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Country profile - Madagascar


Madagascar, an island off the coast of East Africa, is the world's fourth biggest after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo, and hosts countless endemic species such as lemurs and chameleons. Because of the island's long isolation, most of its plants and mammals and half of its birds exist nowhere else on earth. But much of this celebrated biodiversity is under threat from habitat loss, climate change, insecurity, corruption and a lack of governance.


Agriculture accounts for almost 30 per cent of GDP, 40 per cent of export earnings and employs more than 70 per cent of the labour force. About five per cent of the land area is cultivated at any given time, of which 16 per cent is irrigated. The average farm size is 1.3 hectares, with most farmers practising subsistence agriculture.

Due to the large variety of soil types and climatic diversity, farmers are able to grow temperate crops such as apples, pears, plums, grapes and citrus fruits and tropical products such as mangoes and lychees, as well as a wide variety of other crops including coffee, cloves, sisal, maize and tubers. Rice is the dominant food crop and is grown in the central plateau, eastern forests and lower river valleys and estuaries. Once self-sufficient, the country has been a net-importer of rice since 1980. Cassava, maize, sweet potatoes and yams are other staple crops grown.

Rice is the dominant food crop (© FAO/Yasuyoshi Chiba)
Rice is the dominant food crop
© FAO/Yasuyoshi Chiba

Producing 60 per cent of the global supply, Madagascar is the largest producer of natural vanilla. Madagascar provides protection for its largest and most valuable export: to combat thefts, the movement of pods is strictly regulated, for example pods cannot be transported at night, and there are harsh penalties for stealing vanilla. Some farmers also 'tattoo' their beans, stamping a unique mark into them while they are still on the vine. Vanilla producers are taking steps to create a fairtrade network on the island. An action plan has been drafted by vanilla producers and Fairtrade International has organised training to help them promote their business and collaborate with exporters. Coffee, cloves and cocoa are also important cash crops. Although Madagascar only produces about 5,000 tonnes of cocoa a year on about 15,000 hectares, the beans are considered among the best quality in the world.

Livestock are also an important income earner for many farmers, with about 60 per cent of rural families depending on livestock for part of their livelihood. Cattle, mainly zebu, are distributed throughout the island. Large numbers of pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys are also kept by smallholders. However, high prevalence of diseases, including Newcastle disease, anthrax and African swine fever, severely constrain the sector.

Natural hazards (cyclones, droughts, locust invasions) and destructive farming practices, which cause soil to erode and soil quality to decline, limit crop production. Slash-and-burn agriculture - tavy or hatsake - is the most common response to falling harvests but is one of the primary threats to Madagascar's forests which leads to a vicious circle of deepening poverty and shrinking forest area.

FAO is helping Madagascar prepare a long-term locust contingency plan (© FAO/Yasuyoshi Chiba)
FAO is helping Madagascar prepare a long-term locust contingency plan
© FAO/Yasuyoshi Chiba

Poverty, competition for land and government corruption have put pressure on the island's dwindling forests, home to almost all Madagascar's unique wildlife and key to its tourist industry. Almost a century of excessive logging and slash-and-burn agriculture have resulted in nearly complete clearing of the land, leading to very high rates of erosion, and the degradation of most remaining forests. After every heavy rain, the bright red soils are washed from the hillsides into streams and rivers to the coast. Estimates by WWF suggest that as much as 90 per cent of the country's primary forest has already been lost.

Unsustainable exploitation has escalated significantly since a military coup in 2009: criminal gangs have been exporting rare hardwoods and killing endangered animals, exacerbated by a collapse in the park management system and a decree temporarily legalising the export of rosewood. In an attempt to slow illegal logging, the government banned all rosewood exports in 2010 and in 2011 ordered confiscation of all felled logs and had rosewood and ebony added to Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Climate change

The waters off Madagascar are rich in fish, shellfish and crustaceans. The export of shrimp and prawns provides a significant source of revenue, but a combination of climate change and human pressures (destructive fishing practices such as poison fishing and seine netting) is having a devastating effect on coral reef systems. The Toliara reef, located along the shore areas of southern Madagascar, is the third largest in the world and shelters nearly 400 fish species, over 300 coral species and supports nearly 20,000 traditional fishermen. Bleaching of corals and green algae invasions are two direct effects of climate change. The coral reef is also being degraded by sediments caused by deforestation inland, making the reef more vulnerable to climate change.

