lundi 4 mai 2015

Mathilde Gingembre Resistance or participation? Fighting against corporate land access amid political uncertainty in Madagascar Journal of Peasant Studies

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Mathilde Gingembre

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Drawing on a micro-level ethnography, this paper explores the process by which a rural municipality managed to pressure the state into temporarily halting the land extension of a large-scale biofuel project in an agropastoral area of southern Madagascar. It documents how the coalition of local leaders and wealthy cattle owners behind the protest resisted threats to their land access and local domination by finding spaces of expression outside the control of local consultation, and creating alliances with influential activists. In a moral economy veering between rationales of autochthony and extraversion, the transnationalisation of the protest sent shock waves through a state apparatus divided and focused on the prospects of coming elections. By analysing the environmental, cognitive and relational mechanisms behind the emergence and repercussions of this bottom-up struggle, this paper points to the varied bargaining endowments that exist within agrarian communities as well as to the issues of authority at stake within corporate enclosure of land. In states where the rural poor have been historically marginalised from decision-making, consultation processes generally offer little space for participation. This paper demonstrates that contexts of political uncertainty open up new spaces for them to claim their rights but that gains made in such circumstances are fragile and contested.


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Drawing on a micro-level ethnography, this paper explores the process by which a rural municipality managed to pressure the state into temporarily halting the land extension of a large-scale biofuel project in an agropastoral area of southern Madagascar. It documents how the coalition of local leaders and wealthy cattle owners behind the protest resisted threats to their land access and local domination by finding spaces of expression outside the control of local consultation, and creating alliances with influential activists. In a moral economy veering between rationales of autochthony and extraversion, the transnationalisation of the protest sent shock waves through a state apparatus divided and focused on the prospects of coming elections. By analysing the environmental, cognitive and relational mechanisms behind the emergence and repercussions of this bottom-up struggle, this paper points to the varied bargaining endowments that exist within agrarian communities as well as to the issues of authority at stake within corporate enclosure of land. In states where the rural poor have been historically marginalised from decision-making, consultation processes generally offer little space for participation. This paper demonstrates that contexts of political uncertainty open up new spaces for them to claim their rights but that gains made in such circumstances are fragile and contested.


Mr Herizo was trying to remain calm but his bitterness overwhelmed him. There was no doubt in his mind that the Lalifuel agribusiness project was offering much-needed opportunities of national and local development. In exchange, however, the project had been greeted by a smear campaign:
You know all they said on the internet, nothing is true. We never moved out tombs, we never displaced people, nothing like that. Well you've seen haven't you? But the mayor of Benala went so far as going onto TV and in full screen, like that, he said we were profaning tombs, taking people's land and all of these things. But listen, we don't even work in Benala so come on, cut that! (Mr Herizo, Antananarivo, 13 May 2013)
At the time, the Lalifuel project was facing serious difficulties. A subsidiary of a European holding working in the energy sector, Lalifuel's original plans were to develop a biofuel (Jatropha curcas) and biomass (Moringa and vetiver) plantation on 100,000 ha in an agropastoral area of southern Madagascar. But after four years of activity, the project had generated very low economic returns due to agronomic failures, and the parent company had called for an audit following suspicions of embezzlement. In the meantime, the concern expressed by villagers from the municipality of Benala had attracted the attention of the very activists who had contributed to publicising the now-infamous Daewoo land deal and had, as such, indirectly contributed to the fall of the Ravalomanana regime in 2009.1 Amidst this turmoil, the Vice-Primature en charge du Développement et de l'Aménagement du Territoire (VPDAT), the ministry responsible for development and country planning, ordered the suspension of all additional land transfers to Lalifuel (VPDAT 2012).
In this chain of events, the accusations made by the municipality of Benala were both pivotal and following Mr Herizo's logic, arguably unjustified: the 30-year renewable lease Lalifuel had obtained on 6558 ha in 2012 concerned the municipalities of Arivony and Antafoka. On paper, the territory of neighbouring Benala was not even affected.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to indicate that the municipality had originally been targeted by the company. For Lalifuel staff, this is further proof of the inadmissibility of the accusations made against them and of the company's respect for the local population. The refusal by the residents of Benala to host the jatropha plantations and the project's subsequent decision to divert its land requests to others areas indicate, in their mind, that the consultation process had offered local villagers genuine opportunities of participation in the decision-making process. The careful consideration of the negotiation process by which Lalifuel secured this first land access reveals the fallacy of this simplification. First this claim implies that consultation processes happen in neutral spaces in which opinions can be freely expressed by communities who know their rights and do not fear to uphold them. By scrutinising the discursive and relational mechanisms at work within these spaces, this paper demonstrates instead that the possibility of refusing land dispossession was less offered to Benala villagers than it was seized by them. Second the causal connection made between the villagers’ will and the company's respect for it obscures the power of the host state in allowing or precluding the company's land access. This paper reintroduces these two sets of heterogeneous actors to shed light on the essential role played by Benala elites and to outline the unusual, albeit non-linear, way in which the state responded to their mobilisation.
What must be appreciated is that in Madagascar as in many other places, it is rare for rural communities to withhold consent during consultation processes (Burnod et al. 2011; Evers et al. 2011). Disagreements, when they are expressed, usually come in reaction to, rather than in anticipation of, land dispossession (Borras and Franco 2013; German, Mwangi, and Schoneveld 2013). There is a lack of effective mechanisms for land users to either reject or shape land deals. Even when local consultations take place, agrarian communities’ bargaining power is limited by a lack of access to economic and institutional alternatives (Ferguson et al. 2014; Vermeulen and Cotula 2010). In Madagascar, fears of the state combined with entrenched misconceptions that all untitled land is state-owned (Teyssier et al. 2009) generally transform local consultations into rubberstamping procedures instead of spaces of participatory decision-making (Burnod, Gingembre, and Andrianirina Ratsialonana 2013; Ferguson et al. 2014). In Benala, however, people not only withheld consent, they simultaneously engaged in a lobbying and communication campaign in a bid to publicise their opposition and to gain support. Through letters to government officials and public interventions supported by civil society, they spoke out in favour of the same development model as the one defended by the ‘land sovereignty alternative’, that is, one in which the right to access and control land belongs to those who work and live on it.2 With the mobilisation of brokers of different nature, the grassroots mobilisation spread into cyber spaces of transnational activism, leading to noticeable realignments within the spheres of local and national decision-making, culminating in the decision to order the suspension of all additional land transfers in favour of the project. This rather unusual chain of events – a proactive grassroots-led resistance gathering support from the state – raises two questions. First, how did the rural municipality of Benala succeed in appropriating rights that, despite protective laws and the process of local consultation, have remained very theoretical in the other municipalities? Second, how and why did this isolated grassroots struggle gather such momentum? In seeking to answer these questions, this paper demonstrates that the exclusion of Benala's territory from the first lease granted to the Lalifuel project is the result of a complex, power-laden interplay of conflicting multi-scalar agencies in a context of political uncertainty.
The political ecology approach adopted in this paper will be complemented by insights from the literature on contentious politics. The conceptual tools of ‘mobilising structures’, ‘collective action frames' and ‘repertoires of contention’ that have been developed by social movement scholars to study protest over the past 40 years could all be relevant to the analysis. However, instead of using these as a checklist of necessary variables, this paper adopts the dynamic, interactive approach formalised by McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly in their book Dynamics of contention (2004; first published in 2001). This approach consists in exploring the ‘environmental, cognitive and relational mechanisms’ at work in episodes of contentious politics (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2004, 25) and in understanding how their sequencing shaped the outcome of the movement.
In this model, McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly stress the importance of scrutinising individual action but argue that causal efficacy lies within relational processes (2004, 23). This paper follows them in proposing that in order to grasp the complexity and fluidity of a mobilisation, one needs to examine the ‘interpersonal networks, interpersonal communication, and various forms of continuous negotiation including the negotiation of identities’ that are being activated throughout the course of this episode of contentious politics (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2004, 22). In the same vein, other scholars have argued that closer attention must be paid to the interactions between resisters, targets and third parties (Hollander and Einwohner 2004) to gain a better understanding of the recursive constitution of resistance and power (Foucault 1979). While heeding this recommendation, the present contribution stresses that this episode of contention is driven as much, if not more, by the relations and dynamics internal to each of these groups. In particular, it highlights the contestations fuelled by the foreign project in local communities divided by competing land claims, different needs and strong socio-economic inequalities, as these tensions were found to have both accelerated and shaped the modalities of the protest.
As far as environmental mechanisms are concerned, the paper examines what social movement scholarship has called ‘political opportunity structures’ (Eisinger 1973; McAdam 1982; Tilly 1978). Different meanings have been given across the literature to this concept (Tarrow 1996). The purpose of this contribution is not to assess the global opportunities that the Malagasy state offers in terms of protest, opposition, dissent etc. – that is, the static opportunity structures. Instead, the analysis highlights the fluidity of the political context or what McAdam et al. call ‘changing political environments’ (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2004, 14). During the five-year ‘transition’ that Madagascar underwent after the coup organised by Andry Rajoelina in March 2009, national politics was pervaded by a heightened sense of uncertainty, with a regime under international sanctions repeatedly postponing elections (Galibert 2011). This paper outlines the divisions and opportunistic realignments that this sense of uncertainty fuelled in the course of one contentious episode around the Lalifuel project. In that respect, the case study reasserts the need to look at states as complex, heterogeneous, divided entities when analysing their role in land deals (Wolford et al. 2013).
These tensions and contradictions will be related to the ‘moral economy’ of the particular time and place. Moral economy, as constructed by Edward Thompson (1971), ‘highlights the relationship between people and leaders (political or economic) to material sustenance in times of economic turmoils’ (Siméant 2011, 8), and looks at how protests are informed by implicit theories of legitimate wealth and legitimate economic transactions. Interested in the expectations that tie people to their rulers, the concept of moral economy also conveys a sense of relational legitimacy. This paper explores the authorities’ quests for legitimacy and authority, and highlights the tensions state agents face as they try to navigate between the rationale of autochthony and the rationale of extraversion (Galibert 2009). This focus on legitimacy and authority will help to understand the ‘critical albeit contradictory role of the state in securing land for investors’ (Borras and Franco 2013, 1742), with the original facilitators of the land deal ending up being the main force obstructing it.
The paper starts by exploring the emergence of the grassroots resistance, the repertoires it mobilised and the process of transnationalisation it went through. Contrasting the reactions in Benala to those in the other two municipalities, it then explores the internal and relational dynamics that have allowed disgruntled agrarian communities to move beyond the ‘ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups’ (Scott 1986) in order to formalise and publicise their protest. The study of the mechanisms of ‘collective attribution of opportunity and threat’ (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2004) sheds light on the constructed rationale that guided Benala mobilisers in taking pre-emptive action to defend their territory from corporate enclosure. This section also documents how mechanisms of ‘social appropriation’ (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2004) fostered a mix of consent and coercion that contributed to the formalisation and to the imposition of their position onto the rest of the community. The paper then looks at ‘how politics shaped the development and outcomes of movements’ (McAdam et al. 1996) by examining the reaction of state officials to these initiatives. Finally, while acknowledging its successes so far, the paper highlights the fragility of this resistance.
This study is the product of three field visits carried out in 2011, 2013 and 2014. It draws on a search and review of documents produced during the deal-making process as well as on repeated semi-structured interviews and informal discussions with a wide range of actors involved in the deal making: from regional and local state officials to customary leaders through brokers, elected village representatives, managers and staff from the agribusiness company, activists and villagers from different age, gender, class and ethnic groups. A total of 26 villages were visited across the three municipalities, and, during the last period of fieldwork, three in-depth village case studies were carried out. To protect the confidentiality of the interviewees, the names of the project, of the localities and of individuals have been changed.
Non-violent, active and outspoken, Benala's resistance contrasts with more common forms of peasant struggle. In Madagascar, a few instances of local protest were recently seen against large-scale agribusiness projects but these struggles either used violence as a means of expression (ITO investment project) or were initiated by local officials (N-Fuel and NewProd) rather than by the affected communities themselves (Burnod, Gingembre, and Andrianirina Ratsialonana 2013; Medernach and Burnod 2013).
Benala's mobilisation also stands out with regards to the official reactions of the other municipalities targeted by the Lalifuel project. As such, the Lalifuel case study provides a vivid illustration of the variety of local responses that are brought to large-scale land deals (Borras and Franco 2013). In the municipalities of Arivony and Antafoka, both state and local leaders participated in the consultation process and formally agreed to transfer land to Lalifuel. The first tracts were obtained in Arivony, where Lalifuel set up its base and developed a tree nursery. A year later, the company started negotiating with villages in the municipality of Antafoka where the remainder of the first 6558 ha were obtained.
This outward compliance should not be mistaken for consensual or genuine approval, any more than the strong determination displayed in Benala means that all villagers were opposed to the project. What these different municipal positions do, however, show is that there is room for manoeuvre at the local level. In all three municipalities, different sets of dominant actors used a mix of coercion and consent to impose, with more or less success, their position onto the rest of the municipality. Before exploring the process by which this was achieved, the paper describes the procedure by which Lalifuel obtained the first lease.

