Fieldwork has been generously supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK) (1981-1983), the Leverhulme Trust and Twenty-Seven Historical Foundation (1991), and the Nuffield Foundation and the Rhodes Trust (2002-2003). In Madagascar I am endebted to the Ministère de la Recherche scientifique et technologique pour le Développement, the University at Tuléar/Toliara, government officials in Beloha, Marolinta, and Tsihombe, and ANGAP workers at Cap Sainte Marie Special Reserve. Above all I should like to record my gratitude to the peoples of Karembola for their kind assistance over many years.
- 1 Tanañe ampo raket’ao, raty tanañe
1I am walking the escarpment west of Anjedava in the Karembola region of southern Madagascar when my companion, a local man, points to a hamlet just south of our path. The hamlet is surrounded by prickly pear and to my mind replicates the traditional Karembola homestead as described extensively in colonial literature. I am therefore surprised to hear my companion dismiss it as “bad”.1 Its inhabitants, he adds, are worthless good-for-nothings who have planted the raketa (prickly pear) with the sole intention of selling it to wealthy stock-owners when drought comes and fodder is in short supply. In this way, these “slaves” (ondevo) hoped to acquire goats, perhaps even cattle, of their own.
2Two aspects of this intervention retain my attention. First, the strong disapproval my companion has expressed of the traditional local vernacular of the homestead. Secondly, the evident disquiet he feels at the idea of “slaves” who dare to grow raketa in the hope of bettering themselves. This sets me thinking more broadly about the indigenous symbolism of raketa and how it has changed. The cultivation of prickly pears is often portrayed as an essentially pragmatic response to the challenges of farming and herding in arid conditions yet this incident suggests that in Karembola the plant might be involved in far more complex issues of status and class conflict. Prickly pear here seems to be implicated directly in a politics of rank, and this politics of rank would appear to be decipherable only by looking at Karembola ideologies of [re]production and exchange.
3In this article I propose to explore this question with reference to indigenous valuations of four named varieties of prickly pear:
- 2 The botanical identity of raketa gasy has been the subject of much confusion. A review of the lite (...)
Malagasy Cactus or raketa gasy, a variety introduced into Androy-Karembola-Mahafale via Tôlañaro (Fort Dauphin) in the late eighteenth century (almost certainly 1769). It went on to become a dominant, some say invasive, species in Karembola before being subjected in the 1920s to effective biological control.2
- 3 Raketa vazaha was commonly described in the early literature as Opuntia inermis or Cactus inermis ( (...)
Raketa vazaha or “foreign/white man’s cactus”/raketa from overseas, a spineless or nearly spineless variety which, most authorities say, was introduced into the region by French military officers in the early 1900s and whose extension became the subject of repeated, largely unsuccessful, state-sponsored programmes.3
- 4 Raketa sonjo is almost certainly a (spiny variety) cultivar of Opuntia ficus-indica, though again t (...)
Raketa saonjo (alternatively sonjo or soso), a variety which began to spread in Karembola in the 1950s becoming by the early 1980s both the most common and the most popular prickly pear species there. Colonial records are vague and dissonant about its origins; some local oral evidence affirms that it was a hybrid born in situ of a cross between raketa gasy and raketa vazaha rather than an introduction.4
- 5 The taxonomy of raketa mena is definitely confused and requires further investigation. In 2002 two (...)
Raketa mena or “red prickly pear”, a more recent arrival that has been expanding since at least the 1970s, more or less beneath the radar of the state. By 2001 infestations had become so obvious that the plant was denounced in a WWF-commissioned report as the primary threat to biodiversity and livelihoods in the Cap Sainte Marie region (ANGAP et al, n.d. ).5
- 6 In many ways, stories told about Malagasy Cactus are the lynchpin of the article. Memory of this l (...)
4By drawing on ethnography collected in three localities of Karembola (Tranovaho, Anjedava, and Cap Sainte Marie (Tanjona Vohimena)) at intervals over a twenty-year period (1981 to 2003), I will explore some of the cultural meanings which surround these four species and show how these meanings have shifted over time. I shall relate these narrative shifts to broader debates around social value and personhood, use-value and commodification, in contexts of national political and economic developments. In particular, I want to explore the way raketa talk has shadowed and at times parodied parallel histories in the island: notably, the shift from state socialist to neo-liberal economics and the rise of biodiversity conservation over these two decades.6
- 7 Despite a distinct history as an interstitial region since at least the seventeeth century (see e. (...)
5Karembola is located in dryland Madagascar roughly between the Menarandra River and Cap Sainte Marie (Tanjona Vohimena), between Androy and Mahafale.7 An average annual rainfall of 200-350 mm is often quoted, though high interannual variation in precipitation is more critical in defining the constraints and opportunities that Karembola farmers and herders face. The effects are felt in hand hoe agriculture, where low soil moisture often results in crop failure, and in livestock production, where there are often severe restrictions on fodder and water supply. This is not to say that the limitations inherent in a dryland ecology alone have made this one of the poorest and most marginalised regions of Madagascar. Long-term histories of political disadvantage and social exclusion have aggravated ecological constraints.
- 8 Although the communities reported in this paper share a broadly similar habitat of recognizable bi (...)
- 9 Although the construction of large capacity pluvium, together with the pipeline that the Japanese (...)
6It is in this socio-ecological context that prickly pears (Opuntia spp. ) can have useful applications. Not only do prickly pears survive in drier habitats but selected varieties can offer valuable resources to human societies faced with the uncertainties of farming or herding in high-risk environments. The fruits and cladodes (leaf pads) of some species can be harvested for human consumption, the succulent cladodes can be exploited to feed and water livestock, and the spinier varieties make stout hedging for garden plots and cattle pens (Barbera et al, 1995; Le Houérou, 1996). These uses partly account for the multiple global transfers of prickly pears that took place from the New World after 1495. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that introduced Opuntia have always been wholly beneficial. Some have become invasive, and the perceived costs to agriculture and stockfarming have given rise to campaigns of chemical and biological control in Madagascar, Australia, India, South Africa, and elsewhere. With respect to southern Madagascar, the additional argument has been increasingly made since the early 1990s that alien Opuntia introductions present a serious threat to a unique biodiversity of global value (Rauh, 1995: 55, 68; 1998: xi, 66).89
7The communities reported in this paper all practice mixed stockraising and cropping. Indeed, in contrast to externally derived imagery of Tandroy-Karembola-Mahafale as eternal pastoralists, I have always been struck by the high social value my informants gave to agriculture and the way they linked it to rank and nobility of race. Certainly, zebu cattle were highly valued as the quintessential sacrificial beast, the stipulated prestation in ceremonial exchange, and the indicator of status, generally providing market income only in drought years when they are sold to buy in food. But higher-ranking persons, people who are truly masiñe (“efficacious”, “blessed”), were also said to show prowess as food producers:
- 10 Malimana, Anjedava, 1991
8Prosperous, highborn people, hazomanga [ritually pure] people, produce crops, fill their granaries, make fattened, greased bodies. People who don’t hoe behave like dependants, deadbeats, skinny, weak.10
9Cropping was mostly for subsistence, with limited market participation, though a few farmers devoted some land to cash crops, notably groundnut, and many more sold surpluses of field crops, often only to buy them back later in the year when their own supplies ran short. Household livestock holdings varied immensely, ranging from substantial mixed holdings of cattle and small ruminants through to holdings of a few goats or less. Beloha Prefecture was formerly a centre of mohair and wool production, and average per capita goat and sheep numbers tend to be greater, and cattle herds proportionately smaller, than those reported for Androy (CENRADERU, 1980).
