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Madagascar: Making-Living


Vernacular Human Ecologies of Antongil Bay, Northeast Madagascar

by Fíacha O’Dowda

Madagascar is famous for its biodiversity, yet many of the contemporary practices and ideas that underpin biodiversity conservation, such as creating protected areas, the idea of ecology, and the intrinsic value of conserving species from human-driven extinction, are practices and ideas imported and implemented from abroad. Although in many contexts around the world, the concept of an ‘Indigenous ecology’ can work to mobilise communities against ecologically destructive practices and work toward an enduring biocultural diversity, I suggest that in Madagascar, due to histories of mistranslating and imposing concepts from abroad, a consideration of biocultural diversity and its possible futures might be better served by being attentive to vernacular concepts of life and livelihood, concepts that do not easily translate or map onto ideas of indigeneity and ecology.

The history of Antongil Bay, which opens wide onto the Indian Ocean in the Northeast of Madagascar, is a story of waves of settlement, of people arriving from other parts of Madagascar and abroad to carve out ways of living at the forest edge.1 It is in and through the forest that many people mampavelona, ‘make-living’, as it is said in the varieties of Malagasy used along the bay. In tandem with layers of settlement, ecologies have been shaped, reformed, reinterpreted, and reconceptualised in relation to novel crops and ways of working land, and shifting relations to global trade. If ecology can be understood as a way of comprehending life in all its relations, then the human ecologies of Antongil Bay are multiple, polyvalent, heterogenous, and always in motion.

Plan de la Baye d’Antongil, Bibliothèque nationale de France. Image via

The mountain ranges that follow the contour of the bay support Madagascar’s widest standing rainforests, comprising a plethora of the endemic flora and fauna that have attracted generations of biologists and wildlife conservationists to Madagascar. The steep mountain slopes at the edges of the now protected forests of the Makira Natural Park, Masoala Natural Park, and Mananara Nord Biosphere Reserve are cultivated with a variety of crops for subsistence; rice, breadfruit, yam, manioc, and for the international market; vanilla, clove, coffee, cinnamon, and cacao. Rice provides the main staple, and cultivation is divided between hillside rain-irrigated plots cleared and maintained in cycles of burning and fallowing land, and lowland paddy rice cultivation. The cultivated slopes constitute a dense and shifting mosaic of land use, as crops under cultivation respond to cash crop price fluctuations, fallowing systems, and individual preferences for making livelihoods. This is a world of living interactions apart from the endemic ecologies of the conservation areas.

When I document people telling their family histories, the layers of deeper time and origin are often invoked in vague geographical terms; “We are from the South”, “We came from over there”, “We came up along the coast, from where we were before”. In this manner, local histories of people and place are inevitably also stories of arrival and succession. Political formations and economic divisions are most evident between those who are ‘masters-of-land’ (tompan-tany), and those who are ‘guests’ (vahiny), indicating orders of settlement of particular lineage groups. Vahiny, even though they may own land and have significant economic power and status, may after many generations still ‘go home’ (mody) to bury and rebury their ancestors in the place that they came from last, or may exhume and rehouse all their ancestors in a burial ground in the place that the lineage have now taken root. In this way, everyone’s ancestors are conceived as participating in a history of arrivals, of successive associations and negotiations of relationship to place, that can continue after death.

Relation to place is less an intrinsic given, than a continuous process of learning, ‘negotiation, and becoming, of becoming more and more off-a-place. A successful arrival, a successful vahiny, is capable of respecting and coming ‘to know’ (mahay) ‘the ways’ (fomba) of a particular place; from the embodied skills of how to move fluidly in a particular landscape, to the seldom communicated taboos (fady) about how people need to interact with land and other species to avoid potentially tragic twists of fate. In this way, contextualised knowledge of land, species, taboo, and language are what constitutes a loosening of vahiny status.

