Environmental Justice and Stratified Re/Production: An Update to “Plants and People, Children or Wealth”

Gillian Feeley-Harnik

Plants and People, Children or Wealth: Shifting Grounds of ‘Choice’ in Madagascar” (1995) is an analysis of the policies and practices of population and conservation programs in Madagascar from the ethnographic and historical perspective of a social-cultural anthropologist whose fieldwork in a small provincial town in northwest Madagascar and surrounding rural villages encompassed almost a generation, from 1971 to 1989, followed by brief visits in 1991 and 1995. In the mid-1990s, a growing number of scholars had begun to show that ecological change in Madagascar, past and present, was multifactorial and had to be understood in social-culturally, historically, and materially specific terms. Nevertheless old arguments persisted among governmental and expatriate specialists in conservation and population programs pitting plants against people, and so-called rational agricultural and family planning methods against what was presumed to be thoughtless, impulsive, opportunistic behavior in local communities. What was striking to me, as an historically-minded social anthropologist, was that the emphasis on family planning programs linked to claims about the supposedly heedless acts of Malagasy subsistence farmers, came in the wake of decades of concern by the French colonial government about how to get Malagasy to have more children in order to solve pressing labor problems in government and private enterprise (in keeping with pronatalist policies and practices in France for comparable reasons).

My analysis in Plants and People,” based on feminist insights about the mutual formation of kinship and political-economy, had two main purposes: (1) to set the then-current debates about kinship, labor relations, and environmental concerns into the long history of political economic dimensions of state-citizen relations that necessarily included Madagascar and France in colonial times and transnational relations in the postcolonial period; and (2) to provide some insights on these matters from the perspective of people in local communities like those where I worked and where, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had studied maternal and child health care in particular. Local people valued “choice,” but their “rights to choose” (then, as now) were severely limited by poverty and social status, just like reproductive rights among their contemporaries in Europe and the United States. Malagasy medics and midwives valued service (the French loan word in Malagasy) in making a “living” (fivelomana, with many regional variations) for their families, a phenomenon as complex in Madagascar as elsewhere (e.g., Tucker et al. 2011). But people across the board – Malagasy and expatriate alike, wealthy and poor, were also known to manao traffique (another common loan word), some from desperation to get by, yet others to enrich themselves further. In short, the problem of environmental justice in Madagascar, then and now, must be set in the context of international as well as internal relations, including global markets for land and labor in commercial enterprises like eco-tourism, timber, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, minerals, fossil and bio-fuels, in which we are all involved directly or indirectly.

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Government-employed midwife examining a pregnant woman on the floor of a one-room village school, Analalava region, northwest Madagascar (Gillian Feeley-Harnik, October 1989)

“Plants and People” (1995) came out the same year as Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, edited by feminist anthropologists, Faye D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp. Their collection, including case studies from all over the world (although Tola Olu Pearce’s study, based in Nigeria, was the only one from Africa) focused on women and childbirth. My perspective on stratified reproduction came from the history of slavery in Madagascar, persisting to the present in what I called “three domesticities,” adopting the phrase of Willie Lee Rose, the late historian of slavery in the southern United States (Feeley-Harnik 1991; A Green Estate was to have been called Death and Development in Madagascar, a title the editor rejected as too grim). “Plants and People” (1995) was also an argument for setting stratified re/production – that is, kinship inextricable from divisions of labor within and beyond kingroups – into the whole life cycle, cradle to grave, including maternal and infant mortality rates, still much higher in countries in the global South than in the North (World Health Organization 2017). Those countries are also the source of most of the migrant workers who support the social reproduction of wealthier families in the North, in childcare (the main focus in Ginsburg and Rapp 1995), but also in health care throughout the lifespan, and in elder care, at substantial social cost to the social reproduction of their own natal and affinal families where their children and elders are deprived of their care. Scholars of environmental justice must consider the effects of environmental problems on communities integrating perspectives on kinship and labor relations throughout the life cycle with their generational consequences alongside the local life spans of the enterprises and generations of their environmental damages.

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Portrait of a baby girl, Analalava region. For this occasion, her mother adorned the infant by surrounding her with green plants signifying growth (Gillian Feeley-Harnik, December 1989).