10Cultivated foods were supplemented by a wide range of hunted, trapped and gathered foods. In good years the consumption of such foods was mostly confined to children; as food became scarcer or more costly increasing numbers of adults would resort to them, depending on the resources available to the particular household. Local opportunities for income diversification were limited. Some cash income was derived from trading contraband tobacco on local circuits, and fish and gathered plant products (ricin, periwinkle) to regional markets for export; but excessive supply resulting from large scale entry of distressed people drives down prices at times when cash is scarce. Money is brought in by wage labour emigration to the agricultural concessions, the mining centres, and to the cities of Madagascar, where Karembola typically work as night watchmen and pousse-pousse pullers.
11I begin with popular narrative about raketa gasy, a plant that is insignificant, botanically speaking, in Karembola today. I do so because in the early 1980s recollections of the time this cactus died dominated communal narratives about the community and the state (Middleton, 1997, 1999). The story basically went as follows: Malagasy Cactus was a native plant, a divinely appointed ancestral staple. However, vazaha (“foreigner”, non-gasy; the term here refers specifically to French colonisers) hated it because the thorny labyrinths enabled subjects to resist wage labour and tax collectors by hiding and surviving on the fruit. To “pacify” the region, vazaha introduced a cochineal insect, a predator on Malagasy Cactus, with devastating effect. The loss of this plant, the story goes, resulted in regional depopulation as people and cattle either died in vast numbers or were scattered into diverse corners of the colony, many never to return. In effect, the event became the defining moment in Karembola history, scything time in two: first, there was “the time of Malagasy Cactus” (tamy raketa gasy), which was also “the time of the ancestors” (tamy razañe) or “gasy times” (tamy gasy), and then there was “foreign time” (tamy vazaha) after Malagasy Cactus died.
12I dub this the “nationalist” version of Malagasy Cactus history because it overlaps significantly with versions that appeared in the Malagasy nationalist press soon after the event. The most marked difference between the two versions is that while the nationalist press of the early 1930s offered an essentially secular interpretation of the death of Malagasy Cactus as an event determined by colonial capitalism, my informants embedded the same history in a language of the sacred and the divine. When Karembola mourned the passing of Malagasy Cactus, they were not simply conducting an economic audit of the costs to herding and farming in a water-scarce ecology, though these considerations were obviously extremely important. Rather, they framed their discussion of the economics in terms of a world of invisible power (asy) and moral blame (hakeo), linking their loss to a land where all kinds of taboos were being broken with devastating results, a land where proper, fully powered mpisoro (priests) and hazomanga (altar stakes) could no longer be instated because their rightful owners were far away in Diego or Tuléar, leaving only “children” in the ancestral land.
13In the ritual domain, informants associated this “broken land” with the elaboration of mortuary ritual and the aggrandizement of tombs. Multiplying tombs that expanded into social space, blurring the distinction between the living and the dead, expressed their sense of affliction as gasy living in a “foreign” land. Such enactments of despair and passivity needed to be taken with a pinch of salt, however, because, in reality, Karembola funerals in the early 1980s were vibrant arenas of action affording participants many opportunities to enhance their prestige and “refresh” their wealth. In effect, the whole economy was conceptualised as a cycle of (re)production in which decomposition/slaughter of the deceased’s body/cattle leads to the regeneration of “living” wealth (“worms”) through exchanges with relatives, affines and friends. By judicious management of their social capital, by balancing expenditure on tomb construction and mortuary feasts against incoming gifts, the bereaved could make a handsome profit and enhance their prestige. The adverse effects of labour migration that dominated the narrative of Malagasy Cactus were similarly partly compensated by the resulting income that enabled Karembola to reconstitute drought-destituted herds and to participate in ritual display/exchange at home.
14A similar point about symbolic and economic resurgence can be made more narrowly with respect to prickly pear. Since the 1920s successive administrations had put much effort into promoting new Opuntia varieties, and some of these had become crucial to local livelihoods. The spineless raketa vazaha had been promoted prior to the demise of Malagasy Cactus. With post-war FIDES metropolitan funding (Fonds d’investissement pour le développement économique et social/Investment Funds for Economic and Social Development), vast plantations of this variety were created under late colonial regional development schemes. Plantings continued under Philibert Tsiranana’s so-called “neo-colonial” regime (1960-1972). According to most literature, these initiatives foundered because local peoples had little or no interest in making them work: the collective plantations threatened customary pasturing rights; the plantings relied on “forced” labour and took men from agricultural tasks at a time labour was scarce; and local people, who already resented the French administration for destroying Malagasy Cactus, now suspected it of alienating their land. Quite apart from the practical difficulties involved in cultivating this spineless cactus - it is fussy over soil conditions, and requires protection from inopportune grazing - there were inevitable cultural ambiguities associated with the colonial promotion of “alien” forms of prickly pear. In the early years of Tsiranana’s Presidency, a group of Deputies from the Beloha/Androka region petitioned Parliament for the restoration of the “native” cactus. The “Ministère de l’Agriculture et de l’expansion rurale et du ravitaillement” rejected the petition but did agree to promote raketa saonjo, a new spiny variety that was already spreading in local communities by informal means. It was spiny enough to remind farmers-herders of the lost ancestral cactus but not so spiny and invasive as to be considered a potential nuisance by the state.
15By the early 1980s the use of raketa saonjo as a human food and as a fodder had acquired the routinized look of customary behaviour. Men grilled the cladodes over open fires to remove the spines in readiness for the cattle; women rolled the fruit underfoot to remove the irritant “hairs” (glochids) which might otherwise become embedded in fingers, lips or tongue – much as the pre-cochineal literature described (Decary, 1930: 128, 181). With raketa hedging planted extensively along paths, around cattle pens and garden plots, the landscapes of old Karembola had been partly recreated. Knowing how to manage and exploit spiny cactus was once again an aspect of local knowledge and adaptation, part of what it meant to be Karembola, distinguishing “children of locality” from vazaha.
- 11 The pro-Malagasy Cactus tradition from the 1920s through to the 1960s had consistently portrayed t (...)
