Attendees of the TED conference – like those of many technology and business conferences – came home with bags filled with gifts from corporate sponsors: a set of bath towels from Lexus, a stuffed panda bear from the World Wildlife Fund. My favorite gift from TED didn’t come from the gift bag. It’s a straw hat, given to me by my friend Andriankoto Ratozamanana.
You can see Andriankoto (who many of us know as “Harinjaka”, his blogging and twitter handle) and the hat in question in this photo by Erik Hersman… and if you follow along in his photo stream, you can see me proudly wearing the hat the final day of the conference. I admired the hat, and Andriankoto gifted it to me, along with some handmade paper cards and a beautiful bag, all from his homeland.
My friend was attending TED as one of this year’s 40 invited fellows, an invitation that recognized his accomplishments as a reforestation activist and media pioneer. I know him best through his work in founding FOKO Club, an amazing organization training Malagasy youth in journalism, computers, blogging and English – FOKO is a partner of Rising Voices, and has an amazing track record of empowering young journalists, who in turn have been telling important stories and changing the lives of people they report on.
What Andriankoto is now proposing to do is even more important than what he’s done helping spread citizen media in Madagascar. His new company, Megaseeds, is promoting new techniques for growing rice, the staple food for Madagascar, a country that faces food insecurity and widespread poverty. He’s promoting a technique that uses carefully controlled watering, organic fertilizers and selective mechanization to increase rice yield per hectare by a factor of four.
This is critically important because Madagascar’s forests are at risk as farmers – 80% of Madagascar’s population – look for land to grow crops for subsistence. Deforestation for agricultural purposes is always concerning, but in the case of Madagascar, one of the world’s bio-diversity hotspots, it’s especially troubling.
It’s a hard time for Andriankoto to come home – Madagascar is facing serious political turmoil, and people are dying in political violence. As a recent twitter post put it:
@whiteafrican @afromusing @ethanz #madagascar soldiers shoot protesters, some dead waitting for me after #TED :(
That violence, as it turns out, is connected to the reforestation and agriculture issues he’s focused on… but it’s a little complicated. Give me a moment or two to try and catch you up.
Andry Rajoelina is the mayor of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. He’s a radio DJ, a media entrepreneur and has been an increasingly fierce critic of Marc Ravalomanana, the president of the country. On December 13, the president closed Rajoelina’s television station – Viva TV – because it broadcast an interview with exiled former leader Didier Ratsiraka. (Ravalomanana defeated Ratsiraka in a controversial election in 2002 – regulations required a run-off election, which was never held – and the country suffered six months of struggle before Ratsiraka fled to France.)
The closure of Viva TV has been condemned internationally, and it provoked Rajoelina to increase the stridency of his critique. About two weeks ago, Rajoelina declared himself in charge of Madagascar and demanded that the President step down. The President, not unsurprisingly, fired the mayor and continued to govern… but the country has been wracked with increasingly violent protests, including one in which protesters burned a government television station killing as many as forty.
This weekend, supporters of Rajoelina marched on the Presidential Palace. Government forces fired on them, killing 28. Malagasy bloggers are calling the incident Red Saturday, and their reactions include both outrage and amazement that protesters would dare to cross into “the red zone” that surrounds the Presidential palace. The results of this violence are likely to be long-lasting and profound: the minister of defense has already resigned in protest, and speculation is widespread that violence may now be difficult to contain. One of the people killed on Red Saturday was journalist Ando Ratovonirina – a friend to a number of people in the Global Voices Madagascar community – who was clearly unarmed and carrying recording equipment when he was shot. CPJ and others are demanding explanations for the government’s actions surrounding his death.
How does agriculture fit into all of this? Well, there’s been increasing dissatisfaction with the President’s government as he seems to be faring quite well economically while the rest of the country remains quite poor. Particularly galling to many Malagasy was the President’s purchase of an expensive jet – they question whether such expense is necessary given the poverty of many Malagasy citizens.