The first lease

As mentioned above, out of the 100,000 ha originally envisaged, so far 6558 have been formally leased to Lalifuel, and these are spread on 15 non-contiguous plots. This portion-by-portion land access is the co-product of the company's approach and of political acts taken after the fall of the Ravalomanana regime.
Legally, in Madagascar, land cannot be transferred without the local population being consulted. Since the 2005 land reform, untitled land can no longer be leased or sold immediately by the state as local uses are protected under the presumption of ‘untitled private property’3 (Teyssier et al. 2009). Before it can be transferred, untitled land first needs to be titled in the name of the state, and part of this titling procedure involves sending a ‘commission’ to the site to check whether the land is available or already under productive use (mise en valeur).4 The commission includes the mayor, the head of fokontany (the elected representative of the village cluster) and members of the regional land services, and is responsible for summoning the land seeker(s), the neighbours and the fokonolona (local community). Should the neighbours or others disagree with the titling, their views are recorded in the proceedings of the commission, which is also responsible for reconciling the different parties.5 Some local consultation must also be held during the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which is required for all agricultural projects over 1000 ha.6 However, the rights of the population during this consultation are loosely laid out and meagre in practice (Andriamanalina and Burnod 2014; Ferguson et al. 2014).
Lalifuel conducted an EIA in 2011 but, in this context, the consultation of the population seems to have been restricted to one collective meeting where the presence of senior local and regional authorities can be thought to have acted as a deterrent for anyone who would have liked to express concern. Moreover, Lalifuel's current managers show little, if any, knowledge of the findings or recommendations of this document.7 Nevertheless, before the land access application was passed on from the regional land services to the relevant ministry, village-level consultations were organised as is required by law: out of the 26 villages interviewed in Arivony and Antafoka, nearly all confirmed having received some kind of visit from the company. A majority reported having been allowed to choose which tract(s) would be given to the project and in most cases (but not all), this choice had so far been respected. However, the analysis of these villages’ experiences betrays inconsistencies in terms of the promises made, the communication of fragmented information and at times recourse to false pretences to accelerate consent. As a result, while villagers commonly insisted that ‘Lalifuel was not forcing people'8, very few of those consulted actually understood they had a right to refuse giving land altogether since, for them, the project had already been approved at higher levels. The consultation was therefore understood at best as a chance to choose which tract(s) to give and to express their wishes in terms of compensation. Finally, it was extremely rare to have a full representation of all of those holding claims on the land. By favouring one hamlet over the others – in this area, each village is generally made up of a minimum of three or four hamlets – and overlooking the importance of holding discussions between villages – neighbouring villages frequently share use rights over rangeland – the consultation ended up fuelling tensions between and within villages.
In Benala, the project's approach was not rejected straight away. In September 2011, the mayor welcomed the EIA team and the regional official who accompanied them. In the minutes of the meeting, the mayor is reported to have expressed doubts as to the desire of the population ‘to change', and some concern over the reduction of local cattle wealth the project could lead to.9 He is also reported to have attempted to negotiate the incorporation of the local population through an out-grower agreement. A few months later, the mayor's cousin and right-hand man agreed to take one of Lalifuel's local managers around some villages. The company gained nothing other than a polite refusal on the part of both villagers and local leaders. This experience proved that, as long as they were channelled (as in this example, with the mayor's cousin showing the company around), consultation could help to build an image of unanimous hostility without having to adopt a confrontational attitude.
However, the problems caused by the extension of Lalifuel in neighbouring municipalities combined with attempts by individuals within Benala to collaborate with the project forced the anti-Lalifuel contingent to move beyond the ordinary weapons of the weak (Scott 1986) and to publicly declare their outright refusal of all land transfers.

