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Why Madagascar Matters

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"Sorry, Suzanne, but I can't drive you to the airport. I would be too afraid to drive back alone at night," my friend Marie-Chantal said.

I looked at her, doing a quick calculation in my head before realizing Marie-Chantal* wasn't making an excuse; she was truly scared. I had lived in Madagascar for three months in 2001, and, like many writers and artists before me, I left convinced that Madagascar was as close as one could come to Paradise. This was not only because the island's landscape was phenomenally beautiful, filled with unique plants and animals that made the world's fourth-largest island a biologist's fantasy land. It was Madagascar's culture that floored me.

Describing the Malagasy concept of fihavanana as similar to the Golden Rule doesn't do it justice. Wikipedia's definition isn't bad: "Fihavanana is a Malagasy word encompassing the Malagay concept of kinship, friendship, goodwill between beings, both physical and spiritual. The literal translation is difficult to capture, as the Malagasy culture applies the concept in unique ways. Its origin is havana, meaning kin." But what makes Malagasy culture truly unique in the world is perhaps best described by the proverb "Ny Fihavanana no talohan'ny vola" which, loosely translated, means "the relationship is more important than the money."

It's that sentiment, even rarer in the 21st century than endangered lemurs, that may be lost forever if Madagascar's current political turmoil proceeds unchecked. The island nation's not-so-slow dissolve began in March 2009, when the mayor of the capital city, a 34-year-old nightclub disc jockey and aristocrat named Andry Rajoelina, seized power in a coup after weeks of demonstrations that many observers believe were at least partially staged by factions within the country's military. Over the following year and a half, attempts to forge a power-sharing agreement between Rajoelina and the country's elected president, Marc Ravalomanana, repeatedly failed after Rajoelina reneged. As the stalemate continued, foreign aid, which accounts for 70 percent of Madagascar's budget, has withered, and economic growth begun during Ravalomanana's presidency has stalled. On Nov. 17, international news services reported that the Malagasy military, which had supported Rajoelina, was attempting a coup against him. A standoff between rival military factions lasted for nearly a week. Yesterday, the faction of the military that supports Rajoelina announced victory, ensuring that Rajoelina's dictatorship will continue, at least until the next coup.

Before you shake your head, thinking that this is yet another story of African instability -- all those acronyms, weird names, and a confusing plethora of dates -- let's get to the real story. That story is familiar, too, if you've seen Syriana or read a Frederick Forsyth novel, but it is more closely tied to the U.S., because it involves a chess game between the French and the Americans, who have been vying for influence in Madagascar for the past decade. The real losers, per usual, are the people in Madagascar, who have been plunged from their already painful poverty into suffering that is, for many of us, unimaginable.

Only a few years ago, things were quite different. The 34-year-old Rajoelina's immediate predecessor, a self-made millionaire named Marc Ravalomanana, barreled into the presidency in 2002 as a reform candidate who looked to America rather than France as a model for Madagascar's future. With the help of two African-American campaign managers, Ravalomanana waged a dynamic campaign against the country's aging "president for life" Didier Ratsiraka. Ratsiraka, a canny septuagenarian, had started his political life as a radical, anti-French, anti-colonialist Marxist in the 1950s. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, aid from the Communist world dried up and Ratsiraka increasingly turned to France for support.

The results of the 2001 presidential contest between Ratsiraka and Marc Ravalomanana dragged on for months, resulting in thousands of deaths from starvation when road blockades halted the transport of food. Finally, the U.S. put pressure on the country's leadership, and Ratsiraka bowed out.

At the time, it seemed necessary, or perhaps easier, to cast aside Ratsiraka's calls for a runoff election, despite uncertainty about the integrity of the voting process. After decades of deepening poverty and escalating corruption, Marc Ravalomanana seemed to represent the country's best chance to save itself. Young and handsome, a dynamic businessman who was also a Christian, Ravalomanana, like many in his generation, viewed America as a desirable alternative to France. The Malagasy people tend to view America as a more egalitarian country, without France's entrenched racism, which is especially demeaning when directed at its former colonial subjects. On the advice of his American campaign managers, Ravalomanana encouraged his political supporters to call him "Marc" -- a decision that alone was enough to signify that Ravalomanana was an agent of change.

For several years, Ravalomanana seemed to be delivering. Signs appeared that Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, and one of the most culturally isolated, was, for good or ill, joining the global economy. An enormous titanium mine run by RTZ, the world's largest mining conglomerate, opened in the southeastern part of the country, transforming the sleepy colonial city of Fort Dauphin. A Canadian mining company got approval for a $3.8 billion nickel and cobalt mine in the northeast. Brand-new Toyota sedans and SUVs began to appear on the streets of the capital city of Antananarivo.

