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Andriankoto’s hat

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.

23 thoughts on “Andriankoto’s hat”

  1. ….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….

  2. great piece, i consider myself in touch with most world events, but have been confused about Madagascar till I read this. It didn’t make sense till now – in the African context? how does a Mayor challenge a President?

  3. Great and accurate summary Ethan. Congrats!

    This Madagascar mess needs to be known beyond malagasy and french speaking people.
    Moreover, we (african people) need to be aware that structured and well paced agriculture development will be our future in today’s global high competitive economy.

    Harinjaka is right. Give him my five


  4. Thanks for this Ethan. I met Harinjaka virtually while covering Madagascar for GV and it is great to find out a little more about him (like his real name!), that he was at TED and his involvement with FOKO. Thanks also for the summary on the situation in Madagascar.

  5. A moving post and a challenging idea. How to get more compelling and informative backgrounders like the “Giant Pool of Money” out there. Wikipedia is good and it is amazing to see it updated so rapidly around political events, however, what is missing from Wikipedia is the compelling narrative that made the Giant Pool of Money so good. The combination of real voices combined with an eloquent weaving together of events into a cohesive story. I can’t imagine a crowd-sourcing substitute for the brilliant journalism that produced the GPoM. However, there may be weaker but more crowdsourceable alternatives. Coming back to your meme on constraint and innovation, what about having a 2-minute YouTube challenge (or even a 1-minute challenge) to explain a current event. Let the public rate the explanations Digg/Slashdot-style. You could offer a list of under-publicised or just very complicated current events for people to test their mettle on. Give modest Global Voices recognition/awards (maybe a Flip video camera :-) to the best. Thinking out loud… Steve

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  7. Ethan,

    I’m shocked and bewildered in what is happening on that beautiful island. I just hope and pray Andriankoto can find a way to cope in all this misery. The last thing we need in Africa, is another country falling into a spiral of wicked violence.

    Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.


  8. “I realize the incredible challenge of trying to get people to pay attention to this story.” You said it all, Ethan.

    Back in 2002, even french TVs and radios didn’t talk about facts and events happenin’ here in Madagascar, while Malagasy friends and family members, of very different political opinions, told me that people were tortured, murdered and so on. Medias still focused on some straightforward political opinions. This pushed me to come back in Madagascar: I believed and am still believing that The Internet is THE right tool to let the world, including Malagasy people living outside of the country, to know what’s happenin.

    Nowadays, with Free Softwares and social tools being nearly mainstream, we just can’t let things going as if Madagascar is still insulated. Even if to get people to pay attention to facts (and not only political opinions) is not so easy.

    When these 2009 events began, even those reluctant to using other social tools than Facebook accepted to use more opened ones, as they understood that people – the world – have to know the facts, in the hope that this CAN change things in this country.

    Following, ReTweeting and sharing the news published on these websites pointed out by Ethan definitely help -a lot-. That’s the reason why I decided to add some impartial (?) news feeds tracking Madagascar events in the Madagascar’s FriendFeed room I created few months ago ( http://friendfeed.com/rooms/madagascar ), and to create MadagascarTweets ( http://twitter.com/MadagascarTweet ). But once the ’emergency period’ has passed, it’s clear that other buzzing tools have to be implemented.

    Thanks a lot to you ALL. Thanks Ethan, thanks Harinjaka, thanks Harinjaka’s malagasy hat ;-)

  9. Insightful as usual. I hope an engaging conversation emerges from this. It would be great to see more Malagasy commenting here.

    My own initial two cents to keep the conversation going.

    Marc Ravalomanana…

    I have followed his career for years, partly because both of us were born on December 12th, albeit 20 years and 10,000 km apart. As the recent Economist article (www.economist.com/world/mideast-africa/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13061844&fsrc=rss) pointed out, “Since President Marc Ravalomanana came to power in 2002, the former French colony in the Indian Ocean had enjoyed average economic growth of 5% a year, a booming tourist industry, rising foreign investment and stability. Now it has been plunged back into political turmoil with all that entails for its still fragile conomy.” The majority of articles on the Internet about Ravalomanana’s first term in office 2002-2006 mention how he improved infrastructure, tried to fix a broken health care system, carried out positive education reforms, improved literacy figures, etc. Ravalomanana was also a previous mayor of Antananarivo, and was credited with cleaning up the city during his term in office.

    Andry Rajoelina…

    “Everyone knows it is what the Malagasy call a “red zone” – forbidden. It was always likely to be highly provocative for supporters of opposition leader Andry Rajoelina to try to take the palace.” – BBC.

    “Two outcomes were possible when the crowd arrived to Antaninarenina [where the Presidential palace is located], and I apologize for saying brutally that most of the demonstrators leading the crowd originated from the poorer neighborhoods : either the soldiers would shoot, or the Palace would burn, either one, no other possibilities…What is amazing to me is that Andry (Rajoelina) did not go to Antaninarenina and went home, so the retired General Dolin Rasolosoa was the one managing the crowd and leading negotiations with the military. Monja Roindefo Zafitsimivalo, the freshly designated “Prime Minister”, was but a follower.” – Jentilisa via Mialy Andriamananjara on GV . http://globalvoicesonline.org/2009/02/09/madagascar-bloggers-react-to-red-saturdays-bloodshed/

    Trying to topple a democratically elected President, not by parliamentary means or even mass people power but by declaring, “Since the president and the government have not taken their responsibilities… I will run all national affairs as of today.” Then the President fires you, as you said “not unsurprisingly”. Next, you organize a march to the presidential palace. Isn’t this an attempted coup d’etat!?! The latest news is that he has “named” 4 new “ministers” and called for a general strike tomorrow.

    And what about the role of Ratsiraka loyalists in all of this? Were all of the people who tried to storm towards the palace unarmed?

    Sean Murphy

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  12. Ethan,

    What of mining interest? Are they not poised to “break new ground” for tin and other minerals?
    How will mining interests affect the lease of land for food production?

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