Grassroots opposition

Benala first broke its silence following signs that Lalifuel was close to encroaching on land that some of its villages considered as theirs. On 25 August 2011, six villages from the fokontany of Analaroa wrote a letter to the regional and local authorities after they spotted one of Lalifuel's vehicles on their village land. Interestingly, it was not the company who was blamed for this but a villager from the neighbouring municipality of Arivony, who had ‘fooled’ the developers and brought them to a tract that ‘belonged’ to villagers from Benala. A couple of months later, another village sent a letter to the regional authorities: there were rumours that a neighbouring village from the municipality of Antafoka had ‘sold’ some of their village land to Lalifuel although they had previously made it clear that they were not willing to part with this land. Shortly after the first of these two complaints, the municipal authorities organised a meeting in Benala's town hall. The minutes of the meeting were typed and sent to state officials: this document formalised the resistance to the project and presented it as a ‘collective stance adopted by the majority’.10 The meeting also instigated a ‘collective duty’ to ‘check over any further extension of territory by the investor’. The letter was accompanied by 493 signatures, collected from a total of nine fokontany and more than 25 villages. Another four villages wrote to state officials in the following two years, each expressing opposition in principle to Lalifuel activities on their land. Simultaneously, the municipality engaged in the process of creating an association ‘to keep an eye on the potential extensions of Lalifuel's plantations’.11

Gaining allies

In November 2012, over a year after the first letters were sent, a dozen of the main local mobilisers went to Antananarivo to participate in a press conference. Organised by the SIF (Sehatra Iombonana ho an'ny Fananan-tany), a platform of Malagasy associations working on land rights, this event allowed them to publicly express, for the first time, their concern over the Lalifuel project, which was then accused of serious land and human rights violations. Few newspapers reported on the press conference, but it was transmitted on radio Don Bosco, one of the few stations with national coverage, as well as on TV. For most of the villagers, it was their first visit to the capital and their first contact with any civil society organisation. A grouping of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and of national, regional and municipal farmers' associations, the SIF works for the promotion of ‘land access for human development’ through lobbying, advocacy and sensitisation (SIF website n.d.). Funded by international solidarity associations such as the International Land Coalition (ILC), the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development (CCFD) and Swiss Intercooperation, it has taken on an ever-increasing role in the defence of local land rights in the context of large-scale corporate projects, organising meetings and workshops with local associations in affected areas.
The initiatives of Benala's villagers were brought to the SIF's attention by M. Tovolahy, a catholic friar who had implemented development projects in the municipalities of Arivony and Antafoka for more than 20 years. Literate and well-travelled, M.Tovolahy is well connected both inside Madagascar and abroad. He currently lives in the capital and has not been seen by the villagers for a few years now. As such, he may not be as closely linked to domestic networks and opportunities as those ‘rooted cosmopolitans’ Tarrow describes in The New Transnational Activism (Tarrow 2005, xiii). However, M. Tovolahy has remained in touch with local people and events, which is critical in Madagascar where national civil society still struggles to reach the grassroots level (Burnod, Gingembre, and Andrianirina Ratsialonana 2013), and the SIF, despite efforts at decentralisation, is not spared from this problem.12 Besides his role as a broker between a remote civil society and isolated grassroots protesters, M. Tovolahy ran an active communication campaign on social media against the expansion of Lalifuel.
Investigations revealed that Benala's opposition was also helped by some people within the regional state apparatus. In 2011, the head of the district endorsed Analaroa's letter with a small note saying that ‘it was unacceptable to seize cattle-nurturing earth by force and that the population needed to be confronted for harmony to be preserved’.13 With regards to the enthusiastic support Lalifuel had received from other state officials, this was a rather bold and unusual act. While no other evidence of regional state officials giving open support to Benala's struggle has been found, there are signs that some have been helping in more discreet ways. Villagers and the activists supporting them were indeed found to possess pieces of information that only those actors involved to some degree in the deal making could have possessed. The former confirmed having allies within the regional state apparatus while taking extra care to keep their identities secret.

Linking outwards

In parallel, a vocal transnational mobilisation was launched in support of the villagers. Shortly after the press conference, the Collectif Tany, the diaspora advocacy group that had contributed to publicising the Daewoo land scandal in 2008–2009, published a press release to relay Benala's call of distress and invite support ‘against the land grab of vast tracts of land by the company Lalifuel in Madagascar’ (Collectif Tany 2012). The accusations of encroachment of land rights that the villagers had made during the press conference were confirmed by ‘private testimonies’ and the picture was completed by allusions to the national politics that were being played out around the land deal. The Collectif Tany also pointed to the active involvement of Hajo Andrianainarivelo, the Minister responsible for development and country planning and Vice Premier Minister (VPM). He had recently delivered, on behalf of Lalifuel, a 4 × 4 vehicle and two laptops to the regional government of the affected area (La Gazette de la Grande Ile 2012). Collectif Tany’s note was quickly reproduced on a number of websites and blogs, including those of established networks of international NGOs such as the ILC and of activist organisations such as Grain and Oxfam.
Informed through these fora and other networks of trust and activism, Malagasy citizens in Antananarivo and abroad took up the struggle. Using the internet and social media, they launched a campaign against both the company and the VPM, whom they later accused of having traded his support to Lalifuel for funding of his electoral campaign.14
This international interest contrasted with the low level of coverage that was given of the protest in national media. While Lalifuel was being transformed into the new land grab scandal on Malagasy cyberspaces, it had little national profile and only one small opposition party referred to the affair during the 2013 electoral campaign. Nevertheless, as in the Daewoo case, the transnational mobilisation ended up reverberating in the national space and affecting national politics (Coordination Sud 2010). This process will be closely examined in the third section of this paper.
Through this series of non-violent initiatives, people from Benala therefore found spaces of expression outside the control of local consultation and in the process gained wider leverage and support.
Most contentious episodes are premised on the construction of a shared understanding of the potential consequences of action (opportunity) or failure to act (threat) (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2004, 95). In the Lalifuel case, the ‘collective attribution of opportunity and threat’ (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2004, 95) acted as a central mechanism in the diffusion of the protest. To impose the pre-eminence of land access and control over perceived advantages of collaborating with the agribusiness project, and to discourage alternative voices, the anti-Lalifuel contingent also mobilised identities and customary institutions.

