Yanis Iqbal writes about Madagascar’s increasing lack of food supply, worsened by multinational corporations and the climate crisis
Madagascar is in great pain. Theodore Mbainaissem, the head of the World Food Programme (WFP) sub-office in Ambovombe, Southern Madagascar, says: “Seeing the physical condition of people extremely affected by hunger who can no longer stand…children who are completely emaciated, the elderly who are skin and bone…these images are unbearable… People are eating white clay with tamarind juice, cactus leaves, wild roots just to calm their hunger.”
One third of people in Southern Madagascar will struggle to feed themselves over the next few months. Until the next harvest in April 2021, 1.35 million people will be “food insecure” – almost double those in need last year – and 282,000 of them are considered “emergency” cases. Pervasive food insecurity in Madagascar is the result of a variety of factors.
Food security is not only caused by a lack of food supply but also by the lack of political and economic power to access food. Thus, access to income is one potential means for alleviating food insecurity. In Madagascar, the majority of the people don’t have proper access to income.
Madagascar is one of poorest countries in the world. In the 2007/2008 United Nation Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) Human Development Index, an indicator that measures achievements in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income, Madagascar was given the rank of 143rd out of 177 countries.
Madagascar’s economy is tiny. The market capitalization of U.S. tech giant Facebook is more than 40 times Madagascar’s national income. The company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, alone is five times richer than the island nation. A large chunk of Madagascar’s miniscule national income is appropriated by the rich, evidenced in the declining consumption capacity of the poor. Between 2005 and 2010, consumption for the poorest households declined by 3.1%.
A COVID-19-triggered economic recession has debilitated an already impoverished people. The combined impact of global trade disruptions and pandemic restrictions is estimated to have resulted in a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contraction of 4.2% in 2020. The poverty rate (at $1.9/day) is estimated to have risen to 77.4% in 2020, up from 74.3% in 2019, corresponding to an increase of 1.38 million people in one year.
Between 1980 and 2010, Madagascar suffered 35 cyclones and floods, five periods of severe drought, five earthquakes and six epidemics. Madagascar’s extreme weather conditions have intensified due to climate change, increasing food vulnerability.
Food insecurity affects all regions of the nation, and particularly those in the South, which have a semi-arid climate and are particularly exposed to severe and recurrent droughts. In 2019, a lack of rainfall and a powerful El Nino phenomenon led to the loss of 90% of the harvest and pushed more than 60% of the population into food insecurity.
Interruptions in food supply due to crop failures have resulted in sharp increases in the prices of different items. Some areas have seen the price of rice shoot up from 50 U.S. cents per kilogram in 2019 to $1.05 in 2020.
The extractivist engine of Madagascar’s economy has usurped lands intended for food crops and displaced the people living there. Transnational mining companies in search of new resources have paid increased attention to the significant mineral potential of the country, which is rich in diverse deposits and minerals, including nickel, titanium, cobalt, ilmenite, bauxite, iron, copper, coal and uranium, as well as rare earths. Nickel-cobalt and ilmenite have attracted the majority of foreign direct investment thus far.
Beginning from the early 2000s, multinational mining companies have made the largest foreign investments in Madagascar’s history. Those affected by the large-scale mining operations are subjected to the restrictions on land and forest-use associated with the establishment of the mining and offset projects. Such resource use restrictions affect important subsistence and health-related activities, with critical impacts on livelihoods and food security.
To take an example, villagers living in Antsotso have been heavily impacted by biodiversity offsetting at Bemangidy in the Tsitongambarika Forest Complex (TGK III). They have reported that QIT-Madagascar Minerals (QMM) – a public-private partnership between Rio Tinto subsidiary QIT-Fer et Titaine and the Malagasy government – did not explain to them that they were involved in a offsetting program when they were asked to participate in tree planting and were excluded from accessing the forest.
Constrained resource access due to the biodiversity offsetting measures has seriously impacted food security among Antsotso’s residents, forcing them to abandon rich fields near forest areas and instead grow manioc in inferior sandy soil next to the sea at great distance from their village. All this is the result of the concentrated clout possessed by mining magnates.
Between 2005 and 2008, 3 million hectares were under negotiation by 52 foreign companies seeking to invest in agriculture. These companies form a landscape made up of irregularly placed and privately secured territorial enclaves that are linked to transnational networks but disarticulated from both local populations and national development projects. Since these companies are functionally integrated in a framework geared toward the enrichment of foreign investors, they have little regard for the food security of Madagascans.
In March 2009, the South Korean company Daewoo Logistics signed a 99-year lease in Madagascar for about 1.3 million hectares, or about half of the island’s arable land. It was the largest lease of this type in history and would have supplied half of South Korea’s grain imports. The organization Collective for the Defense of Malagasy Lands (TANY) was established in response to the lease and petitioned the government to first consult with stakeholders before agreeing to foreign land deals. The petition was ignored.
The deal subsequently fell through when political unrest broke out in Madagascar, which led to the fall of the former president, Marc Ravalomana. Daewoo may have been the largest and most-publicized of foreign investment in recent history, but it was not the first. The proposed land deal raised international attention to the land grabs taking place across the globe, particularly given the contemporaneous food crisis.
Hunger in Madagascar is the outcome of a confluence of crises. All of them are fundamentally related to capitalism – the system that generates the chaotic drive for ever-greater profits. In the monopoly stage of capitalism, the oppressed people are standing up against a system of generalized monopolies – a structure of power where a tiny clique of plutocrats and their tightly integrated productive apparatuses control the world.
Correspondingly, the Global South has seen its autonomy erode in the face of this neo-colonial onslaught, leading to the dominance of comprador bourgeoisie – a fraction of capitalists whose interests are entirely subordinated to those of foreign capital, and which functions as a direct intermediary for the implantation and reproduction of foreign capital. What we need today is an independent and unified initiative from the Global South, which brings oppressed countries like Madagascar into regional alliances aimed at de-linking from imperialist architectures and pursuing a socialist path.
Yanis Iqbal, is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India