16To the extent that its exploitation called for local knowledge and the application of ancestral techniques that had once applied to Malagasy Cactus, raketa sonjo had undergone a degree of vernacularization. This was less true of raketambazaha (foreign or colonial cactus). Spineless, fussy over soil conditions, more obviously different from Malagasy Cactus, it required new knowledge, acquired planting and handling techniques. It did not slot readily into ancestral practice: it was too easily grazed to serve as hedging or a stand alone fodder on the range. In addition, the fruit was impracticable as a human staple/famine food because of the deadly constipation which results when the fruit is consumed in large quantities. To eat it safely, you needed surplus, plenty of other foods in the granary, or, ideally, the money to be able to purchase mangoes that are imported from Mahafale at roughly the same time as the raketambazaha season in Karembola. Nevertheless, as a form of conspicuous consumption associated with foreigners and surplus production, by the early 1980s raketambazaha eating had acquired positive status implications in the local context. Its favourable evaluation was particularly striking, given that in former decades cattle had (allegedly) refused to eat the cladodes, people refused to eat the fruit, and herders planted it only under duress.11
- 12 The spread of raketa sonjo had facilitated an extension of raketambazaha by enabling farmers to pr (...)
17Interestingly, many informants stated that raketa sonjo had originated in raketambazaha, though they offered different versions of exactly how this occurred. Some subscribed to the idea of reversion: spiny cladodes - raketa sonjo - had appeared on spineless cactus plants. Others described a process of hybridization: spineless raketambazaha had crossed with dying specimens of “Malagasy Cactus” to produce this new spiny form. It is tempting to read these narratives as metaphors for the experience of cultural métissage. The metaphor is most obvious in the version which holds raketa sonjo to be the product of a union between a “native” and an “exotic” cactus pear. But the alternative version (where raketambazaha “gave birth” to spiny sonjo without crossing with “Malagasy Cactus”) also implies a kind of hybridity since this foreign or European cactus “gave birth” in Madagascar, making sonjo a “child of the land” (anatane). Either way, the positive attitudes towards raketa sonjo and raketa vazaha were suggestive of a general acceptance of hybrid cultural forms, the one associated with a “traditional” subsistence economy; the other with surplus production incorporating elements of vazaha-ness.12
- 13 Moral evaluations of new raketa varieties were significantly more complex and ambivalent than thos (...)
18I have alluded to the “re-ancestralization” of Karembola in the early 1980s. Yet a degree of symbolic tension between ancestral and non-ancestral types of raketa was necessary to the integrity of the master narrative of Karembola history as the death of Malagasy Cactus with its defining rupture between vazaha present and gasy past. Thus, informants always listed raketa (variety unspecified) as an “ancestral food” (hanen-drazañe). This made sense because raketa was indeed a food, in many ways the food, the ancestors ate in “Malagasy times”. But informants then qualified this by noting that in gasy times the ancestors typically ate raketa gasy while “children” today ate “newly arrived” varieties (raketa vao niavy). In short, raketa discourse in the early 1980s evinced a complex, contextual symbolism whereby, rather than constituting simple binary contrasts, “new” and “ancestral” cactus were both alike and unalike.13
19Ambivalent (rather than negative) attitudes to “newcomer” raketa varieties reflected a broader ambivalence in how people in the early 1980s remembered the colonial period. Certainly, informants dwelt on the cruelty of vazaha, recalling how vazaha had killed, enslaved, and humiliated gasy people, especially gasy men. Yet they regularly expressed an admiration for perceived vazaha qualities: wisdom, knowledge, and cleanliness (by 1981 cloth and soap had become scarce). Typically informants described vazaha as enlightened, knowing creatures who had “calmed the land” and enabled gasy to flourish and mature (cf. Cole and Middleton, 2001). One particular theme that was to become increasingly pronounced over the next twenty years was that vazaha “take care of Tandroy when they suffer”. Vazaha had knocked away their very sustenance by killing Malagasy Cactus, but since then they had been feeding them whenever harvests failed. This contradictory view of colonial power as both enabling and destructive meant that rural Karembola could both commemorate the spitefulness of vazaha in killing Malagasy Cactus while also praising the life-sustaining qualities of new vazaha/hybrid varieties of prickly pear.
- 14 The kokolampo, localised ―nature spirits‖ that also accompanied the ancestors from time immemorial (...)
20Even Malagasy Cactus was drawn into this transformative symbolism. For example, many an informant fell into raptures “remembering” a time when a cow fed on Malagasy Cactus gave milk enough to fill two large gourds (unheard of today), enabling millet and manioc to be regularly cooked in milk or served with curds and whey. But, they often added, “in those days the Tandroy were like cattle, ignorant, dirty. They didn’t grow crops, they didn’t wear clothes, all they did was eat raketa in the woods and fight”. On the whole, informants emphasised the superiority of the ancestral era to the post-eradication present but there was always this counterpoint to their narrative. Just as vazaha and their cacti were not wholly bad, so too gasy people and raketa gasy were not wholly good.14
21Yet - and here we come to raketa’s engagement in a politics of rank - to say that informants saw their new varieties of prickly pear as life-sustaining would also be too simple because my informants frowned on high raketa dependency as a way of life. Only the very poor, I was repeatedly told, “eat nothing but raketa”, “rubbish people, destitute people who don’t support themselves, don’t accomplish things”. The ideal diet as stipulated by informants was based on diversity: manioc, maize, sweet potato, millet, pumpkins, melons, squash, beans and peas, supplemented by curdled milk and (in due proportion) prickly pears. Excessive raketa eating was considered typical of low-born, accursed, deracinated people (typically, slaves, vagrants, and thieves), lazy good-for-nothings who failed to make their families flourish through hard work. In the then current discourse of primordial identities, this kind of behaviour was generally ascribed to a person’s ancestry and/or his or her “fate” or “destiny” (anjara’e).
- 15 Raketa dependency was held to be manifest proof of the hakeo (moral blame) the disinherited carry f (...)
22These ritual condemnations of cactus dependency tapped into many of the symbolic oppositions that were critical to Karembola selfconceptualizations, viz., between virtuous settled farmers-herders and rootless wanderers, between people of high ancestry and people of low. In effect raketa consumption had a fluid position in indigenous political discourse. In the context of adequate to surplus production, it was a morally undetermined food, neither good nor bad. No one felt any sense of shame in eating saonjo away from the village if they would be eating cooked food at home. But excessive consumption was morally and politically devaluing. In the past, famine-driven migrations had been the basis of a politico-symbolic hierarchy when hungry people sought refuge with others as dependants, and even now the occasional “lost” person (the term motso means both “lost” and “deracinated”, and describes a sort of a social death) still turned up, and was stereotypically discovered eating raketa on village terroir.15
23Like many traditional rural Malagasy, Karembola placed high value on reproductive prowess, that is, on families that expand and endure through time. In the Karembola context, these enduring families were specifically idiomised as agnatic descent groups (tana, hamlets), which engage in agonistic contests to construct reputation and fame. Although the prestige system, this “politics of tournaments of value”, to adopt Appadurai’s turn of phrase (Appadurai, 1986: 50), was based most obviously on the display/exchange/slaughter of livestock, transactions in vegetable foods also played an important part in political constructions of rank. This is because local political standing depended on the ability to host feasts and to maintain extensive networks of ceremonial exchange, which in turn involves maintaining above average levels of crop and livestock production. The ideal held by most Karembola was to belong to an expanding ancestry with land and herds, and to be part of a married couple with a house and settled social life, producing enough food to feed their family and raising enough stock to be able to participate with honour in ritual exchange and display.
