These films and personal testimonies provide insights into the realities of rural poverty in southern Madagascar, where environmental change is pushing the poor ever closer to the margins of survival. They illustrate the skills and resourcefulness of the indigenous men and women from this region, and their ability to adapt to a changing external environment.
A changing climate
All the life stories link the changing climate to deforestation. Diminishing rainfall is attributed to the decrease in forest cover. Randriamahefa says “even when heavy rain clouds lumber towards us from the east…it’s the forests in the west that get it – leaving us dry.”
The depleted forest has also made the area more susceptible to strong winds. All narrators refer to wind as the most damaging threat to their farming. As Vola explains, “Certainly insects come with the planting, but it’s these winds that keep us from farming.”
The combination of drought and strong winds creates huge problems for agriculture, the Antandroy’s main livelihood. Some narrators say they haven’t had a consistent or reliable harvest since the 1980s. Marivelo states: “Dry, and becoming drier, is the order of the weather at this time.”
The increased variability of climate patterns mean it is difficult for farmers to follow weather-related planting cycles. Robin says: “…we had rain in November and we all hurried and planted… Then not until 16 December did we get rain again…and we all planted again. The sprouting plants looked good, but then they were struck by strong sun and wind, and all of that planting died.”
Loss of land and livestock
Another major environmental challenge is the spread of coastal sand dunes. This has resulted in huge loss of farmland. Gervais says: “It’s new – the dune is young. Yet it has killed our land and buried the tombs of our ancestors. It’s filled in all the fields.”
Cattle-herding and livestock have always been at the heart of Antandroy life. Robin says: “…the big thing, and that which I prize above all in my life, is to have cattle. It has its place at bereavements, it is important economically…for the milk…[and] for its value for our own food.” But decreased pasture and the lack of animal feed from failing harvests mean that people can no longer keep the large herds of cattle that their ancestors did. They keep smaller animals – for some this means only a few chickens.
The need for diversification
The Antandroy have had to develop new skills and adopt multiple strategies for survival.
In the absence of reliable harvests Randriamahefa has taken up fishing: “In a bad year [for farming] I go to the sea…there it’s never a bad year…”
Adopting new livelihood strategies is challenging and Sylvain describes some of the risks. With no early warning system and no on-board radio, fishermen have drowned in cyclones. He says that although more people want to take up fishing, they lack sufficient canoes and nets.
Diversification of crops is another way of managing risk. Different crops are planted and harvested at different times to provide food throughout the year, with less chance of being wiped out by the same pests.
All the narrators speak positively about the re-introduction of sorghum, which “isn’t killed by drought” and matures quickly. Randriamahefa is enthusiastic about the successful harvest of 2007, explaining that sorghum is “a crop of our ancestors”.
Fewer options, more resourcefulness
The female narrators juggle many strategies to survive and demonstrate great resourcefulness to provide for their families.
Marivelo is a single mother and Vola is a widow. They employ different strategies to earn cash: taking on hourly waged labour; washing clothes; fetching and selling fuelwood; making bricks; selling cooked chicken portions and sending their children out to herd or weed for others or to sell fish. They also mention feeding their families on the leaves of the prickly pear, which is generally considered food for livestock.
Marivelo also recently tried providing meals to gemstone miners in return for a share in any gems found, but says: “I returned empty-handed from that with no rocks, now I am out…of roads to travel, so I just stay and farm and raise animals.”
These women are constantly calculating and adjusting their strategies. Jeannine says that if she does not manage to sell the fish she bought in the weekly market, she will fry them and try to sell them again as cooked food. Suzanne explains: “…if there’s something that’s troubling me, I can take a chicken or two to the market and sell it.”
Tradition and change
Not being able to rely on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods has changed the traditional Antandroy way of life. The Christian church has also influenced customs and traditions. Most narrators make the distinction between Christians and those who follow traditional beliefs, describing different marriage and funeral customs.
Robin explains that the funeral practices for Christians are less costly, but that even if you are Christian, social obligations make it difficult to depart completely from traditional – and at times more costly – ways of performing ceremonies.
He also describes how those who die without family or the means for a proper burial are helped by the rest of the community, stressing that such mutual support is good for “the unity of the community”.
All narrators refer to the region’s taboos in relation to pigs and pork. However, the influx of outsiders to the area has created a demand for pork and some of the Christian Antandroy, to whom the taboo doesn’t apply, now rear pigs. The taboos are still very much respected; the pork butcher occupies an isolated part of the market place and utensils that have been in contact with pork are not washed in rivers or wells.
The narrators mention external support from development agencies such as seeds, training or loans. Robin talks about the training he received in peanut processing, which helped increase his income. All narrators refer to the re-introduction of sorghum by the Andrew Lees Trust and say how important this adaptation to a changing climate has been for them.
Vola describes how, previously, food provided by government schemes was another important piece of the survival jigsaw. The community was involved in building a road and stabilising encroaching sand dunes through the planting of palm and vine plants in return for meals. The community has continued to work together to reduce the dunes’ expansion.
It is evident that resourcefulness, collective action and external assistance are all part of the Antandroy people’s story of survival presented in these films and personal testimonies.