Despite the damage to the environment caused by these two mining projects, Ravalomanana was popular among conservation organizations. In 2003, at a World Parks Congress in Durban held by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, South Africa, Ravalomanana wowed the crowd by promising to more than triple the amount of protected land in Madagascar, from three percent to ten percent of the country's land. In 2005, he began to make good on his pledge, adding more than 24,000 square acres to the national park system.

But people inside the country told a different story. Ravalomanana was becoming increasingly autocratic. Freedom of the press, never a hallmark of life in Madagascar, actually declined under Ravalomanana. In a minor but revealing move he insisted that the capital's taxis, mainly 1960s-era Peugeots that had been painted in cheerful colors of scarlet, candy pink, turquoise and green, be repainted a uniform beige. He ordered 100 houses torn down because they were too ugly. It was as if Doug Tompkins, the notorious control freak who built the Esprit clothing empire with his wife Susie, had suddenly taken over a country.

There were more serious manifestations of Ravalomanana's l'etat c'est moi stance. He refused to put his finances in a blind trust, and bought a $12 million Boeing 737 with public funds to be used as the presidential plane. In December 2008, Western donors cut back aid to the country, citing Ravalomanana's refusal to disclose financial information.

Ravalomanana's support within Madagascar eroded further when he agreed to lease nearly half the country's arable land to the South Korean company Daewoo to grow corn and palm oil. The 99-year contract was estimated to create 45,000 jobs. But in a country that has long been listed among the world's poorest, the idea that small farmers would lose the ability to produce their own crops was terrifying. Ravalomanana, like many African leaders faced with overwhelming poverty that threatens their popularity, seemed to be embracing an outmoded, neo-colonial approach of development at any price. When Ravalomanana threatened to cut funding for the military, another crucial constituency turned against him.

But according to a British journalist I spoke with in Antananarivo in January, as well as many other veteran observers of politics in the region, the real instigator of the coup was the French oil company Total. Madagascar is thought to contain 6 billion barrels of recoverable oil. In 2008, Total bought a 60 percent share in two of Madagascar's major oilfields that are controlled by Madagascar Oil, a Houston-based company started in 2004 by a Canadian named Sam Malin. A high-roller with a 13th-century castle in Scotland who is married to a former Bond girl, Malin describes himself as a geophysicist. He has invested in energy development, including coal, throughout the Indian Ocean region. Avana, another of his companies, also holds licenses for coal development in the Seychelles and uranium and natural gas fields in Madagascar. Malin has made a minor effort to portray himself as a green entrepreneur: Avana is planting jatropha to be used as biofuel and snapping up ecotourism properties in Madagascar, and a photo on his website shows a smiling Malin with a lemur on his shoulder. Yet the type of oil sands development Madagascar Oil will be operating with Total is particularly damaging to the environment, resulting in two to four times the greenhouse gas emissions of ordinary oil development and causing wide swathes of land surrounding the oilfields to become unsuitable for farming. Malin appears to be unfazed by the country's recent travails: on Nov. 8, Madagascar Oil, which has been reportedly been valued at $1 billion, announced its intention to field an initial public offering of its stock.

Another French company suspected of encouraging the coup is Areva, which promotes itself as a supplier of clean energy in the U.S. but is under fire from French human rights organizations for activities at its uranium mines in Niger. The company recently signed a deal to mine for uranium in the Congo, after its CEO accompanied French President Nicolas Sarkozy on a state visit to the DRC in 2009.

No smoking gun has been found linking Total or any other company to the military coup, but in the month that I spent both in the capital and in the provinces, Total's involvement in the coup was talked about as if it were common knowledge. After a brief hiatus of American influence, the country once again seemed to be falling under French rule -- colonialism in all but name, according to a Malagasy newspaper that reported the national airlines Boeing jets were going to be replaced by French-made Airbus jets.