Collective attribution of opportunity and threat

The construction of Lalifuel as an imminent, irredeemable threat played a major role in triggering and feeding the grassroots mobilisation. The argument was that no middle-ground solution was possible. First, food security was at risk, despite the commitment of Lalifuel managers to leave farmed land untouched. In the context of a growing population and depleting natural resources, unfarmed uplands were necessary to middle- and even short-term survival:
The state thinks that there are wide free tracts of land here, that's why they decide to give the tazoa (uplands). But here there isn't any farmland left. All the lowlands are farmed and so we now need the use the tazoa to grow rice as well. Even if we have to wait for the rain there, it's this or nothing. We need the tazoa. (municipal councillor, fokontany of Anjorobe, municipality of Benala, 8 May 2013)
While this argument on the importance of land reserves came up regularly, the real anxiety concerned cattle herding: in a system of extensive pastoralism, any loss of land would imply a loss of cattle. As their letters explicitly highlighted, Lalifuel's large-scale project was therefore threatening the two inseparable elements in which the economy but also their social organisation, identities, histories and belief systems were embedded. Insisting on the importance of cattle and land in mediating their relations with the ancestors and regulating behaviour with one another, they were drawing a compelling explanation of the all-encompassing function of land as both tangible and intangible resource.
The project's business model and, more precisely, the decision not to use a contract-farming model (despite announcements to the contrary15) further reinforced their fears. M. Toniaina, Benala's current mayor, actually proposed that the jatropha could be farmed by the local population; only, he reported, for the company to come back with an insultingly low offer.16 Whether these calls for an alternative model of incorporation in the business project were actually made or not, this account signals clear-sightedness as to the lack of bargaining power that illiterate, agrarian communities have over these high-return land allocation processes (Vermeulen and Cotula 2010). ‘It's not that we are against Lalifuel', another villager explained. ‘If we knew how to read and write then we would have accepted’.17 When the only option left would be to work for the company, being a wage-worker is seen as ‘a form of slavery’.18 Again, this vision is embedded in the Malagasy cosmogony where the severing of connections with the ancestors entailed by land loss implies losing one's history and thereby becoming a slave.19 The fear of renouncing identity and control is reinforced by the crop chosen by the investor. The risk is not only to lose control over the land but also to lose control over its output: ‘I remember the day where I went to Arivony with Lalifuel's managers, people were saying “this thing [the jatropha] is useless. You can't even do coffins with it and the leaves can't even be used as fodder either”' (senior regional official, 13 May 2013).
In comparison with these losses, the social services offered by Lalifuel did not impress, and neither did discussions about alternative economic activities:
They talk about schools and other advantages the project can bring. But out of 1000 kids who go to school, only 10 maybe can become bureaucrats! And so what will the others do then if their land is taken away from them? (mayor of Benala, provincial capital, 5 May 2013)
The sense of threat is also spread through the accounts of the ordeals faced by the villages from the other two municipalities already affected by the project. Reproduced by media and activists, their stories talk of severe violations of rights, such as evictions under the threat of armed force, the display of power through the use of security services, and the encroachment of burial sites.20 Although consultations did not fulfil the conditions of free, prior and informed consent, and concern over lost land is significantly increasing, none of these more serious accusations has so far been confirmed by villagers from Arivony and Antafoka. In sum, the lobbying campaign of anti-Lalifuel protesters has been underpinned by the manufacture of rumours as much as by descriptions of the perceived threats.
As far as professional activists were concerned, this rare expression of opposition on behalf of rural populations presented a timely opportunity to advance their claims. McAdam et al. note that ‘sensing an opportunity to strengthen or revitalize their organisation through the facilitation of grassroots activity, members of established organisations commonly serve as brokers for emergent movements’ (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2004, 104). For the SIF, time had come to make up for their noted silence during the Daewoo affair. ‘We were determined not to miss the boat this time', explained one of its members.21 As for the Collectif Tany who had been actively campaigning against land grabbing in Madagascar over the previous three years, this grassroots resistance offered a powerful justification of their calls for transparency and accountability. The moment to speak out could not have been better chosen: while general elections were approaching, and with them the opportunity to increase pressure on government officials, Lalifuel itself was experiencing internal strife as suspicions of embezzlement had led the company's headquarters to call for an audit and to replace the management team.
This sense of opportunity was partially passed on to the grassroots protesters, who gained some crucial, albeit fragile, confidence in the legitimacy and potential of the struggle. Thanks to their allies within civil society and the administration, villagers of Benala were able to access information and decisions taken in closed, official spaces. When the Vice-Primature en charge du Développement et de l'Aménagement du Territoire (VPDAT) ordered the regional land services to suspend all additional land transfers to Lalifuel, they were amongst the first to know. They were given a copy of the official memorandum accompanied by its translation (from French to Malagasy).22 This access to information gave them optimism as to the power of collective action, as evidenced by the pride with which this note was brandished by the protesters when asked whether they thought their initiatives had made a difference.
Generally speaking, the intervention of civil society is seen as instrumental in ensuring that agrarian communities fully understand the ins and outs of projects, know their rights and therefore express an informed opinion when consulted (Andriamanalina and Burnod 2014; Evers et al. 2011). In the Lalifuel case, it certainly allowed villagers to access an alternative point of view to that conveyed by most officials.
Yes I think the press conference was useful. It was good to hear that the jatropha plantation was not favourable for us Malagasies. And also it was good to be able to share our concerns and express our problems. Each one of us had a chance to talk and explain. Personally I explained why it was so important to have a lot of land free for our cattle. [ … ] We were all able to talk one after the other. (komity [village secretary], village of Amboanjobe, municipality of Antafoka, 18 February 2014)
This feedback makes it clear that, besides finding justification for their struggle, participants felt empowered by a rare opportunity to express their opinions freely and publicly. Nevertheless, it is surprising that local land claims were never backed up with reference to the 2005 land reform. As pointed out by scholars and activists, cattle herders’ rights are insufficiently protected as ‘very large-scale pastures’ are explicitly excluded from law 2006–031 on untitled private property (Andriamanalina and Burnod 2014). Untitled private property does however include ‘traditional family pastures'.23 This provision has nevertheless never been referred to (nor have any others).

