Madagascar: Cartoon Comedy vs. Reality Drama

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in July 2012]

The word “Madagascar” evokes in many people’s minds the animated comedy series, whose latest chapter, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, stays atop the box office, dazzling audiences around the world. The eponymous island located in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa garners much less attention in the media. In the words of Virgil Hawkins, “if the levels of media coverage are any indication, many might be surprised to learn that things are going on there at all”. However, political and economic disasters continue to wreck this huge island—the world’s fourth largest—in dire contrast to the bedazzling adventures of zoo and circus animals in Madagascar 3.

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In March 2009, thousands of demonstrators gathered near the presidential palace in the capital Antananarivo to protest against what was perceived as a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime led by the last elected president, Marc Ravalomanana. Presidential guards threw grenades and fired into the crowd, leaving as many as 50 people dead. Amid political upheaval, Ravalomanana was forced to resign. The leader of the popular uprising, 35-year-old Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of Antananarivo—and before that, a radio DJ—took control of the country in what was widely condemned by the international community as a coup d’état. Rajoelina was declared President of the High Transitional Authority, an interim governing body responsible for reestablishing presidential elections. Ravalomanana fled to South Africa. Madagascar was suspended from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union, which also imposed targeted sanctions on the new government. Most aid coming from beyond the continent was also cut off. For its own reasons, France, however, continues to back the de facto administration; in fact, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy personally welcomed Andry Rajoelina.

An agreement signed by all the major political parties under the auspices of SADC established a road map for a unity government and the restoration of democracy. Rajoelina promised presidential elections in which he would not stand as a candidate, but the elections did not occur. Instead, Rajoelina managed to push through a constitutional referendum that conveniently reduced the minimum age for the president from 40 to 35, allowing him to stand. Disgruntled military officers, who supported Rajoelina in his coup d’état, attempted another coup in 2010, but the mutiny was put down. And although an agreement guaranteed the unconditional right of return for exiled politicians, when the deposed president Marc Ravalomanana attempted to do so, the commercial flight he had boarded was refused permission to land. Instead, Ravalomanana was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for the murders of protestors killed by his presidential guard. While the guilty verdict could be rendered invalid, as the court that sentenced him was not constitutionally allowed to judge a president, the conviction makes Ravalomanana an unwelcome guest in South Africa, where a 2012 court ruling decreed that foreign nationals accused of crimes against humanity must be investigated. Just days ago, Ravalomanana was served with a summons to appear at a South African court on August 1 for a hearing in the $23 million lawsuit filed by victims of 2009 unrest that led to his ouster. Back on Madagascar, legislation has been recently drafted banning convicted criminals from standing in elections. If adopted, this law would prevent Ravalomanana from running in next year’s presidential elections. Even if Ravalomanana is pardoned and receives immunity from further prosecution, the draft election law poses two further problems for him: candidates must have been resident in Madagascar in the six months leading up to an election and must have have paid all due taxes in the previous three years. Although its offices were destroyed three years ago, Ravalomanana’s agribusiness company Tiko still owes tens of millions of euros in unpaid taxes.


As Madagascar’s political crisis coincided with the global financial crisis, it is no surprise that its economy has taken a nose-dive. An estimated 200,000 jobs were lost. Foreign investment plummeted, as did international demand for the country’s produce. Consequently, the production of export crops like vanilla dropped as well: in 2006 the output of 6,200 tons made Madagascar the world’s largest producer of vanilla (see Wiki map), but in 2009 the yield fell to 2,830 tons, placing Madagascar below Indonesia. Overall, agriculture constituted less than a third of Madagascar’s GDP in 2011. Tourism, another major economic sector, also declined as a result of the political crisis: while an estimated 365,000 tourists visited Madagascar in 2008, fewer than 200,000 did so in 2010.


One of the reasons for the shrinking tourism industry is its focus on eco-tourism, capitalizing on Madagascar’s unique biodiversity, unspoiled natural habitats, national parks, and lemur species. But economic destabilization and the loosening of governmental oversight led to skyrocketing levels of illegal logging, mining, and hunting, resulting in deepening environmental degradation. One of the most serious ecological issues facing Madagascar is deforestation. The traditional practice of slash-and-burn agriculture has destroyed some 90% of the island’s tropical forests. The growing international interest in exotic hardwoods compounds the problem. While most of Madacascar’s illegal timber is thought to be shipped to China to create furniture that will eventually be sold worldwide, exotic rosewood and ebony can make their way to the U.S. in a more direct way. In a 2009 raid of the legendary Gibson guitar factory, U.S. federal agents seized pallets of ebony fingerboards illegally imported from Madagascar.

