Genese Marie Sodikoff on forest conservation, Malagasy worker-peasants and biodiversity

ENGAGEMENT editor Rebecca Garvoille recently caught up with Genese Marie Sodikoff, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, to discuss her new book, Forest and Labor in Madagascar: From Colonial Concession to Global Biosphere  (2012, Indiana University Press), and its broader contributions to forest conservation and socio-environmental justice debates in Madagascar. This interview is the fourth installment in an ENGAGEMENT series exploring how environmental-anthropological book projects inspire meaningful engagements in study sites across the globe.


RG: First, for readers who might not be familiar with it, what is the theme of your new book? 

GMS: My book examines obstacles to the forest conservation effort in Madagascar through the lens of labor. It centers on the role and perspective of low-wage workers in conservation projects, and on the significance of manual labor in producing protected areas and biodiversity hot spots.

The book historicizes the conservation-and-development model, and it does so from a “subaltern” vantage point. By this, I mean that I try to tell a history of land degradation and conservation through the eyes of Malagasy worker-peasants, who have consistently been targeted by conservation officials because they practice “slash-and-burn” agriculture in the rain forest. My book begins by taking the reader back in time about 100 years, when France conquered Madagascar. The first half of my book is weighted in the past – an ethnography of the colonial archive – tracing how Malagasy “underlings” confronted (and carried) French colonialists as they organized space and life in such a way as to make Malagasy wildlife and Malagasy people’s “nature” valuable according to specific criteria.  Although I compare the moral economies of capitalism and subsistence agriculture, my focus is really on the middle ground, on the people who straddle both worlds and who are caught between them. The second half of my book is weighted in the contemporary period and focuses on low-wage workers of an integrated conservation and development project (ICDP). I believe that looking at the ways Malagasy workers have negotiated the structure, and shifts in the ideological content, of conservation institutions over time reveals a lot about why peasants still burn forest and why quick fixes through the usual institutional models are elusive.

RG: How does your book address broader questions in environmental anthropology?

GMS: Environmental anthropologists have been taking stock of conservation and development interventions into poor countries since the late 1980s, when the sustainable development model took hold.  Following the lead of a number of ethnographers, I explore the social life of an ICDP, a kind of “key symbol” of neoliberal foreign aid. Those of us adopting a political ecological approach investigate: 1) how people in postcolonial contexts receive and interpret interventions such as ecotourism development, the creation of national parks, environmental education, community conservation efforts, agroforestry training, “green” commodification, and so on, and 2) what have been the social, economic, and ecological effects of conservation interventions on postcolonial peoples and landscapes.

RG: When you were doing research for your book, how did you engage with different communities—for example, with local people, with scientists, with other scholars?

Genese holding babyGMS: When I went to Madagascar to do fieldwork for my dissertation, I relied on my close friendship with a Merina family who I had gotten to know through prior fieldwork. Merina is the politically dominant ethnic population of Madagascar; however, the island’s coastal populations, including the Betsimisaraka (the group I focus on in my ethnography) generally do not trust Merina.  Despite these social tensions, I ended up living with members of the Merina family I knew. They had a home in the town of Mananara-Nord, also the location of the headquarters for the UNESCO biosphere reserve and its ICDP that I studied. I stayed in Mananara-Nord with my Merina friends between my forays into Betsimisaraka villages in the biosphere reserve.  My alternating residence in villages and in town was illuminating in many ways. What I feared might be a liability (living with a Merina family) in getting to know the Betsimisaraka workers of the ICDP became, after a while, an asset, offering me a deeper glimpse into the politics of ethnicity there.

While in the field, I was in contact with Malagasy academics, villagers, expatriate conservation representatives and Peace Corps volunteers, as well as tourists and scientists passing through the biosphere reserve.  At the time, my field site did not have telecommunications. However, times have quickly changed–cell phones, internet, and social media networks are now more widely available, at least in larger Malagasy towns.  I am gearing up to go to Madagascar briefly this summer after a long hiatus, and I very much look forward to my fieldwork, and to connecting with people virtually too.

I stay in touch with Malagasy contacts, read posts on the Madagascar Environmental Justice Network – a listserv run by Barry Ferguson – and communicate with conservation scientists and practitioners affiliated with the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, which manages a protected area in Madagascar. I also treasure any opportunity to talk with doctoral students and recent PhDs who have worked in Madagascar.

RG: What is the key message or key point you hope people take away from reading your book? 

GMS: I hope to convey two key messages. First, that history matters deeply. And, second, given the acceleration of species extinctions, climate change, and habitat loss, it is high time for a redistribution of aid to further the global conservation effort.

Money needs to reach the people most affected by the degradation of biodiversity hotspots, such as subsistence farmers. I think the “direct payment” approach to conservation (payment for well-defined and measurable inputs or outcomes) is probably the most persuasive way to get a lot of people to support conservation very quickly. Direct payment for conservation services has been done to some extent by organizations who deliver community development projects in exchange for conservation practices—even the mining company, Rio Tinto, has endorsed this approach, ironically. When I discuss a “direct payment” approach, I mean making direct cash payment to individuals in regions where biodiversity is rich and vulnerable, and where erosion is severely depleting people’s livelihoods.