Social appropriation through consent and coercion

Although concerns over land loss exist in the other municipalities, only in Benala were they voiced openly and did they lead to a determined, coordinated action. What allowed this emancipation from the expected and internalised patterns of action? McAdam et al. note that however transgressive a collective action may be, it usually thrives thanks to the appropriation of existing social space and collective identities (2004, 102). Although action used against Lalifuel borrowed from the state-legal repertoires (letters, petitions, press conference), resistance was premised on local experiences, customary institutions and discursive constructions of autochthony. Local structures and collective identities were also mobilised on a more coercive basis.
In 2006, only a few years before Lalifuel arrived in Benala, Sedeti Limited, an Asian agribusiness investor, had sought to develop a large-scale corn plantation in the area. The project forced its way into the municipality against the wishes of non-state local authorities. Supported by the central government and facilitated by both the former regional head (chef de région) and by the former mayor of Benala, procedures for a first lease of 6500 ha were started, and 600 ha of rangeland were ploughed along the national road. Operations were stopped rather quickly, however, because of agronomic and financial problems. This experience provided the villagers with useful skills and insights. First, it contributed to a certain degree of legal empowerment: ‘Since Sedeti, we know that investors have to do a lease. Because we were victims of Sedeti, we opposed Lalifuel. That's why there is no lease here' (deputy head of fokontany, Analaroa village, municipality of Benala, 4 May 2013).
This understanding is crucial when contrasted with the widespread perception that deals have already been concluded when the local consultation takes place. The encounter with the Asian investor was also instrumental in gaining a first experience of resistance and developing certain repertoires of action. At the time, the struggle was led by a retired policeman originating from one of the local wealthy cattle owning families. Following the accidental discovery of the land deal that was secretly being negotiated between the state and the company, he began to lobby regional state officials and, with the support of a local religious association, organise group discussions to sensitise village leaders and authorities. The threats he received from the state, he explains, encouraged people to start writing letters. Collective action was used as a way to confront the repressive mechanisms of the state.
The repercussions of the Sedeti experience on the local political sphere are also key to understanding the posture chosen by M. Toniaina, the current mayor, regarding Lalifuel. When villagers heard that the previous mayor had agreed to give land to Sedeti without having consulted the lonaky (heads of sub-lineage governing at the village level), a dina (tenet of customary law) was written, condemning him to exile. The sanction was ultimately dropped but the mayor lost his seat and is still despised for this action. The strong force of opposition demonstrated in this context by local figures of authority is worth noting in a country where mayors have gained significant political leverage since the reforms of decentralisation in the 1990s and the development of the ideology of ‘local is beautiful’ among international donors (Bidou, Droy, and Fauroux 2008). It also helps to contextualise the determination shown by M. Toniaina in prohibiting the project from operating in his municipality. The son of a rich cattle owner and the descendant of a powerful lineage himself, he stands at a crucial intersection of state and non-state politics.
Although he insists on the grassroots nature of a mobilisation for which he was only a spokesperson, the mayor talks with pride of the role he played at different moments in this contentious episode. He is undoubtedly considered essential to the resistance, if only because villagers know that land transfers cannot be made without his approval. A dozen other local elites have shown signs of active engagement in the struggle, drawing authority from lineage descent (lonaky), cattle wealth, administrative skills (heads of fokontany, komity etc.) or a combination of these attributes. Some attempts were made by regional officials to soften their position but pressure seems to have been moderate and no threats were reported.
It is important to say that the municipality has substantial cattle wealth with a reported total of 34,000 head of cattle (against 20,000 and 10,000 for Arivony and Antafoka respectively) for a population of 12,000 inhabitants. This wealth is quite strongly concentrated with several cattle owners owning more than 5000 head each.24 It supports large patronage networks through the practice of confiage, whereby rich cattle owners lend cattle to poor villagers within and outside their village (and often beyond their municipality). This position of wealth and local power presumably underpins the relative autonomy and immunity that the leaders of Benala's resistance have shown to enjoy in relation to the state. Another factor that has certainly facilitated their opposition to the foreign project is the presence within these families of people who are educated and know how the state administration works. Formerly headmaster of Benala's primary school, the mayor, for instance, spends most of his time in the provincial capital and regularly travels to Antananarivo, where he is said to have high connections.25
Several incidents nevertheless suggest that this elite-led mobilisation against Lalifuel is not unanimously appreciated within Benala's villages. Circumventing their control by going directly to the villagers, Lalifuel staff managed, on several occasions, to secure some type of agreement to transfer land. These initiatives were met by firm, swift reactions on the part of Benala's authority figures, which convinced the project to back down. These episodes nevertheless stressed the need for the elites to tighten their control. The next section outlines how resistance was imposed as the official, and only acceptable, stance.

Imposing unity

The arrival of Lalifuel undoubtedly activated a sense of community solidarity within the population of Benala. Threats to the ancestral land and actions taken to counter them reinforced a sense of community revolving around the critical notion of autochthony and of belonging to the land. M. Toniaina's strong opposition to Lalifuel is systematically related to his origins:
It's easy to understand why our mayor opposed Lalifuel and the other mayors collaborated: our mayor is a zana-tany [native] and a topontany [literally a master of the land] whereas the mayor of Arivony is a mpivahiny [guest or non-native]. (Lonaky, village of Vadilongo, municipality of Benala, 6 May 2013)
In establishing this causal connection, villagers are quick to forget that their previous mayor, a zana-tany as well, yielded to previous corporate pressures. While providing easy answers to complex questions, the referral to origins is instrumental in reinforcing a sense of belonging and unity. When questioned on the reasons why villagers from other municipalities were not standing up to Lalifuel in the same way, most interviewees referred to a ‘problem of division’ which they contrasted to their own sense of cohesion.
However performative, these discourses of consensual cohesion do not stand up to scrutiny. The disagreements and lack of communication that actually divide Benala were made explicit on several occasions. One day, for instance, villagers from the village of Raketra (municipality of Benala) woke up to Lalifuel tractors ploughing their land. As they walked angrily to them to ask for an explanation, the company's employees told them they had received authorisation from the village. The head of fokontany rushed to the mayor who confirmed he had never given his consent to this operation and sent a message to the village. Lalifuel stopped its work immediately. The identity of those who had invited Lalifuel did not evade anyone in the village. These people had previously tried to obtain an official approval to transfer land but both the head of fokontany and the mayor had refused to endorse their letter. The failure of both their open and secret endeavours to invite the project to develop in their village highlights the power of the mayor in terms of ‘access control’ (Peluso and Ribot 2003). According to local rules, alienation rights are owned by the lonaky. In this case, not only did the lonaky fail to prevent other villagers from appropriating these rights, but had to request an intervention from the mayor to address that usurpation.
Following this event, more direct mechanisms of censorship were set up. During the meeting held at Benala town hall in November 2011, a message was sent that ‘the fokonolona [the local community] will take measures against those who would want to counter the ideas of the majority. These will be punished by the dinam-pokonolona [village justice]’.26 The threat was specified and toughened with the association of cattle herders whose statutes stipulate that anyone who gives land to private projects shall be evicted from the municipality. The lonaky also engaged their authority as mediators between the living and the ancestors, threatening to deprive those who attempted to give land of their rights to the tsipirano, the ritual ceremony of blessing held at different life stages and in cases of sickness or misfortune. With regards to the centrality of the tsipirano on issues of identity, social integration and ancestral blessing, this is a risk few may be willing to take.
The determination with which Benala's elites reacted to this isolated attempt to collaborate with Lalifuel points to the fact that this struggle against corporate enclosure is directly related to stakes of local domination and social stratification. The village-by-village type of consultation conducted by Lalifuel confronted Benala's elites with two different types of exclusion mechanisms. Firstly, they were excluded from decisions about land on which they used to enjoy use rights (and sometimes claimed alienation rights) on the grounds that this land did not belong to the municipality in which their village was located. These are the land transfers that were contested in their letters. These situations stress the difficulty of accommodating the fluidity and complexity of local land tenure within consultation processes as well as the problematic discrepancies between administrative and local borders. Secondly, the project bypassed local channels of decision-making by dealing directly with non-elite villagers, thereby showing its potential to undermine local structures of power. In this context, refusing all collaboration with the project has been a means to defend their territory as much as to address threats to their authority.
By scrutinising the mechanisms of collective attribution and social appropriation, the previous paragraphs documented how the protest emerged, spread and evolved across scales. Here the paper turns to the state's reactions, exposing how, faced with this externally supported expression of popular discontent, some senior decision-makers moved from being active supporters of the Lalifuel project to threatening to cancel contracts.

The state under pressure: divisions, electoral strategies and realignments

Under the ‘transitional regime’ that followed the overthrow of president Ravalomanana (2009–2014), Madagascar sank into economic recession, political turmoil and international isolation (Razafindrakoto, Roubaud, and Wachsberger 2014). In reaction to Andry Rajoelina's seizure of power (Randrianja 2012), bilateral and multilateral donors suspended budget assistance and all ‘non-essential’ aid funding. These measures dealt a hard blow to an economy in which foreign aid represented approximately 40 percent of the government's budget and 75 percent of public spending (Ploch and Cook 2012). The political tensions and climate of insecurity that followed the coup adversely affected key sectors such as tourism, textile and construction, and led to a sharp drop in the level of private investments (International Crisis Group 2014). According to the World Bank, economic growth in Madagascar collapsed to just 0.6 percent in 2009, from 7 percent in 2008 (IRIN 2010).
In this context, projects related to the extraction and exploitation of the country's natural resources were one of the few sources of official and unofficial funding remaining. In the mining sector, some highly lucrative deals were negotiated with new partners such as the 100 million American dollars making-available right paid by the company WISCO to access the iron-rich zone of Soalala. A total of 10 new mining projects are estimated to have started under Rajoelina's regime, three of which are huge investments concerning areas of over 500,000 ha,27 all adding to the concern over social and environmental damage already raised by major projects such as Madagascar Oil Tsy Miroro, Ambatovy and QMM/Rio Tinto (Seagle 2012). Negotiation over large-scale land transfers were also conducted in the forestry sector as part of carbon-offsetting schemes.28 The agribusiness sector for its part suffered from a sharp drop in investment (from 82 projects announced between 2005 and 2014 to roughly 10 projects still active in 2014), as concern for Madagascar's political instability was compounded by a general lack of expertise in the agricultural sector and difficulties in securing land access, making it difficult for entrepreneurs to secure funding (Andrianirina et al. 2011; Burnod, Andriamanalina, and Andrianirina Ratsialonana 2014).
This context of political instability and financial scarcity fuelled intense competition over the Lalifuel project. In Madagascar, responsibility for land governance is spread across a wide number of state agencies (Burnod, Gingembre, and Andrianirina Ratsialonana 2013). However, it is not always clear where one authority begins and another ends, especially in a context where formal decentralisation is hampered by legal confusions and political obstructions (Bidou, Droy, and Fauroux 2008; Rochegude and Plançon 2009). This lack of clarity allowed different levels to try and manoeuvre in order to capture rent and control the company's land access. As the resistance against the project became more vocal, however, engagement with the foreign company turned into a sensitive issue.
The next paragraphs draw on the concepts of extraversion (Bayart 2000) and moral economy (Thompson 1971) to explore the rationales behind the contradictory, shifting positions adopted by state agents. Focus is on their attempts to negotiate authority and legitimacy in a highly fluid political environment where control of the outside world is a crucial resource for both political action and social struggles.

