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Local Pushback Thwarts China’s Ambitions in Madagascar 

Image Source: Eric Mathieu/Wikimedia Commons

Despite that Madagascar is among the most impoverished countries in the world struggling with non-functioning institutions and omnipresent corruption, and clearly needs financial support for its development, it seems to be immune to Chinese proposals for huge infrastructural projects. However, Chinese customers’ demands fuel illegal activities on the island detrimental to the ecosystem. 

Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo, houses almost 30 million people. Due to its unique natural habitat, with 90 percent of fauna and flora found on the island being endemic, and specific culture, stemming from the immigration from Indonesia and Malaysia, and later the African mainland, it is sometimes referred to as an eighth continent. 

Even though the island country has an abundance of fertile land, vast mineral resources, and accessibility of the unique nature makes the island a tourist gem, it is among the poorest countries in the world, with 75 percent of people living on roughly $2 per day. As the author of this article recently witnessed, it is not unusual to encounter people without shoes and wearing worn-out clothes, despite having a job. In the less hospitable parts of the islands, hundreds of people, mostly children, stand next to the road, begging for money, food, water, or even plastic bottles, left without any job prospects and limited opportunities to grow food. 

Health care is expensive, if available. Usually, there is no ambulance coming in case of a car accident and people use medicinal plants to cure diseases as access to pharmaceuticals is scarce. The majority of people work in agriculture, selling the surplus of their harvest. The working conditions are harsh, as most of the work, ranging from brick production to stone scabbling, is done manually, often by children. Most people commute by minibusses as car ownership is unaffordable.

In such context, any development projects, infrastructure construction, and medical aid may play a crucial role in improving the living conditions and even enable survival of some of the inhabitants. However, it does not mean that all ambitious proposals are accepted by local officials and supported by local communities.

Chinese Communities

In 1897, Madagascar became a French colony, which lasted until 1960, resulting in close ties between France and the island country, with strong political, economic and cultural links between the two. After gaining independence, Madagascar started to formalize its relations with other countries, including China in 1972.

Despite domestic turmoil amidst the Cultural Revolution, China proceeded to deepen ties with Madagascar in 1975, as the control over the island was gained by Admiral Didier Ratsiraka with close ties to North Korea, Cuba and USSR, instituting a socialist republic. However, the domestic chaos in Madagascar contributed to limited development of mutual relations as the island predominantly focused on cutting ties with the former colonial power France and proceeding with internal reforms

In the early 1990s, presidential and national assembly elections brought an end to the single-party rule and a new constitution was approved, which contributed to “opening up” of Madagascar and development of its foreign relations. Compared to other African countries, China’s activities in the country have developed at a slower pace. However, the Chinese involvement in mining, agriculture, and logging gradually found its way. 

The first reports of Chinese immigration date to the mid-19th century. Although the exact numbers on the Chinese diaspora remain scarce, the estimates suggest up to 60,000-100,000 Chinese immigrants currently residing in Madagascar, representing the second largest Chinese community in Africa after South Africa. 

Limited Economic Engagement

China is by far the largest exporter to Madagascar, representing 28 percent of Madagascar’s imports in 2021. The exports vary from machinery and vehicles to chemical products, medicine, and cereals. China is the third largest import partner, accounting for about 12 percent of Madagascar’s exports in 2021, focusing predominantly on primary resources, such as graphite, micas, stones, and nickel. However, as Madagascar struggles with illegal exports, the statistics are likely inaccurate, especially in the case of precious wood. 

China is a minor provider of foreign-directed investment in the country and the Chinese companies operate mainly in the mining sector, mostly focusing on rare-earth mining and road construction. Madagascar’s debt to China is very low, especially in the context of other African countries, representing about 3.7 percent of the country’s total external debt in 2021. 

In 2017, Madagascar signed a memorandum with China to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but the number of projects proposed under the initiative remains limited. All five projects focus on road construction, including a 20-km road leading to the Ivato airport in Antananarivo and a 10-km road connection to the port of Tamatave, the country’s major port. 

