From the March-April 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Franklin Dmitryev
The near-famine in Madagascar starkly reveals the reality of the climate crisis, which cannot be separated from the ravages of colonialism and capitalism.
After the worst drought in 40 years—four years so far—food shortages were worsened by three cyclones and a tropical storm that battered parts of the island nation off Africa’s southeast coast in January and February.
The four storms killed at least 170 people and displaced more than 100,000. Roads, schools, health centers and homes were damaged or destroyed, and Cyclone Batsirai virtually cut off the island’s drought-ravaged south from the north.
HUNGER STALKS THE LAND, KILLS THE YOUNG
Parts of Madagascar have been in a hunger emergency for much of the last decade, according to the World Food Program. At least 1.3 million people in southern Madagascar need emergency food assistance, plus another 340,000 people elsewhere in the country. Almost half of the country’s children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition. At the same time, with only about 4% of the population partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the healthcare system is strained, oxygen is in short supply, and domestic violence has spiked.
“Madagascar is in a constant humanitarian crisis,” declared a UNICEF representative. Much of the south depends on small-scale subsistence farming, which has been decimated by the drought linked to climate change and by sandstorms fueled by drought and environmental degradation. Drought, famine, sandstorms and intense cyclones are likely to become more frequent due to the climate crisis.
POOR PAY PRICE FOR RICHEST POLLUTERS
The new UN “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” report projects a 10% reduction in freshwater flow and “increased drought stress over Madagascar.”
Ugandan youth activist Vanessa Nakate proclaimed at last September’s Youth4Climate conference in Milan:
“Historically, Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions. And yet Africans are already suffering some of the most brutal impacts fueled by the climate crisis: rapidly intensifying hurricanes, devastating floods and withering droughts. Many Africans are losing their lives, while countless more have lost their livelihoods….
“And the UN has declared that Madagascar is on the brink of the world’s first climate change famine. Tens of thousands of people are already suffering catastrophic levels of hunger and food insecurity after four years without rain. Who is going to pay for Madagascar?”
It is not altered weather alone that has wrought such devastation. It occurs on a terrain that has been adapted to serve capitalist accumulation, rather than either the human beings who live and work there or the other species that make up the local ecosystems.
While “resilience” is one of the watchwords of today’s projects to adapt to the changing climate, it is one of the main attributes stripped away from traditional arrangements for food provision in all of Africa and other colonized lands, as they were forced to adapt to the world capitalist system.
CAPITAL PUTS PROFIT OVER LIFE ITSELF
Its subordination of all life to capital accumulation, under the label “development,” privileges “efficiency,” productivity and profit over the human and natural sources of all wealth. Traditional methods of agriculture, refined through centuries of experience and normal climate variations, were deliberately undermined to maximize production. “Green revolution” techniques using synthetic fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and unsustainable irrigation undermined the fertility of soil and facilitated its erosion and desertification.
The African revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s opened a door to a non-capitalist path of development with self-determination from below that would have enabled resistance to capital’s demands. But that was undermined by neocolonialism from without and, at the same time, the separation between masses and leaders who were weighed down by technological backwardness and ended up treating the masses as mere labor power.
The official concept of adaptation means more of the same. The QMM mining project in southern Madagascar is a case in point. QMM is a partnership between the government and the notorious multinational mining corporation Rio Tinto. Its titanium mining land grab—which sparked a series of protests, general strikes and resistance to evictions—is “offset” by “conservation” areas, which, like many in Africa and elsewhere, push local small-scale producers out of forests. At the same time, QMM displaced fisherpeople from their traditional boat-launching sites.
Similarly, an industrial-scale beef cattle feedlot in the country garnered $3.5 million in funding from “development” banks, at the very time when industrial meat production needs to be shut down because of its huge climate and ecological impact.
The suffering in Madagascar and the struggles against QMM point to the need for a totally different approach to adaptation and development, restoring continuity with the African revolutions’ high points in a new era.