From committed support to requests of suspension

The central government initially showed enthusiasm and support towards the Lalifuel project. In compliance with circulaire 321–10/MATD/SG/DGSF (2010) on large-scale land acquisitions, an inter-ministerial commission convened to examine its business plan. In this document, the agribusiness investment was clearly framed as a project that would favour local and national development. Besides bringing tax revenues to the state, the biofuel and biomass project would strengthen local capacities in the energy sector and further the country's energetic independence, and was ‘highly relevant’ with regards to the country's large ‘reserves of unused or insufficiently used arable land’ (Lalifuel 2011, 2). Moreover, a strong commitment was made not to affect ‘private land, villages, land used by peasants for crop farming and land already legally attributed to other projects or companies’ (Lalifuel 2011, 14). The local population would also benefit from the project through jobs,29 knowledge transfer and capacity building, and the company was pledging to help them on issues of human and cattle health, local food security, water infrastructure and rural electrification.30 In Madagascar, such tropes of sustainability and green capitalism are regularly mobilised by investing companies in alliance with the state and some environmental NGOs to provide an enabling environment for corporate land access and the extraction of surplus value on previously uncommodified resources (Corson 2011; Neimark 2012; Seagle 2012). In the case of Lalifuel, these win–win narratives were indeed quickly reproduced by decision-makers at all levels.
Following approval from the inter-ministerial commission, an authorisation of prospection was delivered (May 2011). As the procedure moved down to the regional and local levels, the minister responsible for development and country planning and Vice Premier Minister (VPM) put his political weight behind the project, carrying out field visits and mediating the company's socio-economic compensation (see above).
Local and regional authorities also provided key support, especially by helping Lalifuel to secure land access at the ground level. The mayors of Arivony and Antafoka contributed to the effort by offering tracts from their own family possessions (or that of their in-laws). Together with the regional officials, they also helped the project with what is referred to as ‘the social approach’. On 20 July 2011, a meeting was organised in Arivony in order to ‘sensitise and present the Lalifuel project to the population’. No less than 22 local and regional officials attended, from the head of district and the regional directors of various ministries through the mayors and the cabinet director of the regional government. A few days later, a ‘regional commission responsible for the sensitisation, information and monitoring of Lalifuel project’ was created and regional authorities started accompanying Lalifuel's visits to the villages, accelerating feelings, within the consulted population, that the deal was already made. In Benala, the regional head himself made the trip.31
This positive collaboration was short lived, however. Just over a year later, in August 2012, the commission was disolved on the grounds that the ‘circulaire 321–10 had been violated’.32
Soon thereafter, in December 2012, the regional land services (CIRDOMA, Circonscription Domaniale et de la Propriété Foncière, and CIRTOPO, Circonscription Topographique) received the afore-mentioned memorandum from the VPDAT. Insinuating that the regional land services had proceeded with a second lease without prior approval, the vice-primature's ‘call to order’ recalled that ‘all requests for large-scale land acquisitions had to be approved by the superior authorities first’ and asked for the ‘immediate suspension of all ground operations related to the extension of Lalifuel project’. The company was also notified of this decision. In the letter they were sent, they were accused of having breached procedures, since no request of extensions could be made before the government had verified that the land already allocated had been duly developed.33
Any secret dealings between the regional land services and Lalifuel are beyond the scope of this research. What matters is to highlight the rationale behind two decisions – the dissolution of the regional commission and the memorandum – that indicate a shift in position of both the regional and the central state. Discourse and documents analysis suggest that they are less acts of regulation than the outcome of local politics driven by competition for ‘access control’ (Peluso and Ribot 2003) on the one hand, and related struggle for authority (Sikor and Lund 2009) on the other.

Competition and divisions

When questioned about the nature of the ‘violations’ that had caused the dissolution of the regional commission, members of the Région (regional government) explained that the services déconcentrés (regional representation of the ministries) were ‘playing it alone’ and acting ‘secretly’ with the Lalifuel company, thereby excluding the rest of the commission.34 Even prior to the land deal there were tensions between these two bodies of the regional state. Interviews with personnel from both agencies painted a picture of mutual suspicion, fed by a lack of dialogue, unclear institutional statutes and overlapping jurisdictions.35 However, the mutual accusations of prevarication over Lalifuel indicated that these tensions had been exacerbated by the project. The regional head is reported to have complained of an unfair distribution of benefits after Lalifuel equipped the regional land services (one of the services déconcentrés) with laptops and 4/4 vehicles. 36 A short while later, the VPDAT was asked, by the Région, ‘to withhold, immediately, the boundary marking operations [ … ] as well as all the land procedures that were engaged for the Lalifuel project’ (VPDAT 2013, 3). According to Lalifuel staff, the attitude of the regional head shifted after the company refused to yield in to his pressures for material benefits.37
The reaction of the VPDAT to alleged negotiations between the regional land services and the company highlights the competition that also exists between different scales of decision-making. After the 2005–2010 period where most emerging agribusiness projects negotiated their land access at the local level with little, if any, involvement of the central authorities (Andrianirina et al. 2011), several administrative initiatives were taken by the Rajoelina regime to recentralise control over large-scale transfers of farmland in the country. In his first two years in power, two administrative notes – the ministerial note no. 621/09/MATD (2009) and the circulaire 321–10/MATD/SG/DGSF (2010) – reminded regional and local agents that no large land requests could be processed without the prior authorisation of the superior authorities.38
Research on other land deals in Madagascar has revealed that divisions and competition between state agencies frequently end up delaying investors’ land access (Burnod, Gingembre, and Andrianirina Ratsialonana 2013), as opposing the land deal is seen as a means to regain authority by those who have felt unduly side-lined during the negotiation process. As far as the Lalifuel land deal was concerned, the intervention of central state officials was certainly driven by ambitions to reclaim control over a negotiation process that threatened to escape them. In this case, however, the challenge to their authority that they sought to address was the consequence not of having been excluded from the decision-making process but, conversely, of having been known to have played a major role in it.