In the mid-1990s, I had to shift the location of my research from Madagascar (and France) to the United States (and eventually Great Britain). I followed up on what I called “the political economy of death,” as essential as birth to an integrated understanding of stratified social re/production in Madagascar’s international (1997) as well as local relations (2000), and an analysis of one of the iconic botanic idioms of those relations, past and present (2001). I also began to explore the ideas and practices of kinship and ecology that went into American population and conservation programs abroad, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, when Merina officials, seeking help in combatting French and British efforts at colonization, sent envoys to successive U.S. governments. “Placing the Dead: The Kinship of Free Men in Pre- and Post-Civil War America” (2013) is an analysis of the growing popularity of family histories and changes in burial practices to the segregation of east coast cities, focused on Hartford, Connecticut, set in the context of international relations, including Madagascar.

Malagasy were among the slaves imported from Africa and adjacent islands into the United States, and they were, and are, laborers in the ongoing production of key commodities for international markets. In the past two decades, the numbers of Madagascar’s national parks have increased alongside an ever-growing number of international commercial enterprises in the timber, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, mining and oil industries that threaten the environments in which they are located (e.g., Renaud et al. 2012). As across the global South, neoliberal policies (promoted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) to reverse prior structural adjustment schemes have encouraged the privatization of land, the growth of export industries, and the loosening of regulations protecting workers from exploitation and environmental damages. The divide between rich and poor has expanded, while poverty rates have stayed the same or increased. The International Monetary Fund (2017:2) estimated that “roughly 71.5 percent of the population was poor in 2012 [measured as an annual income of $365] …. Extreme poverty … impacts 56.5 percent of the population.”

3 Sodikoff 2017 Men carrying charcoal Antsakatsaka

Charcoal producers in primary forests near Andasibe-Mantadia National Park (Genese Sodikoff, 2017)

Scholars of Madagascar have documented a wide range of issues concerning environmental injustice in Madagascar in the past twenty years, and a few have addressed the effects of injustices on stratified re/production in local communities. Kull (2004) questioned the assumption that Madagascar was once completely forested and set Malagasy farmers’ use of fire into a historical political ecological analysis of struggles over access to resources and uses of land. Sodikoff (e.g., 2007, 2012), based on research in and around the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park in east-central Madagascar and the Mananara-Nord Biosphere Reserve (now National Park) south of Antongil Bay, was a pioneer in documenting the steep labor hierarchies of conservation projects and adjacent commercial enterprises, in which the majority of Malagasy workers were in the lowest-paying jobs. The Ambatovy mine, one of the largest lateritic nickel and cobalt mines in the world, which is co-owned by Canadian, Japanese, and Korean mining and machinery companies, was founded a scant ten miles west of the Andasibe-Mantadia park in 2007 (see Seagle 2013). Rakoto and Ufer (2014), notably Rambinintsotra (2014), argue that the division of labor of many international corporations in Madagacar is tantamount to contemporary slavery and must be heavily regulated to ensure that workers are treated fairly.

Walsh (2005, 2010), based on research in the Antankarana Special Reserve and nearby sapphire mining and trading enterprises reserve in northern Madagascar, argues that eco-tourism, based on “conservation” as a commodity paradoxically shares many crucial features with extractive industries like mining. Although seemingly at odds, they both emphasize the high value of supposedly uniquely precious commodities that are in fact generic and common worldwide, in other places or as synthetics, keeping owners’ profits high and workers’ wages low and keeping local the consequences of pollution that may persist for generations.

4 Walsh 2008 Tree-Alafady

A tree/sign marking the boundary of Ankarana National Park, one of Madagascar’s most popular ecotourist destinations. The Malagasy “ala fady” can be translated as “taboo forest,” an appellation that is meant to keep Malagasy farmers, charcoal producers, and artisanal miners out of the Park (Andrew Walsh, 2008).

