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Chair de la terre, œil de l'eau

Hervé Rakoto Ramiarantsoa

Summary. Farming communities and the recomposition of rural areas in Imerina (Madagascar)

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1The agrarian landscapes of Imerina in the centre of Madagascar seem unchanging. Nevertheless, they are ceaselessly remodelled by many changes. The links between landscapes and Merina society and culture form a framework with three components.

2This is first of all a study ‘from within’ that awards considerable importance to knowledge of agrarian societies considered in their relationship to nature. Agricultural practices and local skills are carefully analysed. The approach also combines levels of analysis front local to national. Folk science is used when possible to gain better knowledge of the relations between ecology, societies and agriculture in Imerina. The final objective is the stressing of the combinations that have led to spatial differentiation in recent developments.

3The study covers three small rural areas: the Vakiniadiana, the Zanakandriambe, and western Imamo. They are characterised by their substratum (crystalline bedrock and dissected relief with alternate high ground and bottom areas), their geographical location (beyond the Betsimitatatra plains centred on Tananarive), by climatic nuances (a west-east dryness gradient and irregular rainfall) and their biogeographical effects and differences in duration of human occupation. These areas in eastern, northeastern and western Imerina are studied by a procedure of reciprocation between the physical and the human, the economic and the social and between the traditional and the modern. Information is drawn on the one hand from examination of landscapes-structures between nature and society; description and understanding is enriched by sight, sound and gestures. Free and/or guided discussions completed by the consultation of written sources on the other enable cross-checking and comparisons.

4The natural environment, the agrarian complex and the diversity of the areas are covered in three sections. Comparison of areas target the extent to which long history - an originality of Imerina - affects the formation, transformation and differentiation of rural areas.

5The first part is a description of the tropical highlands of Imerina from the two complementary angles of scientific analysis and farmers’ perception. Three main features emerge in a ‘naturalist’s’ description.

Morphopedology resulting from rejuvenation

6Changes lie in the dissection of the successive observed levels of aplanation in the highlands. Their rejuvenation resulted in a hilly relief with the predominance of convex slopes. The dissection model is different in the three sectors which are at elevations of 1,200 m to 1,650 m. However, there is generally a link between morphology and pedology both at the scale of the relief (ferralitic soils on the interfluves, hydromorphic soils in the bottom land) and the surface relief: the old surface profile remains on the plane summit topography, the profile is rejuvenated and/or eroded on slightly accentuated slopes and soil distribution has no precise rules in the bottom land developed as rice fields.

A highland tropical climate modulated by a moderate dry season

7The three sectors have common rainfall features (annual average, inter-annual variability and intra-annual irregularity), temperatures (annual average and amplitude, alternation of a cool period from May to September and a hot period from November to March) and excesses in the form of hail, cyclones and low temperatures. There are nevertheless nuances between the regions. The eastern locations are cooler and rainfall is more concentrated in time as one moves westward and there is a more marked dry period.

Markedly degraded vegetation

8The main features of the vegetation are the rarity of the remains of primary ligneous formations, extensive pseudo-steppe and reforestation with eucalyptus. Dense medium altitude tropical rain forest, a climax formation, is only found in a continuous mass along a narrow strip parallel with the peripheral scarp in the east; elsewhere it remains only as islands. In the west, there is limited extension of tapia (Uapaca bojeri) forest. In contrast, the main herbaceous formations (the main genera are Aristida, Heteropogon, Hyparrhenia and Panicum) cover vast areas and are often monospecific. In relation to this extensive cover by Gramineae, one can talk in terms of the regeneration of tree cover by reforestation with eucalyptus. There is more forest in the east, with surviving high stands in Amoronkay, the most easterly part, whereas in the Vakiniadiana, closer to Tananarive, the tree felling rotation is more rapid. In contrast, trees are rare in the west. Colonisation by eucalyptus is particularly noticeable because the natural vegetation dynamics are regressive.