There’s speculation by some of my Malagasy friends that the jet was purchased with money paid to Ravalomanana by Daewoo. The Korean corporation recently signed an unprecedented agreement to lease 3.2 million acres of arable land from Madagascar at $12 an acre. That swath of land represents half the arable land in the country – it’s an area half the size of the nation of Belgium. Daewoo plans to put most of the land under corn for export to Korea and the remainder under oil palms, hoping to export the oil on the bio-fuels market.
This is a very odd deal, given that Madagascar is a nation that faces food insecurity and has a population that, for the most part, is composed of subsistence farmers. Spokesmen on both sides of the deal argue that it will create jobs in Madagascar on the new farms, and that the land was “totally undeveloped land which has been left untouched,” according to a Daewoo manager. Given the ecological sensitivity of the island, it seems like untouched land might be a resource the nation would want to conserve in the long term. The deal is so odd that many international experts have been expressing concern, and Daewoo has recently backed away from announcements that the deal has been completed.
So perhaps it’s a story about a brave, independent mayor standing up to a corrupt President who’s sold his country’s agricultural heartland for a new jet. Or, as others argue, an egomaniacal mayor who thought that people’s frustration with their President would lead him to a bloodless coup and control over a nation desperate for a path forward. One way or another, it’s pretty fascinating, especially as Africa-watchers look at the influence of China, India and other world powers on the African continent, and now may need to watch the rise of corporate powers as well.
But it’s not being very widely reported. Barry Bearak – god bless him – of the New York Times has been filing from Antananarivo… but he’s one of the very few. We cover Madagascar closely on Global Voices, as we’re lucky to have several members of the Madagascar blogging community as part of our team, and we’re discovering that Google News searches for Madagascar often feature our content… as we’re often the only ones reporting views and opinions from the ground. (We’ve got a dedicated page on the power struggle, which is very useful for catching up on the story.)
Reading the few stories that appear on news wires, I realize the incredible challenge of trying to get people to pay attention to this story. Madagascar is far away, even in African terms – most African friends know little about the country and it’s history. The names of the players in the conflict are hard to pronounce for northerners, the authoritative sources on the conflict are writing in French or Malagasy. It’s easy to understand how the story could get missed, even if it’s a critical story for understanding how the relationships between poor countries and powerful corporations might unfold in the 21st century.
I had a talk with a good friend at TED who works in public media. She and I were wondering how journalists can augment short, breaking news stories with the information necessary to actually understand the forces at work behind the scenes. We wondered what would be involved with producing a hundred or a thousand versions of This American Life’s groundbreaking piece, The Giant Pool of Money, which spent an hour offering sufficient background on the US mortgage crisis that listeners who’ve paid attention to it find that news updates on the mortgage industry are actually comprehensible. How would we do sufficient storytelling to give people the background to understand the conflict in Gaza, the gas pipeline crisis in Ukraine, the political violence in Madagascar? Could we do it in a way that people would enjoy listening and learning, as they did to the brilliant This American Life piece.
To put it bluntly: we need to figure out how to do this. It’s taken me a couple of hours of reading and some hours talking to Malagasy friends to understand the current crisis. As a result, I’m much more receptive to future news about it… until I did, the news largely floated over me, despite the fact that I have an interest in Madagascar through my Malagasy friends.
Until we do, I have a simpler strategy: I’m wearing Andriankoto’s hat. It looks good, and it attracts attention. And when people ask me whether it’s from Thailand or India, I can tell them it’s from Madagascar, a gift from a friend who’s trying to save his homeland from political violence by planting high-yield rice. And that’s a story I don’t mind telling as often as I have the opportunity.
The African Agriculture blog sees the Daewoo deal as dead, and offers a careful, detailed post-mortem. Most interesting to me, the author argues that large foreign investments are needed to make African agriculture more efficient, but that the Daewoo deal failed from size, unfair terms and a failure to understand how the deal would be perceived locally and on the continent.