Say Louise from Ilafitsignana, Madagascar - “My father farmed his ancestral land here. Farming was prosperous in the past because land was abundant and fertile.”
Say Louise, aged 38, from Ilafitsignana, has happy memories of childhood, when her father’s job with the port management authority in Fort Dauphin and, later, his farming and fishing, provided for all the family’s needs. Harvests and fish were plentiful.
Her difficulties came as an adult, when all three of her marriages ended with her husband walking out. Say Louise felt she had done her best, “but men are hard to satisfy”. Left on her own, she borrowed money and set up a small business as a market trader, becoming successful enough to buy a boat to transport her goods to other coastal villages.
She laments the many changes over recent years, especially the loss of land and forest resources and the depletion of fish species. Her efforts to use her compensation money to start another business – a small shop – were unsuccessful as there was too much competition from others who had also lost their livelihoods and were setting up similar enterprises.
When my father was still alive and I was a child, I remember very well that life was good… My family used to live in Fort Dauphin, because my father had a job…with the port management company… We had the opportunity to go to school there until he retired, when my family returned to the village here in Ilafitsignana… My father sent us to the school here, which was very different from the private Catholic school in Fort Dauphin.
My father farmed his ancestral land here. Farming was prosperous in the past because land was abundant and fertile, water for irrigation was abundant… Since [my father] was very hardworking, he farmed a vast forested area where he planted cassava and rice. He grew tons of crops – even our family could not consume them all!…
My father was a skilful [fisherman]. Any time he fished, his family was excited because we knew he would bring home a lot of fish. He made a special fishing net for my brother and me… There were many fish species out there and my brother and I selected the ones we liked and let the others go…
The main species were sâro, fiambazaha and mazy (types of freshwater fish). We did not need to sell fish…they were for our own consumption… My dad…could buy clothes for us when he received his monthly pension.
Making money while at school
Later on…my father sent me to Ankaramena to study, to junior high school… One of my grandparents used to give me a free bag of rice…and I then sold the rice to make money. Because life was so cheap people could give something away for nothing…
I still remember that I made 10 ariary… This price is ridiculous if we think about how expensive rice is today… Besides selling the rice, every weekend I collected the roots of the rosy periwinkle. I dried them out and sold them to collectors [for pharmaceutical use].
A time of abundance
I dropped out of school at Grade 8. My family decided then that it was time for me to get married. In the past, parents sent their children to marry at a very young age…
After a few years my marriage did not work so well, so we decided to get divorced. I returned to live with my parents. While I was there, someone else asked me to marry him.
My second husband worked for the SIFOR (sisal) company…from 6am until 2pm. As soon as he got home, he worked on his farmland. He was hardworking and both of us were successful in cultivating rice and sweet potatoes… Our life was really good…
Our cassava plantation was successful as well. We used to plant [the cassava] around the area where QMM (QIT Madagascar Minerals – subsidiary of Rio Tinto mining for ilmenite) now dynamites rocks… There was enough rain in the past. One tuber of cassava was as big as a person’s thigh. Rice crops were abundant due to the availability of irrigation. We did not have to use fertiliser to produce rice.
“My hardships started”
Then, when my father passed away, our life changed… No one was there to help us [to farm]… After his burial, most of the crops were gone…used for funeral expenses.
I got pregnant. Unfortunately, my husband and I had an argument. According to tradition, it was the parents’ responsibility to take care of their daughter when she gave birth, not her husband’s… [My mother] worked hard to supply food for us… My husband did not take care of me at all… So all this had an impact on my life and my hardships started there.
There was a food crisis at that time and I remember people digging for via roots (a type of plant) for food. They had to treat the roots to make them edible and not poisonous… Luckily, that food shortage was short-lived, not like today when there is a constant lack of food.
“Our life depended on fishing”
Later on…my husband left me and I married another man… He and I worked together to make our life successful. We made fish traps [from grass and sticks]… Collecting these was not challenging then because there was an abundance of resources and there were no restrictions…
We sank our traps in the river… Early in the morning we would check up on our catch. If we were lucky, we went to Fort Dauphin to sell it. The money…was used to buy food. Our life depended very much on fishing. We tried to farm but the land where we lived was not fertile…
Sometimes the traps were not successful; as a result the family could go hungry… People then adopted a strategy: if they made a catch on a given day, they…[saved some of the] money to use on the days when they caught nothing.
“Men are hard to satisfy”
Then, I got pregnant with my second child with my third husband. Amazingly, I had an argument with him… He decided to abandon me and went back to his ex-wife…
I started to wonder how people would look at and judge me; because they would think…that I didn’t know how to handle my married life. But I myself was astonished that every time I got pregnant, my husband abandoned me. I thought I did well as [one half of] a married couple, but men are hard to satisfy…
I returned to my parents’ home with my children… I was now a single mother; my former husbands never cared about us.
Success with a small business
I knew I had to make it on my own… I thought about selling fruit in Fort Dauphin, but first I had to collect these fruits and I was broke. Finally, I talked to my relatives in the village, because they have fruit plantations. Luckily they were very supportive of me. I told them I would reimburse them as soon as I made profits…
Then I wanted to have my own funds so that I could own the capital and the interest from my sale. Again, I talked to my family about my idea to borrow money… I proposed to share the profits…with the person from whom I borrowed money. I started to collect a lot of goods to be sold in the market in the city… My small business went well and I was happy with the way it turned out.
