Sunday, February 8, 2009

Trouble in Madagascar

UPDATE (Monday, March 16, 2009):
My most recent post on Madagascar is here, including discussion of the opposition's apparent coup.  

Original post:
There has been quite a bit of political unrest in Madagascar lately, with the New York Times reporting that twenty-three pro-opposition protestors have been killed when they marched on a presidential palace in the capital of Antananarivo. Eighty-three were reported wounded. 

The trouble started last month when the mayor of Antananarivo, opposition leader andry Rajoelina, announced he was taking over the government, having accused President Marc Ravalomanana of "being a dictator and abandoning the people," as the NYT describes it.

Madagascar is a unique part of Africa, not just because of its geographic isolation which has led to a very fascinating array of flora and fauna, such as lemurs [below] and baobab trees [above] but also for the interesting ethnic mix of its people, which is not just continental Black Africans, but also Austronesian, descendants of settlers from 1500 to 2000 years ago. 

For South Korea, what happens in Madagascar is important because of recent plans to enhance food security by the Korean corporate control of much of that country's arable land. I wonder if that 99-year lease on 1.3 million hectares of land, derided prima facie by many in the K-blogosphere as "neo-colonialism," may be in jeopardy if things get too out of hand and the current government finds itself drummed out of power. 

But frankly, I know little of Madagascan society other than what I learned from this document, my readings about the Daewoo deal and, before that, from translating a Korean-language documentary series on Madagascar's biodiversity, so my concerns my be utterly unfounded. At the very least, though, I can say that I hope that the problems in Antananarivo can be resolved without further bloodshed. 

UPDATE (February 9, 2009):
The BBC is reporting that the aforementioned Daewoo deal was "the final straw for many," saying that the Malagasy people "have deep ties with their land and this was seen by many as a betrayal by their president." This statement is not supported by quotes or any other data, so one will have to take it at face value. 

I know enough about how a foreign journalism corps creates and feeds each other juicy story items to be at least a bit suspicious about the claim that it was Daewoo that broke the camel's back, particularly since it was a compatriot periodical which seemed to cry neo-colonial foul on Daewoo's plans, the Financial Times of the proto-colonial Great Britain. 

I may be reading too much into these things, but this article in the IHT suggests that the political problem with the Daewoo deal is not so much the deal itself but that the deal would have lined the pockets of the president. If that is the case, the same deal or something similar but scaled down may go through. On the other hand, I suppose, this could be a poison pill that kills the project entirely.

At any rate, there is a clear message for Daewoo, the Korean government, and any other Korea-related entity that is involved with this kind of effort to enhance Korea's food security (or other economic aspect): dot your i's and cross your t's because the world is watching. That means they are ready to see if Korean corporate entities are being good stewards of the land, fair employers, and all-around okay guys. Importing South African labor to work on intensive farms may not be the way to go. At the very least, see if Madagascans themselves want these jobs, and pay them a fair wage for it. Korea has been the victim of colonial exploitation; it would be a dismaying turn of events if it became an instigator.

[above: Mayor Andry Rajoelina. No relation to Brangelina, though the celebrity couple is considering adopting him.]

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