Land and Resources in Madagascar: the Population’s Resistance against New Cupidity

Jean-Claude RABEHERIFARA, 2014

This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.

In November 2008, Daewoo Logistics announced it had signed, in July, a memorandum of understanding with the Madagascan government which allowed the farming of 1.3 million hectares of arable land, through a 99-year long-term lease. Thus, South Korea was to produce the corn and palm oil to meet its needs offshore. The Madagascan public opinion voiced its discontent and the project was adjourned. However, after that, Daewoo and the Madagascan authorities made numerous and contradictory statements1 and since then the South Korean multinational corporation has been carrying out its business via a local nominee. The Daewoo case has come to represent the phenomenon of large farm land acquisitions in dominated countries.

According to the Group in defence of Madagascan land, Collectif pour la défense des terres malgaches - Tany, which was created after Daewoo’s plans were made public, “several large projects already underway illustrate the reality of contracts which combine the drastic use of the country’s wealth by foreign investors with insignificant benefits for the country and its population”2. These impenetrable transactions dispossess communities and are at the service of what seems to be an agrarian neo-colonialism. Furthermore, in all likelihood they will also be an opportunity to line the pockets of a limited circle of individuals in the State’s highest spheres.

From Colonial Land and Resource Appropriations to Neo-colonial Monopolizing

The dominance of financial capital over Madagascar started with the unjust treaty of December 17th, 1885, which ended the first war between France and Madagascar3. Annexation and “pacification” were the ensuing phases of a process which laid the grounds for this capital’s development at the turn of the 20th century, as the defeated population looked on with widespread hostility.

The need to “streamline” colonial exploitation surfaced more clearly around 1910-1920, as more and more land was monopolized. The registration of land became mandatory in 1911 and was a major attack against lineage-based ownership. Registration made ownership individual and legitimised the delimitation of “plots of colonisation”. Food crops were thus marginalised and limited to “indigenous reservations”. This predatory plan was completed by making all “uncultivated” or « undeveloped” land”, the land for tavy (slash and burn cultivation) or for grazing herds, State property.

For Madagascan farmers, this colonial monopolization of land was a dispossession: the land registration process ensured control over farmers’ tanindrazana, their land property, which “can only be owned collectively - jus uti prevails over jus ab utendi”4. Legitimate customary law was “phenomenological”5, since ownership was above all viewed as a “fact”. In pre-colonial Madagascan societies, land did not belong to anyone prior to being given to a specific group for usufruct by the “economic director”, who was the sovereign, a warrior and religious leader6.

The powerful image attached to Madagascans’ visceral attachment to the tanindrazana, the ancestors’ land as well as the place of origin and/or of social life, develops as early as a person’s birth since his or her tavony - placenta - is buried on the land which will also welcome the person once dead. The person will then become a razana, an ancestor who is an “invisible presence in the world of the living”. This attachment is the cornerstone of the opposition to selling or giving land away to “foreigners”… foreign “oppressors”, “predators”, who can actually be non Madagascan or Madagascan nationals. As a matter of fact, the first famous case of a controversial land purchase in the last few years was the 2005 brutal police repression of the inhabitants of Ankorondrano-Analavory (150 km from the capital). They were protesting against their eviction; a recreation centre was to be built by a Madagascan businessman. The outcome was that the inhabitants were displaced, the village was destroyed, people were convicted of the death penalty (for “murdering” a policeman), others were given life sentences, etc.7.

The impact of neo-colonial rates has added to the trauma caused by colonial violence, preparing Madagascar for the attack of transnational financial capital. The forfeited independence of 1960 preserved most of the domination system already in place, nonetheless, since the end of the 1960s Madagascar has been reorganised by the neo-colonial process. First, a declamatory “revolutionary” regime used popular claims (national independence, madagascanisation, decentralisation, land reform, etc.) and misled them by establishing bureaucratic socialism, which paved the way for liberalism and structural adjustment plans, and ultimately State bankruptcy8. The last 25 years of increasingly intensive liberalism and State bankruptcy have led to the chaos which is conducive to “juicy deals” at the expense of the population.