- 16 I initially assumed that these non-ancestral varieties of prickly pear were seen as incompatible w (...)
24In the early 1980s rice (which cannot be grown in Karembola and at that time was nationally in short supply) was the ritual vegetable food of choice, and purchased with money raised through the sale of surplus crops and/or stock. Raketa sonjo by contrast was typically eaten in mundane day-to-day contexts, alone or in small groups. Prickly pears to my knowledge were never planted as tone, trees that commemorate ancestors, local spirits, or settlement founders. Nor were they among the crops that villagers presented to their mpisoro (priest) in “first fruits” rituals. In fact, despite its economic importance, I never saw raketa sonjo fruit figure in any of the formal contexts (sacrifice, funerals, marriage feasts) in which Karembola transacted status hierarchy or celebrated the socially reproductive processes that create enduring, expanding ancestries.16 In effect, one might say that there were two transactional orders: a sphere of subsistence activity, on the one hand, concerned with reproducing the individual and the individual household; and a ritual domain, on the other hand, concerned with the longer-term reproduction of a transcendant ancestral order (cf. Parry and Bloch, 1989). And although prickly pear fruit (in due proportion) was one of those tributory influences that helped build ancestries (people and cattle), a symbolic barrier kept it strictly away from the ritual domain and confined it to the subsistence domain.
25These contrasts between transcendant ancestry and everyday practical survival as they pertained to raketa consumption were in turn associated with ideas about local hierarchy. We can picture this as a series of dichotomies linking political and consumptory orders: nobility: slaves:: high rank: low rank:: cooked foods: raw foods:: cultivated foods: wild foods:: ritual: subsistence. Hazomanga people ate but did not rely on prickly pear.
26In so far as prickly pear was embedded in a politics of rank, it was part of the broader re-traditionalization of Karembola in the early 1980s. It was a way of restoring not only a lost economy but also a lost polity. As a result, local narrative about prickly pear offered a complex commentary on
- 17 While this is not the place to rehearse the archival evidence, it is clear that the death of Malag (...)
27Karembola society, imaging a community based on hierarchy as well as identity, on divergent destinies as well as shared history. Informants glossed over important social difference in the way “people before” experienced the death of Malagasy Cactus by narrating it as a collective trauma17, but reinstated social difference at the heart of their accounts of contemporary raketa species through deprecatory references to poor people who subsist on prickly pear.
28I have described some of the internal inconsistencies in raketa discourses of the early 1980s but it is also worth considering how these local social and moral projects related to the projects of the Malagasy socialist state. To the extent that the death of Malagasy Cactus was narrated as a collective trauma, it could be considered a typical cultural production of the Ratsiraka era. But insofar as Karembola ideologies of production and exchange were concerned with reimagining a hierarchical society based on primordial identities, they were in conflict with the stated objectives of the 1975 Malagasy Socialist Revolution. On the surface, the conflict was not obvious. AREMA (“Antokin’ny Revolisiona Malagasy/Avant-garde de la Révolution Malgache”, vanguard of the Malagasy Revolution, the national political party during the Second Republic) seemed well-entrenched in this region, and references to “we the fokonolona” (“community”, “collective”, Ratsiraka’s chosen instrument for his paradoxical policy of “top-down” selfgovernment or centralisme démocratique (Ratsiraka, 1975: 34-39, 42; cf. Covell, 1987) saturated public discourse. But in private most Karembola continued to maintain archaic idioms of ancestry and rank. And one way of systematically subverting the new “socialist” order was through unremitting references to poor people (idiomised as base ancestries) who ate nothing but prickly pear.
29I would suggest further that one reason why Karembola continued to renarrate the decades-old tragedy of Malagasy Cactus was because it offered an oblique way of critiquing the socialist regime. At first such an interpretation seems counter-intuitive because the death of Malagasy Cactus, narrated as an act of imperialist aggression, was so obviously in keeping with the anti-vazaha rhetoric of the Ratsiraka state. Keen to claim a genuine independence for itself in contrast to the so-called “false independence” under Tsiranana, this was a regime that actively encouraged its citizens to recover memories of colonial suffering (cf. Raison-Jourde, 1989; Cole, 2003). The truth, however, was that, six years into Ratsiraka’s government my informants appeared to perceive no real difference between it and earlier regimes. On the contrary, they prefaced their interactions with government officials with expressions of abject subservience: “the land belongs to vazaha; we’re like cattle: we can only nod in agreement when vazaha speak”. (The term vazaha here designates educated Malagasy from other parts of the island, typically government officials.) Such selfdeprecation mocked the idea of Ratsiraka’s Madagascar as a place where Malagasy “self-govern” and perpetuated a sense of still belonging in the state under duress.
30By the early 1980s it was already clear to most Karembola that the Second Republic was not going to restore gasy to their former prosperity but had actually deprived them of the basic vazaha goods they remembered enjoying under Tsiranana (soap, cloth, and radio batteries). Few Karembola still bought into the idea of a second independence. Despite a rhetoric of decentralization (Ratsiraka, 1975: 18-19), Ratsiraka saw Malagasy peasantry as incapable of carrying through the Socialist Revolution without close direction (Ratsiraka, 1975: 34-39, 42; cf. Covell, 1987). Thus, the master narrative of Malagasy Cactus remained as apposite a commentary on governance and economy in the early 1980s as it had been under colonial rule.
31Turning to data collected ten years later in Anjedava, a village community some 40 kilometres to the west, we find that, while the master narrative of Malagasy Cactus was still being learned and transmitted, to most villagers issues around prickly pears in the present were of more immediate symbolic and practical concern. Informants reported worrying trends in the local production and consumption of prickly pears which they situated in broader cultural understandings of moral, political and environmental decline.
- 18 Because of the national political and economic crisis, the region was not declared a disaster zone (...)
32In the intervening decade, a growing financial crisis in Madagascar had led to radical changes in the direction of government policies, notably, the introduction of free market economics and the imposition of structural adjustment programmes, with increasing interventions by the World Bank and IMF/FMI. These politico-economic trends had been accompanied by Madagascar’s emergence as a “mega*bio+diversity country” (Mittermeier, 1988; Myers, 1986) and had resulted in Madagascar’s first National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP) involving close collaboration between the Malagasy government, local NGOs and key international players, including the World Bank and USAID (Richard and O’Connor, 1997: 410-1; Wright, 1997: 384-5). At the time of fieldwork stronger nature conservation initiatives had had minimal impact in the Anjedava region. In Spring 1991 a more immediate concern in Anjedava was the prolonged drought that began the year before and would culminate in a grave famine by September, when at least 830,000 in “Androy” were going hungry, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP/ Programme Alimentaire Mondial/PAM).18
33Attitudes to “Malagasy Cactus” seemed familiar. Thus, most Hazohandatse I met in 1991 believed it had been an indigenous plant. The red clay soils around the village had been favourable to the species. The very name - Anjedava - alludes to the long, twisting paths (jilava) bordered by Malagasy Cactus that had once snaked around the settlement. And as in Karembola ten years earlier, conversations continued to reference the colonial period as if it were still present, and encounters with state officials evoked the same professions of submission: “the land belongs to vazaha: we nod our heads to whatever they propose”. Yet, while narrations seemed similar, there were significant differences in emphasis and tone. It seemed to me that, while the loss of Malagasy Cactus was regretted, Hazohandatse were more concerned to tell me of dangers associated with prickly pears in the present than with recalling the trauma that followed when Malagasy Cactus died.