Certainly France has been notoriously unwilling to let go of its former colonies, as a matter of both economics and amour propre. At times, French neo-colonialism has shaded into the absurd. Case in point: the French mercenary soldier Bob Denard's repeated invasion of the Comoros Islands, where as de facto ruler in the 1970s, he converted to Islam, married half a dozen nubile Comorans, and spent his days on the beach at the main island's luxury hotel. The Comoros are not far from Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, which the French have long regarded as their personal playground, the antidote to their rigid, stratified society. Gauguin aspired to travel to Madagascar, but settled for Tahiti, and Baudelaire's poem "A Former Life," which includes the well-known line, "luxe, calme et volupté," -- not to mention the poet's image of being tended by a "naked, perfumed slave" -- is based on his gap year travels around the region. French men show little compunction about taking advantage of the exchange rate, as it were, in a country where the sexual tourism industry dates back centuries. The capital also boasts excellent restaurants. When I visited in January, Marie-Chantal and I took an American couple we had met to one of the capital's best. It was called, wittily, Kudeta -- pronounced exactly the way you imagine.

While Madagascar's recent unrest may have been encouraged by the 21st century version of French imperialism, the anarchy took on a life of its own as military officers began reaping the rewards of despotism. Since the coup, impoverished villagers have been paid $2.50 a day to illegally cut tropical hardwoods worth $4,000 to $5,000 a ton in Masoala and Marojejy national parks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Mananara Biosphere Reserve. Profits from the illegal logging, estimated at $100 million, were reportedly being funneled to the country's military leaders.

On March 16, the World Wildlife Fund called for a boycott of rosewood from Madagascar. "We have the potential for losing hundreds if not thousands of species. There are still new species being discovered: plants, birds, chameleons, lemurs, tortoises that we might not yet know about, that could be on the brink of extinction," said Niall O'Connor of the World Wildlife Fund.

O'Connor warned that Madagascar could become the next Haiti: a country mired in a downward spiral produced by the synergistic effects of dire poverty and environmental collapse. Clearly, this is not solely the fault of outside forces. In the hopeful days of 2002, Marc Ravalomanana's presidency seemed to promise a bright future for a country that, despite its poverty, prided itself on its unique culture. But Ravalomanana not only overreached; he was never in the club. If one digs below Madagascar's more recent colonial past, one is reminded that for centuries Madagascar was a kingdom with a powerful aristocracy.

It is no coincidence that Marc Ravalamonana was attracted to the American sphere of influence. He was an American-style success, a poor boy educated by Protestant missionaries who started a commercial empire by selling homemade yogurt off the back of his bicycle with the help of his wife. Even my friend Marie-Chantal, no fan of the current regime, complained that Marc spoke poor French and had crude manners.

But Marie-Chantal is equally unimpressed with Andry Rajoelina. She feels that his aristocratic background has given him a sense of entitlement far out of proportion to his abilities. Although grudgingly impressed with the canniness of veteran Didier Ratsiraka, now living quite well in France on the personal fortune he accumulated while president, Marie-Chantal has little respect for Madagascar's political class in general, and despairs that the country's educational system has not inculcated an understanding of democracy.

Yet Rajoelina's coup, the first in Madagascar's history, was immediately followed by counter-demonstrations attended by people who objected not so much to Rajoelina himself but to the method by which he took power. Despite this demonstration of commitment to the electoral process, Madagascar seems headed towards a free fall that will end either in anarchy or totalitarianism.

The worst-case scenario for Madagascar is that the military, which now seems to have turned on Andry Rajoelina, will run the country.

In her most recent email, Marie-Chantal wrote that the military now seem to have allegiance to no one but themselves.

"These guys are all billionnaires (sic) now with all the money they got from rosewood traffic," she wrote. "But you know, appetite comes with eating. Enough is never enough when you know that there are still a lot to be had and that your former friends continue to eat without you."

The night I left Madagascar, I had a conversation with Marie-Chantal that made me realize how much will be lost if Madagascar continues on its present course. It was around ten o'clock, and we had been watching a movie in her den, killing time before I had to leave for the airport. She was telling me about the children whose school fees she is paying. Suddenly we were talking politics again, speculating about the country's future. Marie-Chantal looked at me in the way that someone does when they need you to pay attention. Her gaze was focused, almost severe, yet her eyes seemed unutterably sad. She reminded me about fihavanana, treating others as you wish to be treated, as a whole human being.

"That is what I think we are losing, Suzanne," she told me. "That will never come back."

I left her house for the airport shortly before midnight. I had never been afraid in Madagascar before. But I called her on my cell phone for reassurance as I endured a tooth-gritting journey with two men, one a taxi driver known to Marie-Chantal and her staff, the other a "guard," whose diminutive stature and wooden nightstick failed to reassure as the rattletrap Peugeot taxi plied the deserted streets of the capital in the dark.

* To ensure Marie-Chantal's security, I am not using her real name.