With my savings, I decided to buy a boat to help me transport my goods to markets. In the meantime, I got pregnant again, but this did not stop me from paddling my boat, and collecting and selling my goods in every market in the villages around here.
People in Ilafitsignana are now deprived of their farmland… As a result, there are many more people living off fishing, and resources are no longer enough… Ambatsy and sâro are almost non-existent. fiambazaha are still around but not as many…angora lo and varavarà were so easy to catch in the past but are almost non-existent now… tofoky are also hard to find…
Fish [were caught close] to shore in the past… now people have to search for them in deep locations – it’s as if they have run away…
Children will not know what kinds of fish species made their river famous. I notice, though, that mena hariva is becoming more available… And tsikiliboky and shrimp are the ones that people can still catch, but the volume of these catches is declining too.
Traditions disappear with natural resources
Traditionally, people used honey when they circumcised their children; the [species of] rice had to be vary hôsy (considered the ancestral species) and had to be cooked using vandagnira (a fuelwood). But unfortunately, these old customs are no longer practised… How can people plant vary hôsy when there is no water to irrigate their rice paddies?
People cannot find the necessary resources any more… How will people be able to find honey when access to the forest is restricted, and [the forest itself] is disappearing?…
COLAS (a French construction company) tears down our mountain where the forest grows… That is where they quarry the rocks to supply their construction works… It is amazing to see how they flatten the mountain. Our children will deny the very existence of this mountain some day…
Now, people just ask a doctor to circumcise their children without a big ceremony. Not only do the resources needed for such a ceremony no longer exist, but [people] also lack the money to provide food and drinks [for their guests].
“What we have left is unproductive land”
Our land, especially the land that was fertile, was appropriated by QMM. For example, my family had a rice paddy that had a continuous water supply. It never dried out, even during a severe drought. Unfortunately it was taken from us.
The same thing happened with our cassava farmland. That land was fertile and my family could always plant on it despite a lack of rain because it was located in a cool area of forested land. What we have left, ironically, is the most unproductive land – sandy with few nutrients…
People are supposed to plant rice three times a year but due to the lack of rain and climate change…people have not been able to plant rice for almost a year now. It is frightening to think what will happen.
We also have an issue regarding our drinking water… First, because of the drought the supply has diminished. Second, it is contaminated because every time the dynamite explodes, the gas and dust infiltrate it… Our drinking water [comes] from a well and it is not covered…
Only people who lost their homes because of the construction work were given water standpipes in the places where they were moved. Even these people complain about the insufficient supply, due to intense drought. They say as well that the water standpipe is not well managed, because a lot of people use it… Sometimes the tap is broken only a few months after it is installed.
Dynamite explodes twice a day, at 12pm and 5pm. I am concerned for the quality of the air we breathe and I fear for our health…
My children always cough a lot… They get sick very often. My baby is only six weeks old but is already coughing… Even adults in our village feel weak and sick all the time… We have not faced a health crisis like this before…
People don’t have the money to pay for medical treatment. The nearest hospital is in Fort Dauphin and that is far away. I hope that a hospital will be built in our village… I also think that people should not wait until they get sick before they go to see a doctor. People in my village need a prevention programme, for example protected drinking water…
The government and QMM must be held accountable to make sure that at least people’s health is taken care of.
Positive and negative change
There are positive changes such as improvements in the houses… Roads have been repaired and widened. Travel is not our main concern any more. There is even a project to build a new road to Ankarefo which will improve our village and create a flow of people and goods.
But in terms of the distribution of money in return for our land, maybe some people in my village would say it was positive, but I would not say so… When my family received the money, since the land was our ancestral land, every family member had to share it…
Our land was also undervalued because the government said that we did not have crops on it when they took it. They claimed that our land was not productive and thus was not worth much. However our land was vast and fertile… We harvested a lot of crops such as rice, sweet potatoes and cassava, and these crops fed the family throughout the year.
There was inequality in the distribution of money as well… People who had fruit trees on their land received a lot more money.
How can I say I have benefited by receiving the money, money that did not even last years, but only months?… With that money, I had to buy food, pay for my children’s medical expenses, meet daily needs such as salt, oil, firewood – and now that firewood is not available any more, I had to buy charcoal from Fort Dauphin.
“Too many people doing the same activities”
When I received my share [of the compensation], I had a plan to make good use of it…to open a small shop, care for my children and use the rest for food… But there were too many people doing the same activities, thus the sales were bad. In the end, I had to consume my own goods by the end of the day because no one bought them; I could not make a profit…my capital did not grow but instead diminished.
People who received money from QMM in return for their land, and those who did not receive money because their land was not included in the area appropriated by QMM – in the end all are experiencing hardship… With the first group, the money was spent quickly. With the second group, their land was unproductive due to the lack of rain… Now everyone relies on fishing.
“If our children are illiterate their future will be dark”
If I have enough money, I hope my children will succeed in their education so that they can secure their livelihoods.
But if I cannot find money to send them to school, I will feel bad because it is as if I am putting my children’s future in jeopardy… Maybe we will strive to make sure that at least two of my children will succeed, to secure our family’s future.
If our children are illiterate, certainly their future will be dark, because they will not be able to find jobs and they don’t have anything else left because our ancestral land has been appropriated by QMM. The future generation will have…fewer opportunities in their lives.
This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.