34Declining rainfall was now the dominant theme in local discourse. Villagers believed that incidents of drought were becoming more frequent, and that life was more of a struggle as a result. Fierce winds were said to be aggravating the problem, dessicating seedlings and breaking the stems of maize and millet plants before the grain was ripe. For Karembola in the early 1980s drought and its consequences (crop failure, stock loss) had been one among a plethora of afflictions (haoreañe) that people suffer because of moral blame: these might included anything from losing one’s money on the way to market or getting stung by bees through childlessness or sickness to bereavement and death. By contrast informants in 1991 seemed to give a more specifically environmental definition to the concept of “a dead and ruined land” (tane mate, tane robake). I would not want to exaggerate the differences. Even in the early 1980s people had mentioned declining rainfall and poor harvests as aspects of their distance/alienation from ancestral space/time. It seemed to me, however, that where informants in the early 1980s had taken some pride in their “thirsty” land - aridity was an innate property of Karembola territory and coping with it was what distinguished them as Karembola from outsiders - informants a decade later consistently identified a long-term trend of aridification and stressed their inability to cope.
- 19 The contribution of raketa sonjo to the local economy probably had not grown significantly over th (...)
35In contrast to the early 1980s when informants portrayed themselves as returning to ancestral ways of working the land, informants now reported many negative trends in local farming practice. These included shortening fallows, the loss of “ancient” woodland, a “modern” and not entirely welcome mania for raketa sonjo planting, and invasion by a “bandit” prickly pear. As many villagers saw it, Hazohandatse were behaving increasingly like vazaha: breaking landscape taboos by clearing sacred forest, showing disrespect for traditional authority, and transgressing burial customs and incest taboos. More particularly, they claimed that they were deviating from “horticultural custom” by cultivating foreign cacti in “new”, non-ancestral ways, and, more strikingly still, that raketa dependency was ballooning out of control. As in the early 1980s, informants associated excessive cactuseating with devalued persons such as “bandits”, refugees, and slaves. The difference between past and present, Hazohandatse felt, was that whereas in the past food insecurity had been a periodic event affecting particular hakeo-stricken individuals, it was now becoming a quasi-permanent condition afflicting everyone. Even nobility had lost its asy and teetered on the edge of destitution, “eating raketa like slaves”.19 Thus to an ecological calamity was added a political crisis.
- 20 There are striking congruities between the narratives I collected in the early 1990s and the so-ca (...)
36Perhaps because declining harvests were thought to be undermining hierarchy by driving everyone into raketa dependency, there was greater ambivalence about the status of raketa as a food. Whereas informants ten years earlier had listed saonjo fruits among the “ancestral” staples and “proper foods” with other cultivars, villagers now more often classed them as hatsa or tindroke, with wild-growing emergency foods (fruits, tubers, birds, and small mammals) that people look for in the woods when agricultural systems failed. Such symbolism, which put the plant outside the domain of human endeavour into wild, uncultivated space (amonto), was reinforced by perceived differences between the properties of “hot” and “cold” foods. Essentially, raketa was classed as a “cold” food, with watermelons and cucumbers, food that is eaten raw, on the hoof, generally outside the village, during the day when the sun is high in the sky. Normally, only the destitute ate raketa of an evening. Most Hazohandatse returning to the village after sundown expected to eat a “proper meal” of hot, cooked food (maize, manioc,....). Similar conceptualizations had been present in the early 1980s but the articulation of short-term and long-term strategies for growing ancestries had been less problematic then. Despite the scarcity of consumer goods and rampant price inflation, rural Karembola had been managing their fiction of a ranked society rather well. Ten years on, radical changes in the direction of government policies, notably, the withdrawal of state subsidies, the decline of Malagasy socialism, the introduction of free market economics and the imposition of structural adjustment programmes, had dramatically increased the availability of consumer goods in the island but had pauperized many rural communities. More specifically, fieldwork was conducted in drought conditions at a time of increasing hardship in the run up to the 1991/1992 famine. It is also possible that there had been more long-term environmental decline.20 Whatever the reasons, with a food that was once a staple for the destitute and/or the ritually dependant becoming everybody’s staple, informants seemed determined to maintain raketa’s symbolic opposition as a short-term subsistence food to cherished longer-term values of status and wealth creation by stressing their reluctance to store the fruit in their granaries overnight.
37The reconceptualisation of prickly pear as tindroke was also linked with a self-reported shift in raketa planting away from sites of concentrated human activity. Whereas Karembola had linked raketa intimately to lived-in social places, villagers at Anjedava cited a reluctance to plant the traditional multi-purpose cactus hedging around garden-plots and hamlets, explaining that they didn’t like to have raketa sonjo too close to where people lived or worked because the “fearsome spines” could easily take out an eye or make a person lame. In strong winds the “hairs” blew onto people, causing eye infections and wounds. Conversely, when the wind died down, conditions inside a prickly pear enclosure became too hot to bear. For similar reasons informants took a dim view of the traditional “hamlet within the raketa”. Instead of desiring the prickly pear-enclosed spaces practised by their ancestors, people now valued clarity in and around their homesteads: they wanted things to be “open”, not “dark” and “full of trees”.
38Instead a preference was expressed for planting raketa sonjo on firefallows in the woods.
- 21 Raketa saonjo was the preferred species for this purpose, being easy to propagate, exempt from tabo (...)
39Perceived as pre-eminently vazaha practice, this was supposed to be more productive since soils where tall trees had been fired would crop sooner and the young cladodes were less likely to be nibbled by village goats. Yet it was typical of the retrograde dynamic in which Hazohandatse imagined themselves to be imprisoned that the longer-term costs of these innovations were thought to negate any short-term benefits. Not only had “first rate land” (fanjaka tane), which ought to be earmarked for maize or millet, been “wasted” on prickly pears, but native woodland, a vital part of the socio-ecosystem that provides browse and shade for livestock, woodfuel, timber, fibres, herbal remedies, and foods, was being lost. The practice aroused particular moral opprobrium when, with the connivance of “Eaux et Fôrets”, wayward individuals (usually, the landhungry poor) broke longstanding taboos by clearing plots in sacred ancient woodland. Informants saw these “modern” trends in raketa-planting as symptomatic of the way vazaha had desacralized the landscape: “ ’Today there are no prohibitions’, the vazaha tell us, ‘for it’s a foreign land!’ ”. Another aspect of vazaha rule that was driving the practice of raketa tavy was the fact that the vazaha who settled land disputes (generally the local garde de forêt) only recognised rights in cleared and cultivated land. This was driving many land-rich villagers to put tracts of forest down to raketa in order to maintain visible long-term ownership in patrimonial fallows against landshort farmers who “laid claim to land to which they were not entitled and then appealed to the state when judgement went against them in local courts”.21 Another allegedly “modern” form of raketa-planting involved the creation of “proto-paddocks”. This embryonic enclosure movement was seen as overturning long-standing traditions of common access grazing land.