Quest for legitimacy in a context of elections

The anti-Lalifuel protest may not have succeeded in shaking the mainstream narrative that portrayed the project as a win–win but it did generate anxiety within the state:
In 2012, Lalifuel wanted to extend its perimeters but the villagers were against it, explained a regional official. You know there are things that people really can't understand: for them, it's foreigners coming to take their land, they even talked of tombs being profaned. And so they went up to Antananarivo and then they talked in private radios, wrote in newspapers etc. That's how things started degenerating and the regional head said: “I'm not the one who signed the authorisation. It's the general direction of the Land Ministry and even sometimes the Vice Prime-Minister who signs emphyteutic leases for tracts over 50 ha.39 They are the ones who should be approached. (senior regional official, 13 May 2013)
The need to deflect responsibility must have felt all the more pressing as the regional head was planning to stand in the parliamentary elections. Like the presidential elections, these were held in October–December 2013, but had been announced as far back as 2010 (Galibert 2011). The fear of an electoral sanction can explain why the parliamentary candidate requested a postponement of the highly sensitive boundary marking operations.40 The close relations he had with M. Andrianainarivelo, the Vice Prime Minister, were certainly of help here. However, M. Andrianainarivelo's decision to suspend land extensions was more than a gesture of support for his protégé. The memorandum was sent on 1 December 2012, only two weeks after the Benala contingent had held its press conference, as the attacks on the Minister were in full swing. With the potent rhetorical tools that ‘land grabs’ could offer the opposition – as demonstrated by the Daewoo case – the Minister may have been worried about potential backlash from the affair on his own electoral campaign.
Going a step further, his successor at the VPDAT went with a delegation of officials to visit the Lalifuel project (September 2013). Their mission report pointed to the change of farmed crops41 as non-compliant with the cahier des charges (technical agreements) and to a number of ‘local land disputes occasioned by the fact that the marking made for the company included tracts that were already occupied and farmed traditionally or that were used as rangeland or as places of worship’ (VPDAT 2013, 4). Following these observations, they proposed the partial cancellation of the lease contract (VPDAT 2013, 4). Indicating a major shift in official discourses, these criticisms and threats could be seen as a success for those who had actively lobbied for the protection of local land rights.

Regulation or short-term calculation?

However, the outcome of this mission was not advertised, nor was the VPDAT's order to suspend land extensions. As noted above, it was discreetly communicated to the regional authorities by memorandum, an internal administrative document, and to Lalifuel by letter. It was circulated through social media but this can be assumed to be the result of a leak by the invisible brokers mentioned above. Had the ministry wanted to communicate it widely, they would certainly have called the media or organised a press conference.
It is also telling that no one wished to claim responsibility for this change. On the one hand the regional government and regional land services insisted the decision came from the top,42 and on the other the national government, in its official report, explained that it was made following warnings sent by the Région (VPDAT 2013, 3). This lack of publicity and the absence of follow-up make it clear that these two ministerial interventions were pre-emptive moves in anticipation of political attacks rather than genuine attempts to pressure the company into following the rules and respecting local land rights.
In a country where a large portion of government spending relies on external funds, few state power-holders actually wish to see foreign investors withdraw, especially in the context in which Madagascar was at the time. Arguing that dominant actors of African states have historically gained from the insertion of their country as unequal partners in the world economy, Jean-François Bayart explains that ‘the people who manage this unequal relationship with the international economic system are able to derive from it the resources necessary for their domestic overlordship’ (Bayart 2000, 231). In this case, foreign agribusiness projects may represent threats to subsistence economies; they also represent opportunities for power-holders to deliver on their promises of developing infrastructure and social services, gain access to official and unofficial rent to support their patronage networks and, ultimately, strengthen their authority.
These ‘strategies of extraversion’ (Bayart 2000) require skill and caution, though. The upheaval that preceded the military coup in 2009, with its violent lootings, arsons and acts of vandalism, sent a strong message to the Malagasy political class. In its targeting of president Ravalomanana's agro-industrial and media empire, this unusual outburst of popular violence may have been orchestrated; it was also an expression of frustration and anger at a broken contract: the providential, self-made man of 2001 who was priding himself on his ‘Malagasy-made’ (vita gasy) social ascension had turned into an extraverted predator, ready to sell an immense share of the country's farmland to foreign investors (Galibert 2009; Pellerin 2009). In Madagascar's current moral economy, dealing with foreign investors is a complex balancing act. Eloquent reminders of the sensitivity of these issues were sent by Benala elites and their allies, forcing decision-makers to slow down the process of private land appropriation.
However, the latest developments guard local land rights activists against excessive enthusiasm. As mentioned above, threats with no follow-up action are a far cry from acts of regulation aimed at negotiating a greater participation of local populations in the deal making or a fairer distribution of potential benefits. On the contrary, in affected villages, concern is growing with the increasing mechanisation and extension of the Lalifuel project which is under pressure from the parent company to accelerate yields and ‘stop acting like an NGO’.44 So far, Benala's land has mostly been left untouched but the project's recent undertakings suggest that this situation may not last. In April 2014, there were signs of unofficial boundary marking (tractor-made furrows) in several fokontany in western Benala. Among those concerned was the village of Ansatra, one of the few villages within the municipal territory of Benala to already be affected because its village land extends onto the municipality of Arivony. In their case, the demarcations were discreetly discussed with the two poorest hamlets of the village, against the will of the village leaders and cattle owners. This targeting of Benala signals a shift towards a less consensual approach on the part of the company. It also shows a certain softening of the resistance. Those opposed to the implementation of the project appear to be losing hope as contacts with both civil society and their mayor are diminishing. Moreover, with the elections now over, lobbyists may find it more difficult to pressure the government.
Benala's resistance to the Lalifuel project emerged around an alliance of local elites, and built on the skills and knowledge acquired during a previous encounter with a foreign investor interested in accessing land. A number of strategies were used to mobilise the rest of the community, through the creation of a sense of solidarity, but also through the use of threats. The struggle was discursively legitimised through a variety of mechanisms and galvanised through the creation of wider alliances and networks. The mobilisation of transnational activists in a context of elections was critical to a successful outcome. The prospect of being involved in a scandal around land at such a juncture prodded influential state officials into ordering the temporary suspension of land extensions, but these successes are precarious. Several insights emerge from this case nonetheless.
On the issue of participation, it has been demonstrated that the formal protection of local land rights does not automatically translate into better chances for local populations to express their views and defend their livelihoods (Burnod, Gingembre, and Andrianirina Ratsialonana 2013; Vermeulen and Cotula 2010). Even when local consultations are held, genuine participation in the decision-making generally implies overcoming fears of the state and resisting pressures to give silent consent. The case of Benala reveals that bargaining power can be gained through alliances with influential allies and the use of new spaces of expression where voice can be expressed outside the control of the official consultation process. It is obvious, however, that some groups start with more ‘bargaining endowments’ than others (Cotula 2008, 16). In Benala, the local power of rich cattle owners and of the mayor were crucial assets to overcome widespread feelings of disenfranchisement and pressure from superior regional officials. Their networks, combined with a certain familiarity with state-legal procedures, favoured the use of formal action over more common forms of everyday resistance. However, their initiatives also contributed to censoring those who wanted to be incorporated into the project.
This paper also sheds light on the contradictory role of states like Madagascar in facilitating corporate enclosure. Previous studies have established that, in this state characterised by a strong instability and a high degree of factionalism (Randrianja 1997), competition between state entities frequently ends up hampering private land acquisitions without necessarily promoting a better enforcement of those laws meant to protect local land rights (Burnod, Gingembre, and Andrianirina Ratsialonana 2013). This study highlighted how these contradictions are embedded within a moral economy veering between rationales of autochthony and extraversion (Galibert 2009). According to their individual trajectories, political identities and networks of belonging, incumbent power-holders (and their challengers) follow different pathways to legitimacy in relation to the penetration of private capital: some focus on negotiating social infrastructure and services for their communities, some on conducting resistance and others, as shown here, move from one pathway to the other depending on flexible political opportunities. Laurent Berger's ethnography of the implementation of a shrimp aquaculture project in northern Madagascar gives a vivid illustration of the intricacies of these dynamics in societies characterised by complex social stratification with strategies towards the private project shown to be shaped by local rivalries, multi-level interpersonal relations and heterogeneous interests (Berger 2006).
The case of Benala stresses how the externalisation of a protest can substantially amplify the echo of local voices. As Bayart notes, in ‘extraverted governmentalities, the external environment is a major resource not only for dominant actors but also for social struggles’ (Bayart 2000, 219). In a state haunted by the spectre of a previous land scandal, the mobilisation of transnational activists transformed a local counter-enclosure campaign into a significant threat to the legitimacy of senior state agents.
To conclude, in states where the rural poor have been historically marginalised from decision-making, consultation processes generally offer little space for participation, unless they promote genuine free, prior and informed consent and take into account both the heterogeneity of agrarian societies and the complexity of local land tenure. This paper demonstrates that contexts of political uncertainty open up new spaces for them to claim their rights, but that gains made in such circumstances are fragile and contested.