Illegal logging and hunting also threaten many of Madagascar’s endemic species or even drive them to extinction. While the elephant bird, an endemic giant ratite (member of the ostrich family) that was once the world’s largest bird, disappeared in the 17th century, a number of lemur species might be next. Along with lorises and bushbabies, lemurs belong to a group called prosimians, defined as primates that are neither monkeys nor apes. Lemurs live in the wild only on Madagascar; their ancestors likely rafted to the island on clumps of vegetation and trees more than 60 million years ago. A new assessment revealed lemurs are probably the most endangered group of vertebrates on Earth. Data from the the Study and Research Group on Madagascar’s primates of Madagascar (GERP) revealed that Madagascar could have as many as 103 species of lemurs, but more than 40% of them are still unknown. According to GERP data, more than 15% of lemurs are disappearing, but the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) goes much further, claiming that as many as 90% of the island’s lemur species should be listed on the Red List of Threatened Species. Even more alarming is the fact that 23 species are classed as “critically endangered”; 52 species have been put down as “endangered,” while the remaining 19 are marked as “vulnerable”.

There are, however, some causes for cautious optimism, as nature-oriented tourists and conservation dollars are returning to Madagascar, buoying efforts to protect lemur habitat and support local enterprises and communities that benefit from the island’s incredible biological wealth. Also inspiring hope are the actions of New York-based Malagasy singer Razia Said, who sings about her native country’s environmental and social problems. Said came to international attention in 2010 with the release of her first album, Zebu Nation, which featured songs with titles like Slash and Burn, and Ny Alantsika (Our Forest). Said uses upbeat melodies and danceable rhythms inspired by Malagasy folk music to attract attention to Madagascar’s problems. In collaboration with a fellow musician Eusèbe Jaojoby, considered the king of salegy dance pop, along with his band and singers Charles Kely and Saramba, Said is launching a North American tour called “Wake Up Madagascar” this July, which will take her through the Midwest, Toronto and Montreal, Massachusetts and New York, and finally to California. Ms. Said said in an interview that she “hope[s] to connect with Americans who are having similar ‘jobs vs. environment’ debates over oil pipelines and natural-gas fracking”.


Madagascar’s dramatic economic downturn has hit the already poor population of the island extremely hard. Almost 90% of the country’s population manage on less than two dollars per day, and nearly 70% live below the national poverty line threshold of one dollar per day. Poverty levels are still rising, and health indicators are falling. In recent months, Madagascar has seen a surge in tuberculosis cases. Last year alone 26,700 people contracted the disease, according to the health ministry, a jump of more than 16% compared with 2009, when the military coup precipitated a suspension in aid. Among the few aid agencies still working in Madagascar, the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria is providing free tuberculosis treatment and helping to improve both public and private hospitals. Owing to their job insecurity, many Malagasy who contract tuberculosis wait until they are too weak to work before visiting a doctor. Chronic malnutrition contributes to the deepening tuberculosis crisis: many people live on nothing but tea and bread for breakfast and rice for both lunch and supper. Such fare is considered a full diet in Madacascar, but better nutrition is needed to fight tuberculosis. Even before the political crisis, Madagascar suffered one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world. According to UNICEF, 50% of children experienced developmental stunting due to chronic malnutrition in 2008-09, the sixth highest rate in the world. The figure has since crept up to 52%. UNICEF and its partners are currently treating about 16,000 children under the age of 5 for severe malnutrition.


In recent months the island’s woes have been further exacerbated by natural events. Cyclone Giovanna and tropical storm Irina both hit during the January-to-March cyclone season this year, destroying many fruit trees and swamping about 90% of rice fields late in the crop’s growing cycle. May and June are usually Madagascar’s most bountiful season, with the harvest of rice and fruit, but this year malnutrition intensified during this period, especially in the eastern coastal towns such as Brickaville. Patients exhibiting signs of severe acute malnutrition—such as badly swollen feet—are being admitted to cyclone-devastated hospitals . According to Heriniaina Rakotoarisoa, a doctor at CRENI hospital in the provincial capital of Toamasina, food shortages in that region are a recurrent problem, despite the region’s reputation for cash crops. “Farmers here still plant on the ancestors’ land, but this land has been divided up many times among the children and the grandchildren. So now the plots of land are not big enough any more to feed the family,” Rakotoarisoa said.

Even members of Madagascar’s small middle class are falling prey to tuberculosis in growing numbers. Nearly 5% of diagnosed cases prove fatal. When it comes to treatment, Madagascar follows an eight-month treatment regime that requires daily medical supervision for the first 60 days. The lengthy treatment is a especially difficult for the 80% of the population living in rural areas, 65% of them more than 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the nearest health centers. Owing to poor roads and non-existent transport systems, such distances must often be covered on foot. Roughly 10% of patients stop their treatments too early due to financial distress. As a result, local tuberculosis strains may develop resistance to the most commonly prescribed antibiotics.

The tensions between coastal regions, more severely affected by the current chain of disasters, and the central highlands have some ethnic underpinnings. Recent DNA research revealed that the genetic makeup of the average Malagasy person constitutes an approximately equal blend of Austronesian and East African genes, but that “average Malagasy person” may not exist, as the genetics of various groups and communities show a predominance of Austronesian or African origins. In particular, Austronesian origins are most predominant among the people of the Merina tribe of the central highlands, who form the largest Malagasy ethnic group at approximately 26% of the population. In contrast, certain communities among the coastal peoples such as the Betsimisaraka have relatively stronger African origins. Despite the distinct genetic make-up, the different groups speak dialects of the same language, Malagasy, which is Austronesian in origin.





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