In the data published on March 22nd, 2012, the NGO Grain identified four new foreign investors who are monopolizing land9. In June 2013, the independent database Land Matrix identified twelve foreign companies10. The civil society platform SIF (Solidarité des intervenants du foncier - Solidarity of Land Players) has just set forth “some cases which illustrate land monopolisation in Madagascar”11. Other corporations have been mentioned in other publications12.

Depending on the case, these are agribusiness projects for energy crops or for food exports, or investments in extractive industries, in protected areas for the preservation of nature, or for developing tourist infrastructures, etc. Currently, the “End of Crisis Roadmap” dated January 20th, 2011, (point 6)13, prevents the national unity transition government from committing to new long-term projects: multinationals’ current projects in Madagascar usually operate within long-term leases of different durations, covered by exploration agreements which sometimes insidiously amount to quasi operation.

The neighbouring communities are rapidly swindled and sometimes fall apart in the face of a highly unequal balance of power: few or no consultations, unbearable pressure, promises made to divide the community, etc. For instance, the traditional land occupants in the East, where the 220 kilometres of pipelines were built for the Ambatovy nickel and cobalt exploitation project by Sherritt International14, were evicted. The area’s water and beekeeping resources were depleted. The ilmenite project carried out by QMM Rio Tinto15 in Taolagnaro (the South-East end of the island) is another example. The communities that lived in the extraction area or its immediate vicinity suffered from the company’s establishment and development16 as they lost their land and were displaced. But some communities have been presenting a determined resistance to QMM and the local authorities for the last two years, in defence of their territory and their land, as they demand fairer compensation: the consequence for them is legal trouble, repression and sometimes even imprisonment17.

The evictions suffered by the populations living on desired or taken lands are particularly dangerous for small family food farming and therefore for the whole region’s, or even the country’s, food safety. The kijana, grass pastureland and/or herd pathways in extensive livestock farming, are being placed beyond reach. The surrounding ecosystems and groundwater tables are threatened by the extraction of some minerals18. The cultural heritage (gravestones, traditional places of worship) of the population living in these areas is sometimes flouted or destroyed.

Official Documents and Legitimate (Customary) Law

Multinational corporations’ operations on the island are performed thanks to liberal mechanisms created for them by the different governments over the last ten years, which were pressed to do so by international financial organisations. The State only recognizes private property if it is backed by official documents: the ones created by colonisation or the ones managed by communal land offices pursuant to the 2005 land reform (which is now practically on hold because international subsidies were withdrawn due to the ongoing political crisis). Only roughly 10% of plots have deeds: therefore, families experience insecurity because their land could potentially be assigned to national or foreign investors.

The 2005 reform, advocated by civil society networks to gradually ensure the farmers’ right to farm their land, has turned the presumption of state ownership (which attributed land with no deed to the public domain), into a presumption of ownership in favour of the land’s occupants. Even though this reform acknowledged rights of occupation and use as a form of ownership, encouraged decentralisation in the management of non-titled land by municipalities (“to be closer to users”), recognized the need to draw up a local land tenure plan and granted decision-making power (“to make what is legitimate legal”) to a “local acknowledgment committee” made up of village elders, the mayor and neighbours of non-titled plots, the demand for land titles by very poor farmers - who are wary of any confusing land policy - has not been massive. Moreover, even though the Land Code still forbids selling land to foreigners, law 2003-028 which sets out the organisation and control of immigration, and law 2007-036 on investments, have authorised and simplified land sales to companies owned by a majority of foreign capital but with a Madagascan partner.

Overall, these texts do not favour small farmers who make up the bulk of the population. The desire to make land purchasing easier for foreign investors is even stated in the controversial Constitution of November 2010, in its 1st article: “The modalities and terms of land sales or long-term land leases in favour of foreigners will be determined by the law”.