My gratitude goes to all of those who took part in this study and, through their time and hospitality, made this research possible. I would also like to thank my research assistant who has been working on this case study with me since 2011, as well as Jun Saturnino M. Borras, James Sumberg, Ian Scoones, Perrine Burnod, Antoine Bouhey and the three anonymous reviewers for the insightful comments made on earlier versions of the paper. This paper draws on research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Institute of Development Studies, UK.


1In November 2008, the Financial Times broke the story that secret negotiations were taking place between the Malagasy government and Daewoo corporation for the long-term leasing of 1.3 million ha of arable land. The news caused great outrage and was used by Andry Rajoelina and the opposition as a key argument to legitimise its overthrow of the Ravalomanana regime (2009).
2Arguing that alternative food systems cannot be achieved without a simultaneous move towards democratic land control, some engaged researchers have recently launched a discussion over ‘land sovereignty’ as a potential land framework for the food sovereignty campaign (Borras and Franco 2013; Borras, Franco, and Monsalve, forthcoming). Land sovereignty is presented as both an alternative analytical framework (going beyond calls for land reform) and a political project whose core principle lies in ‘the right of the working people to have effective access to, control over and use of land, and live on it as a resource, space and territory’ (Borras, Franco, and Monsalve, forthcoming, 11).
3Law 2005-019 of 17 October 2005 fixing the principles governing land statutes (free translation).
4Article 18, law 2008-014 of 5 January 2009 on the private property of the state.
5Article 28 and 29 of decree 2010-233 laying down the procedures for applying law 2008-014.
6Decree no. 99-954 of 15 December 1999 modified by decree no. 2004-167.
7The EIA has not been validated by the ONE (National Office for the Environment) who require that a new EIA is conducted for the area affected by the first lease instead of the whole 100,000 ha. The Lalifuel project therefore operates without the required environmental licence.
8The local expression that recurred was: ‘Tsy nanao forcé i Lalifuel’.
9‘Tatitry ny fivoriana. Tetik'asa voly savoa region X Lalifuel. Fanadihadihana ny amin'ny fiantraika (EIE) amin’ny tontolo iaiana ny mponina’ [Minutes of the meeting-Lalifuel project Jatropha plantation. Assessing the consequences on the people and the environment (EIA)], hand-written document, 16 September 2011, 1 page.
10Source: Document entitled ‘Minutes of meeting. Object: opposition to the project requiring large tracts of land in the municipality of Benala’, 18 November 2011.
11Discussion, village of Ambalava, municipality of Benala, 4 May 2013. By mid-2014, the association was still not registered with the state, though.
12Interview with a member of the SIF, Antananarivo, 22 January 2014.
13Free translation.
14M. Andrianainarivelo officially announced his candidature in April 2013 but he was accused of having started his campaign well before (Madagascar Tribune online 2013).
15The business plan announced that 25 percent of the surface would be farmed following a model of contract farming.
16Interview, mayor of Benala, provincial capital, 5 May 2013.
17Interview, son of lonaky, Itaosy village, 9 May 2013.
18Minutes of meeting, municipality of Ambatolahy, 18 November 2013. The same expression was used by the head of fokontany of Analaroa (interview, 4 May 2013, Benala village, municipality of Benala).
19On the connection between landlessness and the status of andevo (slave), cf. Evers (2006).
20Interview, deputy head of fokontany, Ambalava village, municipality of Benala, 10 May 2013, and quotations from the press conference.
21Interview, M. Tsihory, Antananarivo, 25 Jan 2014.
22Note de service, Direction Générale des Services Fonciers, no. 392/12/VPMDAT/SG/DGSF, 1 December 2012.
23Law no. 2006-031 of 24 November 2006 determining the legal regime of untitled private land property.
24Source: INSTAT (National Institute of Statistics), provincial capital and village interviews.
25Both the mayor and his cousin mentioned on several occasions having ‘high connections in Antananarivo’. The same information was given by the uncle of Benala's mayor, who refused to reveal the identities of these contacts but explained: ‘These are very powerful people. If Lalifuel acts badly, I can tell you that they will regret it’ (Mr Ritra, lonaky of Talata, municipality of Arivony, 2 April 2013).
26Minutes of the meeting, municipality of Benala, 18 November 2011.
27Petrochina (688,400 ha), Pan African Mining (1 million ha) and Mainland Mining (more than 2 million ha). These figures, as well as the other ones mentioned in this paragraph, are based on cross-referenced information from media articles, expert reports (Andrianirina et al. 2011; Burnod et al. 2014; Raharinirina 2013) and civil society accounts (Andrew Lee Trust 2009; Franchi et al. 2013; SIF 2013, and newsletters from the Collectif Tany). However, they cannot be considered to be definitive, in view of the opacity that surrounds these projects.
28An area of 40,000 ha was bought by Madawoodlands in the Sofia region (Re:Common 2013). In Makira protected forest in the northeast, carbon credits were allegedly sold to Microsoft and the zoo of Zurich on an area of 320,000 ha (Collectif Tany, newsletter no. 31, 31 March 2014).
29Depending on the stages of the project, the business plan projected the creation of 40 to 500 permanent and 250 to 5000 seasonal jobs per year between 2009 and 2019.
30By April 2014, the Lalifuel project had invested in most of the areas mentioned above. They had constructed a dam, a secondary school and a new town hall, made borings and water pumps, set up an affordable local health centre whose staff they pay and rehabilitated a few other public buildings. They had also invested in public electricity (but this help had been short-lived) and, at the time of the last fieldwork (January–April 2014), were carrying out daily street cleaning. Although functioning projects like the health centre and the water pumps were highly appreciated, the socio-economic commitment of the company was also creating a lot of frustration: most of these projects were indeed concentrated in Arivony's main village while very few of the promises made to the other villages who had given land had been fulfilled.
31Interview, head of fokontany Kibanivato, Ambatolahy, 6 May 2013.
32Décision no. 216/12-RIH portant abrogation de la décision no. 33/11-RIH du 23 Juillet 2011. Signed in Ihosy on 1 August 2012 by the regional head.
33Letter from the General Direction of the VPDAT to Lalifuel, 21 December 2012.
34Interview, senior member of the regional government, Antananarivo, 13 May 2013.
35Law 2004-001 of 17 June 2004 defines the Régions as ‘both decentralised territorial entities and administrative circumscriptions’ (art. 4).
36Interview, Mr Herizo, Antananarivo, 13 May 2013.
37Interview, Mr Herizo, Antananarivo, 13 May 2013.
38A provision already set out in law 2007-036 of 14 January 2008 on investments in Madagascar.
39Law 2008-014 stipulates indeed that all cession of land above 50ha in a rural municipality needs to be approved and signed by the Minister responsible for state land (art. 27).
40The boundary marking operations were finally held in July–August 2013, more than a year after the lease was issued.
41The document mentions geranium but Lalifuel is actually growing quite a few other crops, with corn and sunflower representing roughly half of the total area farmed (1500 ha at the time of the last fieldwork), and jatropha only a fifth of it (interview, local manager Lalifuel, Satrokala , 5 April 2014).
42Interview with officials from the regional land services, Ihosy, 25 March 2013; interview with officials from the regional ministry, Ihosy, 12 April 2013 and Antananarivo, 13 May 2013.
44M. Patrick, Senior field manager Lalifuel, Arivony village, municipality of Arivony, 2 April 2013.


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