9Naturalists do not award a determinant role to the natural environment in the regional differentiation of Imerina; indeed, local nuances result more in diversification than deterioration of the identify of the tropical highlands. This contrasts with perception by farmers, who are the direct users of the environment. Land, climate and vegetation seem to be the partners of the rural people.

The land is modelled by the farmers

10The severity of the slope and the availability of water differentiate areas of land both on the interfluves and in low-lying parts. These two features are complementary, as is underlined by the void-tanety, a morphopedological unit at the hinge between hillside and bottom land. Classically, the areas of bottom land not put to rice are considered to be separate and distinction is made between rice fields according to their particular features. Agronomic classification of the hill areas is based mainly on physical soil properties. However, the types of use of land may vary. Landholding pressure in the east of Imerina has generated farming activities in mountain areas not part of the original area of use. In the north-east and west, use of the plough in an area where population density is low, combined with a desire to cultivate large areas through a desire to mark out land ownership has made the flat hilltops-generally left untouched-an appreciable farming feature.

11Although there is a common priority agricultural objective in relations with the environment, each sector displays individual features for natural or social reasons. These lead to the difference in knowledge about the use of peaty soils. In the north-east, the maintaining of job discipline means that facilities of collective interest are maintained; the farmers make do with existing drainage Systems at valley and field level to establish producing rice fields. In contrast, society in eastern Imerina is fragmented and incapable of cohesion; the farmers therefore concentrate on rice fields where they use elaborate but individual improvement techniques.

Climate is classified according to risk

12Farmers make a distinction between three seasons according to the potential for crops. This shows a farming concern above all. Sequences throughout the year are described in detail, whether this concerns the seasons, the start of the rains or the frequency of precipitation in relation to movements of the moon ‘in the lightning season’. In addition to the already strongly diversified crops, animal husbandry and enclosure manure production set the pattern of time. Considerations of climate show to what extent its has become an essential partner for Imerina farmers. This accounts for the importance of the parades aimed at anticipating, alleviating or preventing climatic irregularities. The cropping calendar is managed to make the most of possibilities and to stagger harvests. There are also preventive techniques such as crop combinations to spread risks and curative methods such as weeding and hoeing rainfed crops during abnormally dry periods. Culturally, there is a set of taboos centred on rice growing.

The vegetation is of significant importance

13The farmers-who see it every day-perceive the vegetation in three ways. It is first of all man’s companion in a mystical dimension that links natural formations to sacred things, as in the expression ‘the ancestors’ robe’ used for the highland forests. The vegetation is also related to the history of the population either because it is still present in places deserted by man or because its study enables the analysis of social situations. Only recent plants are not involved in allegories, which would seem to indicate that society needs time to become accustomed to plants and observe them before they are integrated in its System of expression. In the second type of perception, spontaneous vegetation is inseparable from the agricultural world as it provides markers in time (its States mark the crop cycles and warn of the jobs to be done) and in space (the farmers’ science of cropping sites is based to a considerable extent on signs in the plant cover). Some of the plants that are a sign of good land are found in the three regions and others are specific to a sector. In the bottom land, the approach to the best rice soils is marked by the same characteristic species. Finally, the vegetation is also perceived as everyday material. Every household uses plants for health purposes and as firewood for cooking, and their fundamental uses as raw material for work, material for protecting crops and as building material should not be underestimated.

14Although the plant world has its material and psychological position in the familiar universe of the Merinas, farmers’ perception indicates greater attention paid by society to the morphopedological and water characteristics of the environment.

15The second part of the study is centred on the old agrarian complex that was the source of the characteristic features of Imerina landscapes. Developments are hinged on two themes. The first shows to what extent history is a factor in differential spatiality and the second brings out the essential aspects of these agricultural areas.