Corson’s Corridors of Power: The Politics of Environmental Aid to Madagascar (2016) is an analysis of the failure of U.S. environmental aid to Madagascar, focusing mainly on the work of USAID as exemplary of American neoliberal conservation and development programs in Madagascar since the late 1970s. These programs have failed precisely because the “expansion of protected areas [or aires protégées, “protected” from rural farmers historically blamed for deforestation] became a means by which to retain a commitment to foreign conservationists, while also promoting the extractive industries that were critical to the economy” (p. 29, see Chapter 5). “By failing to recognize the intertwined nature of foreign investment, land tenure politics, and rural livelihoods, the initiative to expand Madagascar’s protected areas has reinforced, rather than redressed the drivers of deforestation in Madagascar” (p. 53). The “transnational conservation enterprise” was based on the consolidation of relations between U.S. governmental and private and non-profit conservation organizations, which justified the reduction of the powers of Malagasy national and local governments to devise, regulate, and enforce policies and practices of conservation on their own (pp. 19-21, Chapter 6). American congressmen supported U.S. conservation efforts abroad to avoid comparable programs in their home districts. Corson’s study is focused mainly on the “corridors of power” involving state and non-state actors in part because, as she shows, their policies and practices were developed in virtual ignorance of the actual livelihoods of people in local communities.

Keller’s Beyond the Lens of Conservation (2015), based on a study of a partnership between a Swiss zoo and a “protected area” in Madagascar co-managed by the Malagasy government and the New York- based Wildlife Conservation Society, comes to similar conclusions, supported by the insights of local Malagasy farmers. The Masoala Partnership Project opened in 2003 to connect Malagasy living around a nature reserve in northeastern Madagascar and Swiss visitors to rainforest under glass at the Zurich zoo, substantiates these arguments. Like the Malagasy laborers with whom Sodikoff worked, villagers around the Masoala National Park equated the project with historical, and now contemporary, forms of slavery and dispossession from land. For the Swiss visitors to “Little Masoala” in Zurich, “the Malagasy people are hardly visible”; they are “a ‘kind’ of people” set in a generic “‘coconut schema’ . . . found in many distant places” and in some evolutionary past (p. 216-219). In short, “the bridge between North and South that the Masoala project is said to provide is broken . . . instead the project, in fact, widens the gap” (p. 8; see also Walsh 2005, p. 655).

Ferguson et al. (2014) documents concessions from the Malagasy state to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), like reducing taxes, and facilitating the repatriation of profits, supporting investors’ rights, while curtailing workers’ rights and owners’ liabilities for environmental damages. Thus despite the growing income the Malagasy state receives from rents on leases related to its natural resources, it loses far more from the repatriation of their profits.

5 Sodikoff 2013 Lemur bridge at Ambatovy

Lemur bridge connecting forest stands at the site of the Ambatovy mine located next to the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park (Genese Sodikoff, 2013).

Rights over land, ranging from ancestral rights of use in state-controlled nature reserves to rights of ownership over land leased to agricultural and mining enterprises are another key issue in the scholarship on environmental justice in Madagascar, especially after the collapse of the presidency of Marc Ravalomanana (2002-2009) in March 2009 in the wake of national outrage over the government’s proposed lease of some 1.3 million hectares of agricultural land to Daewoo Logistics, a South Korean company, for ninety-nine years (Andrianirina-Ratsialonana et al. 2011; Vinciguerra 2013). See Franchi et al. (2013) for an overview of the issues and a summary of the legal protections over rights to land in Madagascar, including the status of unwritten customary rights over land in Malagasy law. The status of ancestral land, including its spiritual dimensions, the nature of rights over land in local communities, the rights of farmers and related workers in the face of pressures from commercial enterprises and outright land-grabbing, the negligence or failure of state authorities to protect local customary rights over land, written or unwritten (seen as the persistence of weak regulations during the colonial era, 1896-1960). Also, see the Journal of Peasant Studies for several recent papers related to these issues in Madagascar and elsewhere.

Evers, Campbell, and Lambek’s edited collection, Contest for Land in Madagascar: Environment, Ancestors and Development (2013) is exceptional in the breath of historical and contemporary issues covered. The essays by Evers and by Middleton are especially valuable for their detailed analyses of the “ongoing cleavages between positive law land legislation [lex fori] and land ownership based on custom [lex loci]” (in Evers’s paper, p. 120) in regions throughout Madagascar. All the authors in different ways call attention to the need for a much deeper understanding of the significance of “ancestral land” in terms of ideas and practices of relations with ancestors and their tombs in local communities and in their ancestral histories articulated in their land (see also Osterhoudt 2016, 2017). As the editors put it in their introduction: “For the Malagasy, self-identity, historical continuity, life, and value are anchored in the ancestral soil. To place a uniquely monetary value on land, and offer it for sale or lease, notably to foreigners, is seen as the ultimate sign of disrespect towards the living and the dead (the ancestors)” (p. 16).