This gives some sparse context for why, in the places where I do research, the term ‘Indigenous ecology’ is difficult to translate into a meaningful concept, as no family is conceived as intrinsically from and off a place, but always part of a process in motion that trails back into forgetting, into the limits of oral history. What appears unanimous in the recounting of family histories, is that even the lineages understood as first settling land, of being most undisputedly masters-of-land, are described at some unremembered and undocumented time, as being from elsewhere. It is through knowing an ecology that an individual and their descendants can diminish their status as guests in a place and become masters-of-land.2

Thus, becoming-of-a-place is intrinsically associated with acquiring and embodying contextualised knowledge in relation to a spectrum of social and environmental relationships, of what might be called a vernacular human ecology. Of course, this idea is a scholarly linguistic construct, but it is translatable in the vernacular variety of Malagasy language as a phrase that can make sense; ‘as knowledge of people’s ways, with other living things, and with land, in this place here’ (fahaizana reseka fomban’olom-belona miaraka ny biby sy tany amin’ny toerena aty). Such a situated discursive formulation might more fruitfully open conversation about making-life and relations-of-life, than the abstract official Malagasy formulation of ecology as tontolo iainana (‘living-world’). Moreover, it has the potential to connect with the spectrum of political mobilisations around land and ecologies that are associated with Indigenous movements in other places.

There are potential areas of overlapping concern, interest, and interpretation of the living world with scientific ecologies. However, these vernacular ecologies are conceptualisations of the living world and its relationships that are fundamentally different from the theories of life that inform the foundation of the protected areas and national parks that have enclosed the forest frontier upon which kinship groups have unfolded over time and created their histories.

As anthropologist Genese Sodikoff has documented in her work on the Mananara Nord Biosphere Reserve, most local inhabitants involved in the work of conservation supplied wage labour for physically demanding tasks, and remained distant from the conversations of management, and the ontological basis for biodiversity conservation.3 In Margaret Brown’s ethnographic work on the other side of the bay, at Cap Est, she observed how teams of facilitators from conservation organisations came to live in remote villages to prepare people for the founding of the Masoala National Park, but they were there to educate, and not to learn, and were generally from the Malagasy highlands, bringing with them different assumptions about relations of life, communicated in a very different language.4

In my own work, I have interviewed elderly people who worked counting tree varieties in the Makira Forest for the Grand Moulins de Dakar, when this Franco-Senegalese Milling and Grain company was granted the vast expanse as a concession by the French Colonial government. The people I interviewed don’t see any qualitative difference between the work undertaken by the Grand Moulins, and the work of observing and tabulating species done now by the New York-headquartered Wildlife Conservation Society in the Makira Natural Park. The very word Makira is understood as representing the idea of foreign authority over the forest and is used as a short-hand both to refer to anyone who works for ‘them’ and for the organisation itself; ‘so-and-so is Makira‘, is thus another way of saying someone has internalised foreign (Vazaha) ideas about life and ecology.

There is no doubt that dialogue is necessary between park managers and local inhabitants, if there is to be a possibility of maintaining the forested lands and biodiversity of Antongil Bay. However, prospective attempts to understand vernacular knowledge and perspectives by uncritically adopting terms like ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ or ‘Indigenous ecology’, risk imposing another foreign conceptual framework, furthering the practices of top-down simplification and essentialisation that have underscored colonial and post-colonial encounters between institutional forest managers, and those who actually use the forest to mampavelon-tegna, to ‘make-the-self-alive’.

It is perhaps through a curiosity about language, through the formulation of questions about possible ecologies – about how to mampavelona ‘make-alive’, not just the human subject, but the forest itself, or to mifampavelona ‘reciprocally make-alive’ – that human ecologies might be shaped and nurtured towards greater conviviality, grounded in a vernacular conceptual frame, but which also consider the preservation and multiplication of non-human lives, beyond the implicit violence of historical and contemporary enclosures of land and limiting of access to the forests.

FÍACHA O’DOWDA is an Anthropologist at UCL, where he is a member of the Human Ecology Research Group and the Centre for the Anthropology of Technics and Technodiversity. Ongoing research in Northeast Madagascar concerns vernacular theories and practices of life and living with and through the forest and its substances.


Proofreading by Rasa Kamarauskaite

1 Chaplain Toto, La Baie d’Antongil dans l’Est de Madagascar du XVIIème - XIXème siècles: Le Pays et les Hommes dans La Duree, Dissertation. (Universite d’Antananarivo/Universite de Toamasina: 2018)
2 Similar processes are documented in Oliver Woolley, The Earth Shakers of Madagascar: An Anthropological Study of Authority, Fertility and Creation. (Berg: 2002)
3 Genese Marie Sodikoff, Forest and Labor in Madagascar: From Colonial Concession to Global Biosphere. (Indiana University Press: 2012).
4 Margaret L. Brown, Authority Relations and Trust: Social Cohesion on the Eastern Masoala Peninsula, Madagascar, Dissertation. (Washington University: 1999).