The waters off Madagascar are rich in fish, shellfish and crustaceans (© Amber Goodwin/Frontier)
The waters off Madagascar are rich in fish, shellfish and crustaceans
© Amber Goodwin/Frontier

WWF works with traditional fishermen and government authorities to manage marine and coastal resources so that they not only contribute to conservation but also benefit local communities. WWF also helps decision makers, technical officers and local authorities to develop and implement responsive strategies to protect local communities and natural ecosystems from the expected impacts of climate change.

Extreme weather events threaten agricultural productivity. In 2000, a series of three devastating cyclones affected more than 1 million people and caused nearly US$85 million in damage to agricultural infrastructure. In the arid south, increasing droughts have led to crop failures and cattle deaths, forcing large numbers of farmers into forest areas where they produce charcoal and look for food by hunting and gathering forest resources.

To help vulnerable families cope better with rising temperatures and reduced and increasingly unpredictable rainfall, international organisations have been promoting agro-ecological farming practices. WWF has been working with local communities to discover culturally acceptable agricultural practices to improve soil fertility and the School of Agronomy at the University of Antananarivo has been working with local people to help them manage their natural resources more sustainably.

A collaborative project between the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and the Knowledge Management Platform (KMP) - facilitated by Farming and Technology for Africa (FTA) - has been launched to boost extension services for smallholders. The project has already developed 40 videos in the local Malagasy language, which cover subjects ranging from quick compost making, retaining soil moisture through mulching, and how to grow potatoes and drought tolerant crops like sorghum.

Political crisis

Most of Madagascar's plants and mammals exist nowhere else on earth (© Rebecca Elliot/Frontier)
Most of Madagascar's plants and mammals exist nowhere else on earth
© Rebecca Elliot/Frontier

Andry Rajoelina's seizure of power in 2009 resulted in much of the international community withholding foreign aid from the government. According to African Economic Outlook, the weakness of the economy since the start of the political crisis in 2009 has affected living conditions: a household survey in 2010 revealed 76 per cent of Malagasy were considered poor, up from 68 per cent in 2005. The country's Human Development Index ranking has also dropped from 141st in 2000 to 151st in 2011.

To restore constitutional rule, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has urged Rajoelina and Madagascar's exiled former president Marc Ravalomanana not to run in the general election which is scheduled for May 2013. The recommendation was made in a 'roadmap', adopted in 2011 to end the political stalemate, which also scheduled elections for May 2012. The general election in 2012 failed to occur but in December 2012 Ravalomanana announced his decision not to run for office. It remains to be seen whether the 2013 elections will be held, or be postponed yet again. Unless a stable, internationally recognised government is elected, Madagascar's environment and the livelihoods of its people will remain seriously at risk.

Statistical information
  • Country: Republic of Madagascar
  • Capital: Antananarivo
  • Area: 587,041 sq km
  • Population: 22,005,222 (2012 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 2.68% (2012 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 64 (2012 est.)
  • Ethnic groups: Malayo-Indonesian (Merina and related Betsileo), Cotiers (mixed African, Malayo-Indonesian, and Arab ancestry - Betsimisaraka, Tsimihety, Antaisaka, Sakalava), French, Indian, Creole, Comoran
  • Languages: French (official), Malagasy (official), English
  • Inflation: 9.5% (2011 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$20.64 billion (2011 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$900 (2011 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 28.3%; industry: 16.4%; services: 55.2% (2011 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 5.03%; permanent crops: 1.02%; other: 93.95% (2005)
  • Major industries: meat processing, seafood, soap, breweries, tanneries, sugar, textiles, glassware, cement, automobile assembly plant, paper, petroleum, tourism
  • Agricultural products: coffee, vanilla, sugarcane, cloves, cocoa, rice, cassava, beans, bananas, peanuts; livestock products
  • Natural resources: graphite, chromite, coal, bauxite, rare earth elements, salt, quartz, tar sands, semiprecious stones, mica, fish, hydropower
  • Export commodities: coffee, vanilla, shellfish, sugar, cotton cloth, clothing, chromite, petroleum products
  • Export partners: France 22.9%, Indonesia 15.5%, Singapore 6.7%, China 5.7%, Germany 5.5%, US 5% (2011)

Date published: January 2013


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