40In short, far from “newcomer” prickly pears having become more “ancestral” since the early 1980s, there was now greater uncertainty about how they fitted into local cultural traditions than before. Whereas informants in the early 1980s had seemed at ease with their vazaha or hybrid cacti and the proxy ancestrality they had secured, informants in 1991 associated these new varieties with impending political and environmental disaster.
41Nothing better captures this sense of approaching apocalypse than discourse on a recently arrived and fast-spreading Opuntia. Known locally as raketa mena (“red prickly pear”) on account of the fruit colour, it was considered the most opportunistic of all the prickly pears they had known. While there appears to be no specific indigenous category that translates directly as the English term “weed”, informants deployed a range of verbs and adjectives when speaking about raketa mena to convey the idea of a plant with “bad habits” that was spreading without human assistance, and becoming a nuisance, a pest they couldn’t control. In a culture which still subscribed to the value of primordial identities, where ancestry was assumed to dictate the habits or character (fomba’e) of a person or thing, uncertainty over its provenance only increased anxiety about the plant. Apparently unrelated to the familiar raketa species, raketa mena was termed a “bandit”, a “stranger”, rootless, dangerous, and sinister. Bristling with long yellow spines, it was one of the few plants that could regenerate on “hot”, stony terrain around the village where heavy grazing by goats otherwise allowed only a few unpalatable indigenous weed species to survive. It was the very antithesis of the productive prickly pear: its barbed spines caused fatal swellings, the cladodes made a dangerous fodder, and the fruit was poorly rated as a human food, though in 1991 as other food supplies dwindled, it was eaten in increasing quantities, first by children, whose swollen bellies bore telltale red stains, and then by adults. The plant’s only virtue was that it made a superb hedge “that even keeps sokake [Geochelone radiata, the supersize endemic tortoise+ from getting at our crops”; but this was a double-edged virtue because the plant’s widespread use as hedging was also assisting it to spread.
42For Hazohandatse in the last year of the Second Republic the habits of this unsourced raketa were an augury of harder times to come. While early 1980s imagery of raketa had placed them in a profoundly socialized landscape of subsistence and surplus production, by 1991 the encroachment by raketa mena into social spaces, together with the movement of raketa sonjo plantings away from social spaces onto forest burns, was recasting prickly pear as an anti-social plant. Whereas in the early 1980s informants had associated a heavy-but-not-too-heavy reliance on raketa (generic) with the partial recovery of a lost ancestral economy, practices around the production and consumption of raketa (generic) were now portrayed as negations of tradition and linked with declining productivity, land degradation and poverty. In some ways raketa mena epitomised these negative processes and was symbolically opposed to raketa sonjo. But at another level both symbolised current dilemmas - it was only a matter of degrees. Both varieties helped “to stave off hunger” but heavy and increasing reliance on them was indicative of a “ruined land”, of people caught in deepening cycles of drought and famine. This paradox was captured in a popular dictum: “raketa makes us live; raketa also kills”. Chaotic and beneficial, an instrument for survival, an instrument of death, species meanings underwent contextual negotiation as they were combined and recombined to describe political and ecological transformations that Hazohandatse feared would end in their own extinction.
43It is the light of the perceived imminent collapse of hierarchy under the ecological and political impacts of vazaha values that we can understand my companion’s reaction to the audacious “slaves” who had planted raketa with the intention of selling it on to stock owners. Despite the increasing tendency to associate raketa discursively with wild spaces, raketa saonjo was in practice still an owned and limited resource which acquired a rising market value in times of fodder/fruit scarcity. The prolonged drought in 1991 had already forced many larger stockowners to buy in extra supplies of raketa to feed their herds at some expense (typical payments were five thousand Malagasy francs or a cow-with-calf). It was this perceived vulnerability of richer farmers to growing drought incidence that the good-for-nothing inhabitants of “the hamlet within the raketa” sought to exploit.
- 22 Significantly, my companion referred to them as ondevo rather than, say, as the descendants of for (...)
- 23 No one mentioned the possibility that these ‘’slaves’’ might then try to shed their moral blame by (...)
44Producing raketa for fodder, turning it into money and cattle, and ultimately into prestige, were all perfectly legitimate activities (Karembola have seldom expressed disquiet about material acquisition or the pursuit of monetary gain) but not when undertaken by “slaves”. It was acceptable for “slaves” to subsist on raketa. Indeed, the monotonous consumption of raketa was a wholly appropriate moral activity for the lower orders that usefully confirmed the enduring relevance of indigenous idioms of hierarchy in a “foreign land”.22 But when people of slave descent grow prickly pear with an eye to speculating on escalating drought incidence, they forget their proper place in the accepted status hierarchy and confirm that they are “worthless men who show no respect”.23
45It is tempting to postulate a symbolic link between the growing impunity of ondevo to offend against status hierarchy and the wildness now ascribed to prickly pear. So long as prickly pear was confined to the shortterm sphere concerned with the basic viability of the individual household, and subordinated to the reproduction of the hierarchical order, it was beneficial; but with prickly pear now figuring in vazaha-backed challenges to the hereditary land rights of local élites, it had become something of a wild card jeopardizing the material bases of hierarchy.
46An interesting contrast can be drawn with the early 1980s when villagers who subsisted on prickly pear were despised, but their practice did not impact on other stakeholders’ interests. The varieties then available served the rich (fodder and fruit) and the poor (fruit-consumers) equally well, and their uses were largely compatible because it was labour, not land, that was scarce. By contrast, in 1991 raketa planting involved incipient conflicts over resource use between poor and rich. These conflicts took place within the context of a broader debate about the relative importance of primordial identity (ancestry) over performance in the here-and-now in establishing personal worth.
47The subtle representational shifts that had taken place between the early 1980s and the early 1990s required careful unpicking partly because the narrative of Malagasy Cactus remained recognizably the same. Returning to the field in 2002-2003, I was genuinely shocked to discover that, while the basic storyline about the French killing Malagasy Cactus persisted, not everybody saw this intervention as bad. People now disputed all aspects of the story: whether “Malagasy Cactus” had been invasive; whether the French had been right to kill it; whether local people had also desired its eradication; and, perhaps most startling of all, whether anyone had actually died or suffered as a result. In less than a generation, widely shared memory and interpretation of events had given way to surprisingly diverse narrative about the past.
- 24 This raketa mena was not the raketa mena of Anjedava 1991, which is known in the Cap Sainte Marie (...)
48Two key developments had contributed to these renarrations: an acrimonious controversy that had erupted over raketa mena24; and a popular discourse on vazaha and foreign investment in the context of recent elections that made the nationalist narrative of Malagasy Cactus appear (to many people) less resonant than before.