16Historical analysis shows the continuity of the dynamics of regionalisation. It is true that there was a common mould during the colonial period. This featured the importance of lowland rice in the use of land and the desire for centralisation of the masters of Tananarive front the reorganisation of the kingdom by Andrianampoinimerina to the 1881 law that was perceived as the culmination of the administrative centralisation process, and finally the peripheral geographical situation in relation to Tananarive, the main centre. However, this did not prevent differentiation of the population and status of these territories. The eastern part of Imerina, made up of former kingdoms and with a relatively high population density, was partially divided into domains and occupied elsewhere by soldier-colonists. Population was sparse in the west. It was first a menabe, that is to say a royal domain, with the first sovereign to swear allegiance, and was awarded as domains to the children of the latter. Some parts were given to certain groups as a reward. The north-east had neither a long population history nor was densely populated, but was ‘wild boar country’ that became part of the kingdom at a late date.

17The administrative framework was taken in hand vigorously when the island was colonised by the French. Centralising efforts continued with ‘...census, regularisation of civil status, the establishment of a tax basis and registers accompanied by a System of sanctions. Property regulations defined landholding with the French Civil Code, Malagasy common law, registration and a land register. Encouraging the legal status of property kept the administration informed of the legal status of plots and of plot layouts, reflecting the landholding situation. In reality, this general trend had a range of consequences, depending on the varying degrees of sensitivity of the population to ‘presumption of ownership’. Landholding deeds made an early appearance at the beginning of the century in the east of Imerina and cadastral survey operations were performed in the 1930s and 1940s. There is very little registered land in the west of the zone studied; it was mentioned very late in correspondence in the 1930s; the sector was considered to be lacking in interest and was not subjected to cadastral surveying. The north-east is remote and there were few registrations there either, except for the concessions awarded to foreigners. A cadastral survey was performed in 1936-1938 in particular, it would appear, to authenticate the location of the concessions awarded. The adoption of eucalyptus, whose spread results from from the land tenure system, helps to accentuate the differences between regions: it is most marked in the east, slight in the north-east and the west is described as ‘underprivileged’ with regard to forestry. The various other colonial measures aggravated the agricultural and social aspects of these disparities. In the economic field, the development of road infrastructure has been irregular, even though it is essential. Facilities are worst in the marginal western zone. The administration wished to enhance integration of the north-east and it is better served thanks to the ‘very good’ Tananarive-Anjozorobe provincial road. The already accessible eastern part was awarded ‘numerous road and railway connections’ with the capital. The most ‘Collectivités Autochtones Rurales’ (autochthonous rural communities) were established there to achieve ‘the development of agricultural production and to enable the territory to provide the funding for its new social expenditure and its infrastructure’. This region therefore gained more management experience.

18With independence in 1960, the ‘high level production policy meeting national economic imperatives’ introduced modem production techniques within the framework of agricultural development operations: improved lowland rice farming, soil protection and regeneration and the improvement of food crops in the hills. These techniques added original touches to the landscape that were applied and assimilated under political pressure backed up by strongly present supervision. Measures that particularly affected the Imerina farming communities were taken in 1972, an important year for the evolution of Madagascar. First of all, poll tax was abolished. This deprived the state of a substantial revenue and reduced public undertakings. This resulted in the gradual degradation of secondary roads and the regional routes that open up country areas. The decentralisation of administrative powers then took the form of the withdrawal of central government operations and created new situations. Among these, the lack of an authority to impose collective works had far-reaching effects and led to the malfunctioning of the management of local land areas that was a reflection of the anarchy observed in the hydro-agricultural facilities. It should nevertheless be noted that collective discipline is still strong in the regions with a traditional social structure and makes up for the shortcomings of the official administration on a local scale. Finally, the last change with important consequences was the slackening of agricultural back-up structures. This was felt all the more strongly as previous development operations had been of the interventionist type. Improved rice growing deteriorated and many farmers had the impression of being abandoned.