How local and global systems of stratified re/production interact with conservation, development, and population programs in conditions of environmental injustice has not been a major focus of attention in the current scholarship on Madagascar so partially and briefly discussed here. Walsh’s recent papers (e.g., 2013, 2017) track some transformations in relations of kinship and community in the wake of the sapphire mining boom in northern Madagascar. Cole’s recent work (e.g., 2014a, b, 2016), though not focused on environmental issues, deals with the worsening rural economies that have led young people to search for scarce jobs in provincial towns and women in particular to migrate abroad, especially to France, in search of work and husbands. Her focus on generational change is intended to integrate the analysis of the life courses of individuals with political-economic transformations on a much larger scale. Regnier and Somda (forthcoming) survey historical and ethnographic work on memories and practices of slavery persisting in many parts of Madagascar and their relationship to broader conditions of political economic inequality that would be relevant to further research on environmental issues. Genese Sodikoff’s current research (e.g., 2016) examining the relationship of land degradation to the incidence and spread of zoonotic diseases like pneumonic plague and rabies current in Madagascar in which conditions of stratified re/reproduction are likely to be crucial factors.

6 Walsh 2008 Brookesia chameleon

A Brookesia chameleon — one of the many “natural wonders” that draw ecotourists to Ankarana National Park in northern Madagascar (Andrew Walsh, 2008).

The earliest conservation projects in Madagascar claimed Malagasy farmers as the despoilers of their environments. Scholars have since identified the political economic circumstances of impoverishment and disenfranchisement of rights to land and other resources that force some farmers to take extreme measures, and they have documented the far greater, and ever expanding, impact of multinational business corporations on Madagascar’s animals, plants, and people alike. An interspecies perspective on human-animal-plant relations would take these issues even further. Nature reserves, which confine wild organisms to diminished habitats alongside expanded commercial enterprises, exist on a global continuum with factory farms and the emerging possibility of organ farms set inside animals. From an interspecies perspective, exotic animals and plants, common domesticates, and impoverished workers are all involved in global systems of stratified reproduction in which they share a common fate. Attention to their entwined systems of stratified re/production, which include our own, is essential to future scholarship on environmental justice.


Andrianirina-Ratsialonana, Rivo, Landry Ramarojohn, Perrine Burnod, and André Teyssier. 2011. After Daewoo? Current Status and Perspectives of Large-scale Land Acquisition in Madagascar. Rome: International Land Coalition.

Cole, Jennifer. 2014a. “Working Mis/Understandings: The Tangled Relationship between Kinship, Franco-Malagasy Binational Marriage and the French State.” Cultural Anthropology 29(3): 527-551.

—. 2014b. “Producing Value among Malagasy Marriage Migrants in France: Managing Horizons of Expectation.” Current Anthropology 55 (s9): S85-S94.

—. 2016. “Giving Life: Regulating Affective Circuits among Malagasy Marriage Migrants in France.” In Affective Circuits: African Migrations to Europe and the Pursuit of Social Regeneration, eds. Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes, 197-222. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Corson, Catherine A. 2016 Corridors of Power: The Politics of Environmental Aid to
Madagascar. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Feeley-Harnik, Gillian 1991. A Green Estate: Restoring Independence in Madagascar. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

—. 1997. “Dying Gods and Queen Mothers: The International Politics of Social Reproduction in Africa and Europe.” In Cultural Encounters: Gender at the Intersection of the Local and the Global in Africa, eds. Maria Grosz-Ngaté and Omari H. Kokole, 153-183. London: Routledge.

—. 2000 “Childbirth and the Affiliation of Children in Northwest Madagascar.” Numéro spécial: “Repenser ‘la femme malgache’: de nouvelles perspectives sur le genre à Madagascar,” ed. Sarah Fee. Taloha: Revue de l’Institut de Civilisations—Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie, Antananarivo 13: 135-72.

—. 2001. “Ravenala madagascariensis Sonnerat: The Historical Ecology of a ‘Flagship Species’ in Madagascar.” Ethnohistory 48 (1/2): 31-86.

