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Collapse of the Eighth Continent: Shangri-La Meets Global Capitalism

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Posted on Dec 19, 2013
AP/Themba Hadebe

Government military officers on guard in 2010.

By Susan Zakin

Conway alone submitted to a rich and growing enchantment. It was not so much any individual thing that attracted him as the gradual revelation of elegance, of modest and impeccable taste, of harmony so fragrant that it seemed to gratify the eye without arresting it.

—James Hilton, “Lost Horizon,” 1933


In Madagascar’s capital, there are no traffic lights. Vintage Peugeots buck and sway to the invisible jazz of embouteillage, the French word for traffic, straining up brick-red hills where for centuries Malagasy aristocrats have entombed their ancestors, and where they exhume their bodies every seven years, a ritual that sees death not as an ending, merely as a pause in the conversation.

After a 2009 coup d’etat, Madagascar’s conversation turned to cacophony. The desperately poor thronged the streets of the capital city of Antananarivo. Malnourished women no longer able to breast-feed their children begged money for powdered milk. Selling anything they had, often items as valueless as worn out socks, the poor overflowed the sidewalks. Their abject misery was unmistakable; even more disturbing was the resignation on people’s faces.

“After the coup, there was a decline of any semblance of law and order,” said Pier Larson, a historian at Johns Hopkins University who studies the Indian Ocean nation. “The city was a very orderly city, but it became a latrine. People selling things moved onto the streets. Motorcycles got up on the sidewalks; one guy on a motorcycle hit me as I was walking by. The city was like early 19th or 18th century London.”


Square, Site wide
On Oct. 25, when a presidential election went off without major incident, Madagascar stepped back from the brink of state failure. The election was hardly a panacea; neither candidate won a clear majority   and a runoff is scheduled for Dec. 20. Both men are proxies for former dictators, and if one prevails, some experts say, another coup may be in the cards.

The best-case scenario is that, after a four-year descent into quiet hell, Madagascar has a chance to right itself. It can’t happen too soon: Uranium, gold, nickel and oil exploitation has already begun, including development of heavy oil fields using a technology similar to fracking that creates two or three times the pollution of conventional oil development. And even with a pipeline and port in the planning stages, Madagascar’s oil business is likely to be dwarfed by the development of natural gas. If industry estimates are correct, Madagascar’s offshore gas reserves have been described as enough to power Western Europe for a decade. One industry commentator wrote: “If East Africa is hot, Madagascar is on fire.”

Twenty-first-century globalization is landing with both feet—hard—on an island called “a world out of time.” Between 2001 and 2009, opening Madagascar to the world resulted in much-needed economic growth. But since 2009, the benefits of globalization have been overtaken by the “social failures” described by University of Massachusetts economist Arthur MacEwan: greater income inequality, environmental damage and the decline of democratic control.

Photo by Susan Zakin.

If this sounds disturbingly familiar, think about the definition of globalization: The same forces circle the globe. Cute, furry lemurs may exist only on the world’s fourth-largest island, but Madagascar’s political troubles have proved to be far less unique than its flora and fauna. Madagascar, once a snapshot of the distant past, now looks more like the dystopian future.


“Luxe, calme et volupté”—luxury, tranquility and pleasure—is French symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire’s description of Madagascar in his 1857 poem, “L’Invitation au Voyage.” Even now, well-traveled Africa hands get misty-eyed about Madagascar. There’s something different about this nation, and it’s not only the island’s unique plants and animals, even though these are scientifically valuable enough to have made Madagascar a top priority for international conservation organizations for half a century.

Thanks to its isolation and great size, Madagascar is the world’s textbook example of convergent evolution: the phenomenon through which species evolve similar traits by adapting to similar environments or ecological niches, even though they may be only distantly related or completely unrelated. Sometimes called “the eighth continent,” Madagascar has one of the world’s highest rates of endemism, species that exist nowhere else. Madagascar is famous for its 100 species of lemurs, a prosimian that died out elsewhere in the world long ago. But the island also contains 80 percent of the world’s chameleon species, and 10,000 endemic plants. Six of the world’s eight species of baobab tree exist only there, along with 20 of the 25 species of Pachypodium, an enormous spiny plant like an elephant’s trunk, six species of the giant spiny Alluaudia, and the list goes on. In 2011, the World Wildlife Fund reported that 600 new species of plants and animals had been discovered in Madagascar in the previous decade alone.

Apart from the French, who have a special, rather possessive relationship with their former colony, people tend to travel to Madagascar for the lemurs. When they return, they come for the people. Humans came to the island no more than 2,000 years ago, from Indonesia, Burma and Polynesia; these early arrivals were followed by East Africans, Arab slave traders, Indians and, in the 1600s, the French. From these diverse influences, Madagascar’s culture evolved into something delicate yet universal. The central tenet is fihavanana: treat others as you would want to be treated. But the concept goes beyond that. Wikipedia’s definition isn’t bad: “Fihavanana is a Malagasy word encompassing the Malagasy concept of kinship, friendship, goodwill between beings, both physical and spiritual. The literal translation is difficult to capture, as the Malagasy culture applies the concept in unique ways. Its origin is Havana,, meaning kin.”

I arrived in Madagascar in 2001 on a fellowship to train environmental journalists. Initially, I was taken aback by the country’s poverty. After a few days on Île aux Nattes and Île Sainte-Marie, where the semi-mythical pirate state of Libertaria once existed (or perhaps not), I realized that Madagascar had always lived in my mind—if only in negative space. Even as a kid, I’d sensed there was something inhuman in America’s unforgiving hustle. In Madagascar, people behaved with sensitivity. They were attuned to nuance. Money was not the measure of all things; in fact, it barely seemed to exist. I heard the Malagasy proverb “Ny Fihavanana no talohan’ny vola,” which, loosely translated, means “the relationship is more important than the money.”

In Madagascar, colors looked brighter, and the rhythm of life felt fluid. Culture and nature were oddly congruent: The mouse lemur in a nest of branches and the watchman strumming a stringed instrument and singing softly, both tuned to the same refrain under a sky of falling stars. Here, in this country of eroding elegance and sweeping landscape, the parallel world of my imagination turned out to be real.

That Madagascar was real, but like Shangri-La, illusory. Earlier waves of globalization had doomed the elephant birds, 10 feet tall and 800 pounds, sloth lemurs the size of grizzly bears, and pygmy hippos. All were driven to extinction after the arrival of humans.

Humanity itself is just as fragile, if one defines the word as the quality of being humane. Contemporary scholars have criticized the Shangri-La of the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” as Orientalism, but the book’s dominant theme is the yearning to preserve a sense of humanity in the wake of World War I, even as World War II gathered force on the real horizon outside the confines of James Hilton’s mythical lamasery.

Like “Lost Horizon,” Madagascar’s recent history is a reminder of how quickly a civilization can be destroyed.


The Queen’s Palace sits in ruined splendor atop what was once the highest of the 12 hills surrounding Antananarivo. Built for Queen Ranavalona I between 1839 and 1841, the palace and its surrounding structures burned in 1995, days before they were to be inscribed in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The fire was believed to be arson by coastal people revolting against the dominance of the Merina aristocrats of the high plateau. But the palace resisted: The building’s walls, originally constructed of wood, had been encased in stone by a Scottish mason. Like Miss Havisham’s decaying mansion, the shell survived, a still point in Madagascar’s tumultuous politics.

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