In my book, I have a chapter that discusses how rural Betsimisaraka people in the early 20th century preferred doing “piecework” to regular wage work. One colonial French entrepreneur had great success in finding Malagasy workers, compared to his competitors because he would pay per log felled, rather than the normal fixed, miserly wage to men working in the timber concessions. As a result, this entrepreneur was never short of labor, while the others complained incessantly of the labor shortage. I think the piecework payment approach for reforestation, though administratively complicated, would be popular and would achieve positive ecological and ideological outcomes very quickly.

RG: What are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about environmental conservation projects?

GMS: Despite the complaints one often hears by conservation practitioners that academics criticize their projects but do not offer concrete recommendations for changing their practices, I see critical scholarship as a driving force behind policy changes in conservation programs. In particular, critical scholarship has prompted the conservation community’s re-orientation toward poverty alleviation, as compared to the colonial era. I am hopeful that my attempt to resurrect the concept of “labor” in conservation policy discourse will someday lead to positive change. Interestingly, by the 1990s, the term “labor” had been entirely suppressed in political discourse, including, not surprisingly, discussions about environmental conservation.

RG: What are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about social and environmental justice?

GMS: My book aims to expose the deep contradictions of implementing “participatory” and community conservation via entrenched hierarchies that operate nationally and globally.  The contradictions are not just moral problems but also practical ones: they exacerbate species endangerment, human poverty, and conflict.  I focus on low-wage, locally-hired workers of an ICDP because to me their position epitomizes the contradictions of the bureaucratic hierarchy of conservation and development. These men felt that their ICDP salaries, given the difficulty of their tasks and all the moral and social tensions inherent in the work of cracking down on their friends and neighbors for breaking rules of the national park, were not adequate compensation.  To make ends meet, and to maintain their social bonds, they either practiced or relied on the fruits of slash and burn agriculture and hunting in the reserve, the very things they were supposed to police and transform.  They constantly had to make compromises (if they did one thing, they jeopardized their ICDP jobs; if they did another, they were scorned by their fellow villagers).

A biologist named Joe Peters suggested a while back that a voluntary civilian conservation corps like that of the Roosevelt administration be tried in Madagascar.  Instead of organizations hiring a small contingent of under-paid guards to police reserves and villagers, a conservation corps, perhaps paid according to measurable units of reforestation or agroforestry work, would open up opportunity for a much larger population of able-bodied individuals seeking additional income.  This would offset the precariousness of subsistence agriculture in the current environment.  In my view, this approach is a much better way to spread the conservation message. I would love to see it tried in Madagascar and elsewhere.

silhouette of zebuRG: How is your book being used beyond the academy?

GMS: In December 2012, I was invited to talk at a conference sponsored by the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Duke Lemur Center at Duke University. The conference was invigorating because it brought together a mix of conservation experts, activists, and social scientists to discuss the illegal plunder of rosewood and other precious timber out of Madagascar’s national parks (including my former field site) since the 2009 coup, as well as more enduring obstacles to forest conservation. The looting of endangered hardwoods by what the press has called a “rosewood mafia” has shifted global attention from slash-and-burn agriculture to illegal timbering in Madagascar. In addition, the recent expansion of mining by transnational corporations along the Malagasy rain forest belt has ushered in what I see as a post-conservation era. It’s not that conservation has been abandoned, but increasingly it is mediated and managed by the mining corporations. Meanwhile the de facto state has been collaborating with the mining corporations and the timber merchants.  The expansion of mining deepens the problems of soil erosion, pollution, species loss, and social disruption.  The consequences of the mining boom remain to be seen given the time lag of extinction debt and the eventual depletion of profitable minerals.  A number of Madagascar scholars have been investigating the ways in which mining is transforming the management of nature and Malagasy societies. It seems as though the new scramble for African resources, at deeper geological strata and in smaller fragments of forest, has brought together scholars and conservation practitioners in common purpose like never before. Yet, I believe that the insights of my study for long-term conservation, and how they might be applied, will stay on the backburner until a new presidential election happens (the coup regime is still in power). We’ll see.

RGThat concludes our interview.  On behalf of ENGAGEMENT and its readers, thank you so much, Genese Marie Sodikoff, for your time and insight.

Genese Marie Sodikoff is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University. Professionally and academically, Dr. Sodikoff has focused on rain forest conservation and international development in Africa, specifically the Comoros (1989-1991) and Madagascar (1994-2002). In addition to her current book, Dr. Sodikoff has edited a volume entitled The Anthropology of Extinction:  Essays on Culture and Species Death (Indiana University Press, 2011). Her teaching and research interests include political ecology, conservation and international development, extinction (both biological and cultural), human-animal relations, historical anthropology, Africa, and the Indian Ocean islands. She is beginning a project on mining and future perception in Madagascar.



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