49In the intervening years, the shift from socialist to neo-liberal economics and the rise of biodiversity discourse had continued. Increasingly vocal opposition to Ratsiraka had brought about the appointment of a transitional government in late 1992. Following a brief interlude under Zafy Albert who was removed from office in 1996, Ratsiraka was re-elected to the Presidency in 1997, only to cede power in 2001 to Marc Ravalomanana, a pro-vazaha candidate committed to free market solutions and foreign investment. Inbetween times, the so-called “spiny dry forest” of Androy-Karembola-Mahafale had been defined as a global conservation priority on account of its exceptional endemism and degree of threat. With [eco]tourism projected to be a major earner of foreign exchange for the national economy (World Bank, 1990; McNeely et al, 1990), the ’90s had seen intensified “conservation” controls in the “Réserve Spéciale du Cap Sainte Marie”, the only nature reserve located in Karembola but one which had been more or less neglected since its creation in 1962 (Nicoll & Langrand, 1989, 123-5). By 2002, these interventions were impacting negatively on resource use in communities bordering the reserve, while offering little in the way of improved economic and social conditions to compensate.
50The anti-prickly pear lobby had remained relatively silent in Ratsiraka’s Second Republic. Ecosystem inventories of Madagascar published in the 1980s generally gloss over the issue of naturalised Opuntia in the Malagasy Deep South (Jenkins, 1987; Nicoll & Langrand, 1989, 124, 178). However, the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and the subsequent Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) to which Madagascar was a signatory, had defined exotic plants as one of the most serious threats to global biodiversity. This had emboldened conservationists to articulate opposition to introduced Opuntia on the grounds of their alleged impacts on “southern Didiereaceae-Euphorbia bush” (Rauh, 1995, 55; Rauh, 1998, xi). The WWF [World Wide Fund for Nature] was targeting raketa mena in particular for its impacts on biodiversity within Cap Sainte Marie Special Reserve and on subsistence farming on the periphery of the Reserve (ANGAP et al, n.d. ; Randriamampianina et al, 2002). The integration of development and environmental concerns had become a stated priority for key stakeholders in Madagascar, and a campaign against raketa mena, which benefited from some local support, appeared to offer the WWF a way of delivering on this. Ravalomanana, the newly elected President, was underscoring his expectation that environmental NGOs would make an important contribution, alongside foreign investment and the private sector, to achieving millenium goals of poverty eradication and economic growth.
- 25 ANGAP (―Association Nationale pour la Gestion des Aires Protégées‖/National Association for the Ma (...)
51The WWF had, however, overplayed its hand in claiming that its position on raketa mena coincided with community opinion. Certainly most villagers I interviewed agreed that raketa mena was infesting fields and grazing lands with negative impacts on agro-pastoral productivity. However, local opinion was deeply divided over what should happen to the plant. Some (generally, more affluent community members) called for its total eradication. But others (generally the poor) protested that, at a time of food insecurity, raketa mena fruit, and it alone, was keeping them alive. Debate was particularly heated because, during discussions with community leaders, vazaha (personnel from WWF, ANGAP, and FOFIFA, the three organizations collaborating on the issue)25 had apparently promised to introduce insects to kill the plant.
52As a result of this controversy, it had become almost impossible for local informants to narrate the story of Malagasy Cactus without inserting a meta-commentary that drew comparisons and/or contrasts to raketa mena. (This meta-commentary covered anything from the botanical characteristics and economic value of the two species to what might be predicted about the consequences of raketa mena eradication on the basis of what happened when Malagasy Cactus died.) With the WWF seeking the authority and the funding to push forward a programme of eradication/control for raketa mena, men and women, even those who had experienced Malagasy Cactus in person, were developing new Malagasy Cactus narrative as arguments in contemporary debates. While it would be wrong to over-generalize, broadly speaking the story had been appropriated and re-narrated to serve the conflicting political and economic interests of rich and poor.
53Yet at another level, when compared to the rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s, there were, or seemed to be, deeper shifts in cultural understandings of personhood, work and status that revealed much common ground between the protagonists. Few informants now expressed any longing for some golden era associated with raketa gasy; their nostalgia was overwhelmingly for the colonial period when, as one man explained, the French did their best “to get us to prosper with all kinds of schemes, butter beans, rubber, things which if they had succeeded would be keeping us alive today”. Even the collective raketa vazaha plantations of the 1950s through to the 1970s, once indicted as exemplifying the “forced labour” or “slavery” people had suffered under colonialism, were now portrayed by many informants as good. Insisting that people in Karembola had been paid for their labour and that ownership of the plantations had devolved onto local collectivities, many informants mourned the failure of these communal undertakings, attributing it to the selfishness of wealthier cattle-owners who “ruined” what was intended to feed ordinary people (hane vahoake) by allowing their stock to graze the plantations without regard for sustainability over the long-term.
- 26 In fact, informants were expressing affection for the collectivism sponsored by Tsiranana and befo (...)
54In many ways, this nostalgia for state-driven collective labour seemed to belong more to the Ratsiraka era than to Ravalomanana’s Madagascar.26 And indeed another narrative circulating in 2002-03 was more in keeping with the Ravalomanana ethos. The question had arisen of whether the World Food Programme/Programme Alimentaire Mondiale could be persuaded to sponsor raketa planting under its “Food for Work” programmes; to date participants in these schemes had mostly worked on improving footpaths, waterpoints, and schools. Many informants were adamant: while they or others would willingly prepare the soil and plant cladodes in exchange for butter beans and maize if they were hungry, the plantations would be unsustainable in the long term because “Tandroy today are capitalist” and would only invest their (additional) labour on “private” on-farm plots.
55In short, there were two conflicting narratives about prickly pear circulating in 2002-2003. The one pedalled the value of state-driven, state-imposed collective endeavour as epitomised in the ideal of the lost raketa vazaha plantations of the colonial and “neo-colonial” periods that would nowadays be carrying the population through drought and famine if only local élites had not exploited the resource for their own advantage with complete disregard to community needs. The other bought into the rhetoric of private enterprise as epitomised by the (late colonial period) ideal of the individually owned raketa vazaha plot, hedged against appropriation by others (the antithesis of common grazing) and profitable for its owner, though always at risk of being ruined by raketa mena (a “bandit” valued only by good-for-nothings) and by careless herders who allow their stock to roam. We can see these two ideals as replicating in miniature a clash of philosophies, and possible routes for Madagascar.
56Whether they were for or against raketa mena, both sides believed in the transformative agency of vazaha, a belief still founded on (now very confused) memory of the Malagasy Cactus campaign. But, and here they deviated from the sentiments of the “nationalist” narrative of Malagasy Cactus, both sides were strongly pro-vazaha (the term vazaha in this context now reverting to its original meaning of people from outside Madagascar). All protagonists believed that vazaha-sourced benefits were readily available and would flow freely into the Karembola economy if only national and regional politicians could be stopped from diverting the benefits into their own pockets. No one I spoke to referenced the colonial period as if it were still present; maintaining a distinction between selfless (non-Malagasy) vazaha (European, Japanese...) and grasping Malagasy élites was now the dominant concern.
