Madagascar in detail

Destination Today

Despite the return to political legitimacy following the 2013 legislative and presidential elections, Madagascar has struggled to regain the development oomph it had garnered in the mid-naughties. The election of Andry Rajoelina in December 2018 hasn't reassured: although he is young and ambitious, his name is still tainted by the terrible years of the Transition. As of 2019, the collective attitude seemed to be that he'd at least be given the benefit of the doubt.

Unfulfilled Potential

On paper, Madagascar has everything going for it. It has large coal, uranium, bauxite and rare-earth mineral deposits, as well as potential gas and oil reserves (exploration is ongoing). Around 70% of its land is arable and productivity gains in agriculture, which employs nearly 80% of the population, could be easily achieved with simple measures such as the use of (organic) fertilisers, modern agricultural techniques and better land tenure.

Madagascar's wonderful natural heritage also forms the backbone of the tourism industry, but security issues in the southwest and unrest in the lead up to the 2018 elections have slowed recovery to the pre-coup heyday (365,000 visitors came to the island in 2008, but only 250,000 in 2018). Tourism holds an important place in Madagascar because it is seen as a good way to combine sustainable economic growth with environmental conservation. The Malagasy are anxious to see the proceeds of their mineral wealth trickle through for instance, but they are concerned about the social and environmental impacts of such projects.

The good news is that although it took five years for the economy to get back to 5% GDP growth (what you'd expect from a country where there is so much to do), this is expected to last until 2021, on the back of infrastructure investment and a bullish export sector.

Climate Emergency

Madagascar is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world: its location in the Indian Ocean leaves it hugely exposed. The island nation’s pervasive poverty and lack of economic development also severely restrict its capacity to adapt to climatic shifts.

Broadly speaking, the main changes experienced by Madagascar are rising temperatures, greater variability in rainfall, the intensification of cyclones (cyclone Enawo, in 2017, was the most destructive in 13 years), rising sea levels and sea temperatures, and extended drought periods, as seen in the south. In 2017–18, 1.3 million people found themselves requiring emergency food assistance following a severe drought, with UN organisations and numerous NGOs stepping in to avoid a famine.

The drought also triggered intense internal migration, with tens of thousands of families deciding to move elsewhere, sometimes in areas barely able to cope with the influx of newcomers: in the Menabe region on the southwestern coast, sustained migration from the south has been a major contributing factor to the destruction of rare dry forests in the Menabe Antinena Protected Area.

In an open letter published in the prominent science journal Nature in January 2019, leading conservation scientists called on the new president to use his presidency to take a stand against climate change and environmental destruction in Madagascar. His mandate, they argued, was the last opportunity to protect rare and fragile ecosystems from the point of no-return. He may be heeding their advice: at the One Planet Summit in March 2019, President Andry Rajoelina promised to implement an ambitious reforestation plan by planting 40,000 ha per year until 2030.

Young But Fragile

In 2018, Madagascar carried out its first general census since 1993. It was a huge undertaking and a crucial exercise since government and aid agencies alike had been relying on increasingly shaky population estimates for their budgets and planning. The census revealed that although the population has nearly doubled in 25 years, Madagascar remains overwhelmingly rural, and phenomenally young, with more than 50% of the population under the age of 18.

Like many other countries in the world, Madagascar has been swept by the global measles epidemic in 2018–19. But because of its poor vaccination cover, a legacy of the transition years, and widespread malnutrition, the outbreak was particularly virulent: the country recorded more than 117,000 cases between September 2018 and March 2019, and 1200 deaths, mostly children under 15. By comparison, the plague outbreak of 2017, one of the worst in years, had affected just over 1000 people and killed 128.