Lack of Support for Ambitious Projects

Besides the BRI projects financed by Beijing, Chinese companies also construct roads funded by other actors. A prominent example of such a project is the RN9 leading from the southern port of Toliara to Ifaty, one of the major tourist destinations on the island due to its pristine beaches, and then further north. Despite all the signs saying that the road was managed and mainly funded by the African Development Bank, the local inhabitants refer to it as the “Chinese road” and also “the best road in Madagascar.” Such a perception may then contribute to the attribution of projects financed by other countries and organizations to China instead, as the Chinese companies’ logos and workers are present on the construction site. 

China has so far not been involved in bigger infrastructure projects, such as ports and airports, as has often been the case in other African countries. However, there have been indications that China is interested in similar projects, which could be crucial for its strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific. 

Based on IFRI’s research, a Chinese company participated in the 2015 tender for the construction and subsequent 28-year license for managing new terminals at airports in Antananarivo and Nosy Be, a favorite tourist destination, which was acquired by a consortium of French companies. This consortium was later sanctioned by the World Bank due to improper dealings with government officials over the tender.

Most notably, in 2017, China and Madagascar signed a memorandum to construct a deep-water port in Narindra located in the northwest of the island in the Mozambique Channel. This port could play a crucial role due to the considerable natural gas reserves discovered in the area, and it could also be used for military purposes. As of now, the memorandum has not materialized and the construction of this port does not seem economically viable as it would lie far from major economic centers, and physical infrastructure leading to this area is practically non-existent. 

In a nutshell, besides being the major exporter to Madagascar, China’s economic engagement with the country remains rather limited, especially compared to other African countries. However, its activities on the island require attention, as China is likely seeking to establish a military base in sub-Saharan Africa to strengthen its presence in the region and Madagascar appears among the options. In 2021, China appointed a military attaché to Madagascar and IFRI’s research mentions that Beijing expressed interest in an old French naval base Diego Suarez, located in the northern part of the island.

Fueling Activities Degrading the Environment

Whereas the official economic statistics show limited engagement with China, demands of the Chinese market drive, to a large extent, some of the activities that are dangerous for both the local environment and the inhabitants who engage in them.

China dominates the tropical wood imports from Madagascar, and reports suggest that 98 percent of the rosewood logged on the island ends up in China, where it is used for luxury furniture. Rosewood has a deep-rooted cultural importance in China as a symbol of wealth and craftsmanship. The use of rosewood was mostly suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, as it was seen as bourgeois goods. At the beginning of the 2000s, rosewood regained its popularity, and the surging demand has led to its depletion all around the world. The rosewood from Madagascar is particularly attractive due to its similarity to the variety used in China, which is now commercially extinct

Chinese interest in rosewood undoubtedly drives the logging in Madagascar’s rainforests, as the locals do not traditionally use these trees and do not understand their popularity in China, therefore would not normally cut them. The corrupted government, police officers, and local officials make efforts to protect the environment close to impossible. In 2013, rosewood was listed in CITES, which is an international agreement regulating trade with endangered species, meaning that commerce needs to be controlled otherwise the species may become endangered, but the authorities choose to close their eyes to the problem. China acceded to CITES in 1981.

Although there are reports by various environmental organizations on the issue, the true extent of rosewood logging in Madagascar remains unknown. China’s demands fuel logging activities, even in the national parks, namely in the Marojejy National Park in the northeastern part of the country. Between 15 and 20 Chinese companies operate in Madagascar and purchase the precious wood which is then transported to China, sometimes through Hong Kong and various South Asian countries whose ports are allegedly less strictly monitored.

Another frequently occurring environmental concern is the smuggling of wild animals. For instance, in 2018, Madagascar’s environmental agency found 10,000 radiated tortoises hidden in one house, which according to the rescue center workers were most likely supposed to be shipped to China. Even if endangered animals like tortoises are poached by local inhabitants as well, the large-scale activities linked to shipments to China present a much bigger challenge. 

Besides tortoises, other reptiles and amphibians are also smuggled abroad due to their attractiveness as pets. Some of these animals were stolen during nocturnal walks in the national parks, which allow to observe animals, that are nearly impossible to spot during the day, such as chameleons and nocturnal lemurs. Consequently, night tours are currently forbidden. Having talked to the national park guides, they mentioned tourists, especially those from China, stealing the endangered animals in order to transport them and sell them abroad. 

