natural environment where they live. In order to prevent such a scenario, it is expected that they should always keep in mind the long-term effects of their subsistence practices. They are expected, for example, to desist from slash-and-burn cultivation because, it is argued, if households continue to engage in this practice, there will be no forest left in a hundred or two hundred years from now.
This type of reasoning fails to recognise fundamentally human aspirations that guide all our lives and that are recognised as legitimate in industrialised societies. Would we, for example, expect a father of three to reject a good job in a Swiss bank because it is known to finance unsustainable practices? We would not. In such a case we would recognise that individuals as human beings are driven by personal aspirations and desires; we would acknowledge the personal circumstances and opportunities behind such a decision.
By contrast, conservation programs often demand of Malagasy farmers, though usually not explicitly, that they sacrifice opportunities to create a livelihood for their children and grandchildren for the sake of saving the life of trees or lemurs. This is to fail to recognise the Malagasy as human beings driven, as we all are, by their personal aspirations and caught up in the complex business of organising life. In this sense, it is to refuse their humanity.
In his essay Marrakech George Orwell writes about the invisibility of the colonised:
‘The people have brown faces – besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? (…) In a tropical landscape one’s eye takes in everything except the human beings. It takes in the dried-up soil, the prickly pear, the palm tree and the distant mountain, but it always misses the peasant hoeing at his patch’ (Orwell 1981: 181, 184).
To expect Malagasy farmers to refrain from clearing a piece of land in order to create productive land for their children implies overlooking the humanity of those in whose lives we allow ourselves to interfere when, for example, we urge the prohibition of slash-and-burn cultivation.
Malagasy agricultural practices are oriented towards the future: they are geared towards the livelihood of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who, in turn, will take the place of their progenitors and continue the endeavour of creating productive land for future generations. To expect farmers to refrain from making a swidden because a thousand swiddens might eventually cause the natural environment to change is to forget that nowhere in the world do human beings – neither Swiss bankers nor Malagasy subsistence farmers – plan their own lives in view and consideration of such long-term goals.
Eva Keller, 4 December 2012
The Collectif pour la Défense des Terres Malgaches has launched an online petition against the expulsion of Malagasy families from their land due to a number of causes. These causes include the creation of protected areas for nature conservation. The example of the Masoala National Park is mentioned in the petition.
On Sunday 24 July (14:30) and Saturday 6 August (01:05), FRANCE 5 will show a documentary called “La lune et le bananier” about the Masoala National Park. Picking up Eva Keller’s work, filmmaker Daniel Serre documents how the Masoala National Park has deprived many local people of important means of livelihood without giving them any proper compensation or an alternative way of making a living.
We have uploaded a link to Just Conservation. Just Conservation is a facebook platform (accessible also to those not on facebook) providing information on issues similar to the ones that Human Rights in Masoala is concerned with. Just Conservation raises concerns about social injustices in connection with environmental conservation in countries around the world. The site includes numerous links to other organisations or groups with similar concerns.
On 14 February 2011, Ambanizana – one of the villages that the documents you find on this website talk about and where Eva Keller has spent many months – was badly damaged by cyclone Bingiza. This has probably been the worst cyclone in the village since 1950. The water flooded the houses reaching a level of almost one metre indoors. Some houses, especially if near the sea, were entirely washed away. Furthermore, people have lost substantial parts of last December’s rice harvest. In villages like Ambanizana, the harvested rice is kept either in a corner indoors or, if available, in granaries (see Slide Show). Much of local people’s rice has got wet during the cyclone and consequently has rotten. Even worse is the fact that certain wet rice fields in the plane were flooded which not only killed the seedlings of the next harvest but covered the fields in sand that was carried along by the sea water. The task ahead of making these fields usable again is enormous. Furthermore, cyclone Bingiza killed the majority of chickens, geese etc. as well as numerous cattle which drowned in the flood.*
If you would like to support the people in Ambanizana or in other villages on the Masoala peninsula in their effort to reorganise their lives, we recommend that you donate to MEDAIR (www.medair.org). Medair is supporting the local people in Ambanizana by providing food as well as seeds for the next harvest and by repairing water pumps. When donating online, state “Madagascar/Ambanizana” when asked to specify which purpose you wish your money to be used for. If you have any problems or questions regarding the activities of Medair in Ambanizana or the Masoala peninsula more generally, you may contact “[email protected]“.
*This information was provided by Eva Keller’s research assistant who lives in the nearby town of Maroantsetra and who went to Ambanizana after the cyclone to inspect the damage.