19Three noticeable features stand out in the agrarian complex of these still agricultural areas. Firstly, agriculture is not very prosperous. Its average characteristics are those of small-scale farming with scattered fields. Although owner farming is the most common form of management, combination with share-cropping and tenant farming is common. Agricultural society is not egalitarian (variation of 1 to 10 in land tenure is not rare) and most young households are in a difficult financial situation. The main objective is food security. Priority is generally awarded to covering seed production and on-farm food requirements. By reducing risks, these practices first of all push the search for high yields into the background. This is the case of the planting of old rice plants that are resistant to drought during their vegetative cycle. Mixed cropping is based on the same principle. It spreads risks, staggers harvests, gains space and saves fertiliser application by combining crops. The cropping calendar reflects the dispersion of the farmer’s work and shows the difficult job periods during the year. Most farmers thus achieve limited results that do not cover the requirements of the household and trade is a necessity.

20The second feature of these farms is that their economy is open to trade. The gaining of monetary resources is examined first of all and the role of markets is then shown. It covers transactions concerning all households, that is to say the purchase of essential foodstuffs and household products. The expenditure of households with budgetary deficits are concentrated on items that are essential for survival, before outlay on production. The limits of incomes are shown. There is no agricultural surplus but there are paid labour, crafts or animal husbandry occupations according to the region. When the household budget is balanced, purchases are still devoted to essentials but cash outlay for purchasing rice is less of a constraint and the diversification of expenditure is more marked. Incomes are from the sale of agricultural produce or from special resources: eucalyptus, pig farming, off-season crops, etc. The households with a budget surplus have in common a diversity of expenditure and especially social expenditure. The size of their incomes sets them apart in cash transfers, in many profitable activities and in the sale of farm produce. Most transactions take place for everybody on the markets, which form occasions for obtaining supplies and meeting people. They are landmarks in the country week and are attended by the farmers who come to sell their produce directly, by middlemen and finally by traders who are often from outside the region. The markets are essential for producers but mainly benefit the traders who come from the town. Indeed, however dynamic the rural people may be, the transactions show more and more profit the farther they are from the producer stage.

21Fertility management is remarkable in these agrarian complexes. Amendment is essential as the soils are chemically very poor - as is stressed by the farmers and shown by laboratory analyses. In addition to the key role played by drainage in off-season crops and the intensive use of the flat land at the bottoms of the hills, the farmers ‘manufacture’ agricultural soils. There are two types of procedure. In the first type, stress is laid on application aimed at correcting deficiencies and improving soil quality. Organic substances are important in the form of cattle enclosure manure, poultry dung, ashes, etc. Sometimes used as mixtures, these fertilisers have an empirical basis resulting from endogenous dynamics. The farmers also use compost, powdered manure and shifting cultivation in the hills. The second type of procedure consists of cultivation techniques for the protection and amendment of soil. Erosion control developments, ploughed fallow and burning before tillage are aimed at conserving fertility and improving crop yields. Slope development is another aspect. Sought-after for their rejuvenated soils (‘land with a soft robe’) suited to manual farming, slopes are also particularly subject to erosion, especially as Imerina is in a part of the island where degradation is the worst. Slope cultivation leads to different landscapes. In the east, soil protection is very necessary and results in modelling the slopes in a succession of cultivated berms resembling giant staircases. In the north-east and west, where soil protection on slopes is not handled in this way, the fields slope steeply with little done to control runoff. Large areas are available and the farmers do not have the constraints of the population in the east of Imerina. Regional mobilisation for a common technical base for land management is therefore uneven. Differentiation of landscapes by development is combined with differentiation by history.

22The last part is a description of the present dynamics of agrarian Systems in Imerina. The changes result from the interaction of components of these Systems and the components themselves are also changing continuously.

23The Merina countryside has always been characterised by three aspects. First, rice growing, whose product, in spite of ‘the tyranny of the rice field’, continues to be dominant in the spirit and stomachs of the population of Imerina. The difference between cultural practices and the extent of the rice fields reveals a farming community accustomed to high-risk environments. Next, the management of cattle farming has common characteristics: manure production closely linked to crop farming, little veterinary care and high livestock prices. Animal husbandry is strongly connected with agriculture and has specific regional features. Dairy farming is practised in the east where incorporation in the commercial channels of local dairies or Tananarive accounts for the exceptional development of the sector. Draught oxen are bred in east and north-west, mainly for farming. There is very local fattening for meat in the east and the north-east according to population density and market access. Finally, there is much pluriactivity in eastern Imerina whereas the west and the north-east are still essentially agricultural.