The fees (royalties, tax income, etc.) paid to the State, to regions and municipalities are unknown because of the opacity of these issues, which fuels suspicions of corruption. “Some contracts mention compensations such as the construction of roads, schools, wells, sometimes health care centres, which investors provide in lieu of the State. In other cases, nothing is put into writing and compensations are agreed upon orally with local authorities! The compensations for the State and the population must be examined closely and concretely to verify their impact. Indeed, it is the main argument set forth by authorities and investors’ partisans, whose concern is neither the country’s sovereignty nor the food independence of future Madagascan generations.”19

Managing Land as a Common Commodity

The current multiplication of land conflicts in Madagascar is inherent to the fact that increasingly, farmers’ communities are refusing to surrender their natural territory to transnational capitalist interests which deny their very existence. A serious exit from the Madagascan chaos cannot leave these communities on the sidelines. The SIF Platform seems to have adequately integrated this element, since it proposes to establish a “communication and guidance mechanism for major land investors” to “enhance the transparency of large land acquisitions: (…) encourage the population to contribute to identifying and monitoring major land investments; favour communication between investors, central and local administration and the population; contribute to establishing a “Charter on Major Land Investments”… (…) promote sustainable land investments while securing the rights of local populations” 20.

The fokonolona (local traditional grassroots communities) know how to implement the Madagascan secular tradition of self-organisation through dina (social contracts), which can help citizens fight back, support each other and build together. In several regions, dinas are already used to prevent communities from splitting up over the few ridiculous benefits promised by multinational corporations. In this perspective, rural and peri-urban land planning can stem from a common management of communal heritage, which would set aside inalienable communal spaces yet to be defined21 - for inhabitants’ food safety, for further development, for resource preservation and management for future generations. Legitimizing the relationship between farmers’ communities and their natural territory, which is a peaceful alternative to the current disaster, will only make sense if it is carried out at the national level and established by a law of the Republic.

1 Cf. « L’approbation n’est pas encore effective », Madagascar Tribune, January 14th, 2009.


3 Boiteau P. (1958-1962): Contribution à l’histoire de la nation malgache, Paris, Editions sociales / Antananarivo, MCAR, 445 p.

4 Rakotondrabe D.T. (1980): Problèmes agraires, exploitation coloniale et évolution des sociétés malgaches dans le Nord-Ouest de 1910 à 1930, Antananarivo, Université de Madagascar, EESL, p.67.

5 Rarijaona R. (1967): Concept de propriété en droit foncier de Madagascar, Paris, Cujas, p.8.

6 Boiteau P. (1974): « Les Droits sur la terre dans la société malgache précoloniale. Contribution à l’étude du ‘mode de production asiatique’ », in Centre d’études et de recherches marxistes, 1974, Sur le mode de production asiatique, Paris, Editions sociales, pp.135-168.


8 Rabeherifara J.-C. (2010): « Madagascar. Le socialisme ratsirakien entre illusions révolutionnaristes et réorganisation néocoloniale », in Arzalier F. (dir.) Expériences socialistes en Afrique. 1960-1990, Paris, Le Temps des Cerises, pp.180-207.



11 - This inventory mentions “descendants of colonists claiming land taken by their ancestors” then the Italian company Tozzy Green (jatropha), the Madagascan company Bionnexx (artémisia), the British-Australian-Canadian-Madagascan company QMM, of which 80% belongs to Rio Tinto, the Chinese company Mainland Mining and the Australian company Toliara Sands (ilmenite).

12 The Chinese company Wisco or Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation (gold), the Italian company Delta Petroli (jatropha) the Canadian-South Korean-Japanese joint venture Sherritt International (cobalt and nickel), the Norwegian company Mada Woodland (reforestation).


14 Les Amis de la Terre, Madagascar, nouvel eldorado des compagnies minières et pétrolières, France, November 2012.

15 The only major contract signed before the current political crisis.

16 Voices of Change, NGO Andrews Lees Trust and Panos, London.

17 Je veux ma part de terre – Madagascar, documentary film by Lambolez Fred and Jean Marie Pernelle.

18 Such as the endangered water resources of Mikea populations: cf.

19 Midi-Madagasikara, 25 juillet 2013 :


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