Animals are smuggled from Madagascar to various countries, including the EU, but China and Chinese tourists were mentioned by the locals and national park guides very frequently, suggesting that Chinese market demands offer considerable incentives to poachers.

Leveraging the Weak Political Environment 

During the political crisis in 2009-2013, Chinese companies took advantage of the chaos to proceed with their goals. In this period, some countries imposed sanctions on Madagascar and suspended development aid, but China continued to deepen its economic engagement in the country. 

The Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation (WISCO), China’s major steelmaker, paid $100 million to the government for permits to explore iron ore in Soalala region, in the western part of the country. This allowed WISCO to gain mining rights in a region with exceptional biodiversity, near the National Park of Baie de Baly, which could be destroyed by the company’s activities. As part of the concession, WISCO was supposed to create over 100,000 positions and construct an international port and roads. The local community, however, feels left behind as none of these promises materialized. Moreover, it remains unknown what happened with the $100 million that the then government defined as a tax and royalties, which represented about 10 percent of the country’s annual budget at that time.   

In 2013, before the presidential elections, China International Fund Limited offered one of the candidates, Camille Vital, 350 4×4 vehicles, which were later interdicted at the Tamatave port. In exchange for the ‘gift’, the company asked for access to the local mining and petrol sectors for a Chinese company China Sonangol International Holdings Limited. The representative of both the fund and the mining company, mostly known as Sam Pa, worked as a middleman between Beijing and Africa. He negotiated mining deals for Chinese companies in African unstable regimes, including Zimbabwe and Angola, creating personal connections with African leaders and a network of companies operating in Africa. Sam Pa was arrested in 2015 in China on bribery charges. Following the victory of president Hery Rajaonarimampianina, the vehicles were ultimately delivered to the presidential palace. The president’s office explained that they “may not prevent people from giving gifts” and that the vehicles would serve the “interest of the country.” 

Negative Views of China

In the harsh living conditions, it would be expected that China and its construction projects and activities in the country would be considered positively. Nevertheless, the Afrobarometer data gathered in 2022 show that only about 35 percent of Malagasy consider China’s influence in the country as positive, putting Madagascar among the countries least positive towards China from the 28 African countries surveyed. Nevertheless, the wider picture shows that Malagasy have a similar attitude towards the US. Such correlation was identified in case of many of the countries surveyed, suggesting that the inhabitants tend to have a positive or negative attitude towards external actors in general, rather than strictly choosing China or the US. 

Having talked to the Malagasy people, one potential explanation of a rather skeptical stance towards external influence may be rooted in the overall distrust towards the government and authorities in general. As witnessed also by the Afrobarometer, about 70 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy in the country. Consequently, locals may link the Chinese or American companies and organizations with working with the political elites, which may then impact their attitude towards them.   

In 2011, researchers analyzed French-language blog responses to articles focusing on China’s activities in Madagascar. The results show that the authors of the comments most often expressed concerns regarding China’s growing control of mineral resources, illegal export of precious woods, such as rosewood, and growing Chinese control of retail and trade, but also the services sector, such as hotels and restaurants. 

The negative attitude of the local communities also stems from the clashes with Chinese communities and companies and their pushback may indeed represent a crucial obstacle for China’s activities on the island. For instance, in 2014, a conflict over wages in a Chinese sugar factory SUCOMA located in Morondova triggered violence which ended up with four dead workers, the destruction of the factory and the houses of the Chinese leadership. The company was allegedly providing a $37 monthly pay, which is very low even in the context of Madagascar. 

In 2016, Chinese company Jiuxing Mines opened a gold mine in Soamahamanina, approximately 70 km from the capital city, which the locals strongly opposed, due to potential impacts on farming in the area, and the project was abandoned. 

Despite the corrupted elites in Madagascar which hamper the development of the country and create space where illegal activities detrimental to the unique environment are not properly investigated and prevented, China seems to struggle to establish deeper economic relations and proceed with more ambitious projects. At the same time, the demand of the Chinese market fuels illegal sectors of the island’s economy and some of the Chinese companies face Malagasy’s negative attitudes, sometimes even leading to the termination of their business activities.

Written by

Veronika Blablová


Veronika Blablová works as a Data Analyst of the MapInfluenCE and CHOICE projects at the Association for International Affairs (AMO), Prague, Czech Republic.