24Population pressure is another factor in change in the country. Growth rates of over 2.5% were not rare in these regions from 1975 to 1985, although the areas are not emigration destinations. In spite of a few departures, the population is clearly firmly rooted and growing. Strategies to cover the resulting increased requirements vary according to social structures and local conditions. It was in this context that the crisis of the 1980s-a new feature-hit the Imerina farmers.

25The crisis is many-facetted. At a national scale, it has led to economic distortion, financial imbalance, a particularly virulent malaria epidemic and above all a lack of social peace. It is true that the conditions for a structural adjustment policy in agreement with the Bretton Woods institutions had positive effects from 1985 onwards, but the measures also perpetuated the negative aspects of the crisis, such as the devaluation of the franc and the liberalisation of trade. The crisis began at the beginning of the 1980s when voluntary reduction of imports led to severe shortages. There appeared to be some recovery from 1988 onwards. At a regional scale, the farmers are involved in the crisis in two ways. Firstly, the cost of living has risen. The cost of rice, the main food item for many, is blamed because its purchasing power equivalent is decreasing. In addition, social malfunctioning has resulted in a higher death rate and decreased safety in the country. In agriculture, the crisis is synonymous with a fall in production, decreased cultivation areas and less use of intensive techniques. However, it should be noted that the crisis has also aggravated inequalities between households and regions according to the availability of rice and cash resources.

26Significant examples are mentioned to show how the use of regional and local resources responds to economic and social factors. Two situations illustrate the first type of factor: first of all the increase in eucalyptus planting in eastern Imerina for the income drawn from the sale of standing timber, firewood, construction timber and charcoal. In addition, the neighbouring populations have both profited from common income from timber and have made eucalyptus a land occupation marker. The agricultural disadvantages of the tree have therefore been awarded second place. It has all the more merit because it is a renewable raw material since it grows again from the stumps and needs no labour. A second situation is pineapple cultivation in the Ambohiboromanga hills in western Imerina. The landscape is astonishing and the siting of the crop is paradoxical. Pineapple plantations become increasingly dominant as one goes further from surfaced roads and as secondary roads deteriorate. The spectacular spread of the crop is the result of reliable markets and the fact that pineapple income is staggered throughout the year. The people of these areas are clearly doing well and sale of the fruits brings in a minimum of 40 percent of total household income.

27The dominance of social factors results in the rural nature of zanakandriambe land in the north-east. This is maintained locally by ancestral conventions that govern land use and conserve the agricultural nature of the area. In addition, migration is reducing pressure on land; this is not the result of individual initiatives but organised methodically. Finally, peace is ensured by true social cohesion. The permanence of traditional social organisation is based on parental authority that can be exerted on everybody and that is applied to society accustomed to solidarity in behaviour. To this is added today’s working and cultural conditions that are unlikely to bring in different social rules, although there are some signs of change.

28The conclusion of the third section stresses how difficult it is for these farming communities to take action in spite of their dynamism and skills. Improving their standard of living requires work at two levels. Overall supervision is necessary in fields that go beyond the skills of small farming structures (control of water, organisation of marketing, clear relations with the land, education) and actions adjusted to the context are needed: helping the north-east to establish and manage relations outside the area, making veterinary care a priority in the west and drawing greater effectiveness from pluriactivity in the east.

29The natural context, the history of the area and the rural character of the communities form the Merina identity. Local dynamics and farmers’ initiatives maintain continuous recomposition. The communities can innovate when this corresponds to the economic and social issues of the moment. However, they have real limits because of the variable climate, unequal resources and the need for transactions. Steps must therefore be taken at the levei of production conditions to meet the objective of managing the area for the good of the farming societies. This is the role of the State, the Fanjakana that “watches over its children”.

© IRD Éditions, 1995

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