—. 2013. “Placing the Dead: The Kinship of Free Men in Pre- and Post-Civil War America.” In Vital Relations: Kinship and the Critique of Modernity, eds. Fenella Cannell and Susan McKinnon, 179-216. Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press.

Ferguson, Barry, Charlie J. Gardner, Mijasoa M. Andriamarovolonona, Tim Healy, Frank Muttenzer, Shirley M. Smith, Neal Hockley and Mathilde Gingembre. 2014. “Governing Ancestral Land in Madagascar: Have Policy Reforms Contributed to Social Justice?” In Governance for Justice and Environmental Sustainability: Lessons across Natural Resource Sectors in Sub-Saharan Africa, eds. Merle Sowman and Rachel Wynberg, 63-93. London: Routledge.

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Freeman, Luke. 2013. “Separation, Connection, and the Ambiguous Nature of Émigré Houses in Rural Highland Madagascar.” Home Cultures 10(2): 93-110.

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Keller, Eva. 2015. Beyond the Lens of Conservation: Malagasy and Swiss Imaginations of One Another. Oxford/New York: Berghahn.

Kull, Christian A. 2004. Isle of Fire: The Political Ecology of Landscape Burning in Madagascar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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—. 2017. Vanilla Landscapes: Meaning, Memory and the Cultivation of Place in Madagasar. New York: New York Botanical Garden Press.

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Regnier, Denis. 2015. “ ‘Clean people, unclean people: the essentialisation of ‘slaves’ among the southern Betsileo of Madagascar.” Social Anthropology 23(2):152-168.

Regnier, Denis, and Dominique Somda. Forthcoming. “Slavery and Postslavery in Madagascar: An Overview.” In African Islands: Leading Edges of Empire and Globalization, eds. Toyin Falola, Danielle Sanchez, and Joe Parrott. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

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Seagle, Caroline. 2013. “Discourse, Development and Legitimacy: Nature/Culture Dualism of Mining Engagements in Biodiversity Offsetting and Conservation in Madagascar.” In Contest for Land in Madagascar: Environment, Ancestors and Development, eds. Sandra Evers, Gwyn Campbell, Michael Lambek, 187-220. Leiden: Brill.

Sodikoff, Genese Marie. 2004. “Land and Languor: Ethical Imaginations of Work and Forest in Northeast Madagascar.” History and Anthropology 15(4): 367-398.

—. 2012. Forest and Labor in Madagascar: From Colonial Concession to Global Biosphere. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

—. 2012. The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

—. 2016. “The Plague of Inequality.” Anthropology News 57(7): e81-e84.

Tucker, Bram, Amber Huff, Tsiazonera, Jaovola Tombo, Patricia Hajasoa, and Charlotte Nagnisaha. 2011. “When the Wealthy are Poor: Poverty Explanations and Local Perspective in Southwestern Madagascar.” American Anthropologist 113(2): 291-305.

Vinciguerra, Venusia. 2013. “How the Daewoo Attempted Land Acquisition Contributed to Madagascar’s Political Crisis in 2009.” In Contest for Land in Madagascar: Environment, Ancestors and Development, eds. Sandra Evers, Gwyn Campbell, Michael Lambek, 221-246. Leiden: Brill.

Walsh, Andrew. 2005. “The Obvious Aspects of Ecological Underprivilege in Ankarana, Northern Madagascar.” American Anthropologist 107(4): 654-665.

—. 2012. Made in Madagascar: Sapphires, Ecotourism, and the Global Bazaar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

—. 2013. “Parenting through Boom and Bust in a Northern Malagasy Mining Town.” In Contest for Land in Madagascar: Environment, Ancestors and Development, eds. Sandra Evers, Gwyn Campbell, Michael Lambek, 171-186. Leiden: Brill.

—. 2017. “After the Rush: Living through Uncertainty in a Malagasy Mining Town.” Africa 82(2): 235-251.

World Health Organization. 2017. Global Health Observatory country views [of “health indicators”].


Many thanks to Professor Kathryn Henne (School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University), associate editor at PoLAR for including my paper in virtual issue on Environmental Justice; to Kathleen Mannard for her assistance in the process; and to Professor Genese Sodikoff (Anthropology, Rutgers University, Newark) and Professor Andrew Walsh (Anthropology, University of Western Ontario) for allowing me to include their photographs and captions in this essay.