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Countries for rent, and the Malagasy crisis

Time Magazine offers a surprisingly good package of articles, titled “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” The list is blissfully free of short-lived tech trends, and digs into some larger, longer-term ideas, like recycling suburban big box stores into community spaces, or seeking investment opportunities on the African continent.

The article that caught my eye was titled “The Rent-a-Country“. Actually, it was the header image that caught my attention – unmistakeably a picture of Adansonia grandidieri, Malagasy baobob trees. Madagascar, as I’ve been complaining lately, doesn’t get much media attention. The slow-motion coup threatens to become a civil war, but almost all coverage of a country with a population as large as Australia’s is coming from two or three wire service reporters. While I’m thrilled that Global Voices’ coverage of the situation is getting amplified by the New York Times and other media giants, I worry that there’s not enough work being done to explain the situation and the factors behind it to audiences outside Madagascar.

That’s why the Time article is important. It focuses on an emerging trend: the rental of agricultural land in very poor countries by nations and companies that are wealthy, but have food insecurity. One interpretation of the conflict in Madagascar traces its origins to a plan by Daewoo to lease over a million hectares of agricultural land for 99 years for a very small amount of money. There is (understandable) anger that President Ravalomanana would lease land that could be used to plant crops and feed Madagascar’s poor… and speculation that Daewood secured such a sweet deal by kicking money back to the president. Daewoo now appears to be shying away from the deal, worried about violence that threatens to topple the president.

This story hasn’t been well told, especially in US media, where Madagascar is far, far from media radar screens. Elizabeth Dickinson took a good crack at it for Foreign Policy Passport, and Italian blogger/provocateur/politician/comedian Beppe Grillo directed his substantial readership to the story. But I was surprised – and pleased – to see Time turn its lens on the Madagascar story, and this worrisome new trend, even in passing.

For those trying to follow the story in Madagascar, the current update looks something like this:

– The president has lost control of at least some of the army. The minister of defense was forced to step down (the second to resign this year) and Colonel Andre Ndrianarijaona has appointed himself chief of staff of the army.

– The army, under Colonel Ndrianarijaona, is reported to have been moving tanks or other heavy equipment to the capital. There are rumors that the president has sought support from foreign mercenaries, and that the rebel soldiers wanted tanks in place if they needed to fight them.

– People are watching the press very closely. Reports that the national TV station, loyal to the President, has stopped broadcasting suggests that the opposition may be in control. It’s a very dangerous time to be a journalist, especially an opposition journalist – RSF reports the assault or killing of a number of journalists.

I’ll close with a quote from Twitterer James O’Reilly, quoting a Malagasy friend:

“Friend in Madagascar sending wife, daughter away bec of strife. ‘Anyone who thinks govt is a bad thing should try getting along w/o one.'”

4 thoughts on “Countries for rent, and the Malagasy crisis”

  1. Thank you Ethan for your relentless effort in making sense of the situation and bridging daily events to the bigger picture in Madagascar.
    A major concern as you pointed out, is the current state of national media. The rumors are spreading like wildfires in the newswire, fed by both sides.
    For instance, citizens reports have debunked the presence of tanks in Antananarivo today, just as the rumors of an attempt at seizing the presidential palace were proven incorrect.
    It seems that both sides are purposefully sending out rumors to national and international news agencies to probe public reactions to such news; a general public that seems to grow numb and overwhelmed by the constant state of alert for almost 2 months now.
    Nevertheless, the situation is evidently still very volatile with the strong possibility of recurrent outburst of violence.

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