57The pro-vazaha rhetoric reflected more general trends in Madagascar as the relative isolation and deprivation of the socialist era gave way to the economic liberalisation of the 1990s. However, in changing attitudes in the extreme south, the 1991-1992 famine had been particularly transformative because it had spurred vazaha interventions in this region on an unprecedented scale. Emergency food relief, followed up by development projects, provided by a multitude of agencies, had encouraged local people to see vazaha as a source of wealth. Community leaders now regularly declared that they were “looking for a partner” from outside Madagascar, be it in the form of a large-scale European Union initiative or a smaller NGO project.
58There had been concomitant shifts in attitudes to raketa vazaha and raketa sonjo. In contrast to the 1980s when these “modern” varieties had been both compared to and contrasted with the lost “ancestral” cactus, informants now unreservedly classed both as “ancestral”, on a par with Malagasy Cactus. Both were described as plants that “make things flourish”, foods that “truly nourish”, “people’s true food”. Indeed, some informants, mainly those who were using a re-narrated history of Malagasy Cactus to argue for raketa mena eradication, portrayed these “ancestral-vazaha” varieties as superior to raketa gasy itself.
59The extended discourse on sonjo and vazaha as a channel for expressing a wider discomfort about métissage that had been current in the 1980s through the 1990s had dissipated. Whereas for Hazohandatse c.1991 raketa mena, raketa soso and raketa vazaha had all symbolised, to varying degrees and in different ways, perceived dilemmas of poverty and impotency in a foreign land, any negativity was now projected wholly onto raketa mena the “bandit”. Viewed as a completely alien raketa devoid of local ties, raketa mena was seen (even by the poor who depended on it to survive) as socially destructive: luring people by its short-term benefits into practices that would end ultimately in a barren land.
60As ever, ideas about prickly pear consumption were linked to social value. But it was now excessive raketa mena eating that denoted low rank. The wealthy described those who depended on raketa mena as lazy, impecunious, and profligate: “They don’t keep livestock, raise fowl, they don’t bother with cultivating land. All they do is pick wild raketa mena”. The verb used -mitsindroke (to harvest wild fruit and tubers) - was also used to refer to harvesting raketa sonjo in the woods. Yet raketa saonjo consumption had very distinct political connotations to raketa mena consumption. There had been a significant shift in cultural perceptions since the 1980s and 1990s. A heavy consumption of raketa saonjo was now perfectly acceptable regardless of a person’s status and resource availability. Raketa mena dependency had become the indicator of inferior rank. As one informant noted:
61Even if harvests are good, we still eat vast quantities of saonjo. Everyone’s completely sated with field crops, but they’re still out in the woods eating saonjo. Whereas in a good year raketa mena has no value. No one eats it; it just falls to ground.
- 27 Interviews with fellow taxi-brousse travellers and with residents of towns en route from Tôlañaro (...)
- 28 For a contemporary but somewhat different East Coast Malagasy discourse on vazaha as source of wea (...)
62Raketa saonjo was now so “ancestral” that in communities nearer to Tôlañaro (Fort Dauphin) it was (mistakenly) known as raketa gasy.27 As for raketa vazaha, which had formerly trailed raketa sonjo in moral evaluation, informants could not praise it highly enough. Its name invariably headed the species lists I collected, and informants’ only regret was that they could not plant or maintain enough. It - more than any other variety – was contrasted favourably with the dastardly raketa mena as “good, smooth, spineless. It’s an ancestral plant!” Like Malagasy Cactus and raketa saonjo before it, raketa vazaha had been finally “ancestralized”. But whereas Malagasy Cactus and raketa sonjo were ciphers of a subsistence economy - both were conceptualised as satisfying basic human needs for food, water, shelter, and good health - raketa vazaha was all about commoditization. The fruit had long involved a form of conspicuous consumption. But it was now highly rated from the producer angle as a cash crop. As such, it was emphatically contrasted to raketa sonjo which was generally portrayed as tindroke that people guzzle to their hearts’ content in the woods. Both plants were believed to foster health and prosperity but by symbolically contrastive routes.28
- 29 In contrast to the Toliara region where prickly pear fruits are traded across substantial distance (...)
63In contrast to the deep sense of foreboding that had coloured attitudes in 1991, the tone informants adopted when they talked about raketambazaha commodification was strikingly upbeat. Whereas Hazohandatse had focused on ominous developments in raketa planting driven by economic necessity, people now seemed to be celebrating the possibility of new economic directions in response to market incentives.29 Raketa vazaha cultivation on the deeply manured soils of former cattle pens (advocated by the colonial extension services since the 1950s but whose difficulties had formerly captured local people’s sense of impotency as gasy in a foreign land) in many ways exemplified the new self-definition: “Tandroy are all capitalists now”.
64Yet the truth was that only a tiny number of farmer-herders in 2002-3 actually produced raketa vazaha for sale. Livelihoods remained precarious. The economic reality of complexities and challenges faced by most rural Karembola in the early twenty-first century was more truthfully encapsulated in the raketa saonjo-raketa mena pairing. Existence was still about eating saonjo harvested for free in the woods. Those losing the battle against raketa mena in their paddocks and garden plots outnumbered, and by far, the few who maintained a fine raketa vazaha orchard. There had been no agrarian revolution: the majority of households had not made the shift from subsistence food production to cash cropping; many relied on the WFP/PAM when subsistence agriculture failed. As for ceremonial exchanges, a grinding poverty meant that by 2002 increasing numbers of hamlets were no longer building tombs and had not done so for some years. The mortuary rituals that in the 1980s and early 1990s had provided the opportunity for ordinary people to try their hand at “refreshing” their wealth (only the very poor had been precluded from participation), were now out of reach for all but the very rich.
- 30 Raketambazaha producing households enjoyed a certain local renown, in the fruiting season attractin (...)
65No one glossed the fact that raketambazaha was more demanding to cultivate than other varieties, more demanding than ever now that the plots required constant weeding to keep them free of raketa mena which rapidly infests former stock-pens. Only a few households in the region had sufficient labour, or managed their available labour well enough, to maintain a fine raketa vazaha plot producing fruit to sell. But in many ways raketambazaha production was idealised precisely because it epitomised the virtues of hard work, skilful management of household labour, successful entrepreneurship and its perceived reward, cash income. The successful raketambazaha producer coupled local knowledge of ecological conditions with vazaha-type market knowledge. He or she was a person who knew how to sell scarce produce in a rising market, unlike the majority of farmers who sold their surplus produce too cheaply when food was plenty and then had to sell their cattle at depressed prices at times of food scarcity in order to buy it back. It typified the self-reliant, self-contained household which demonstrates its worth by cash cropping, and no longer has to depend on manipulating corpses, and the multiple kinship links corpses embody, in order “to see wealth” through ritual exchange.30 The successful raketambazaha producer was the indigenized Karembola version of Ravalomanana’s “capitalist”.
66Jennifer Cole suggests that one effect of neoliberal economics in urban Tamatave (East Coast Madagascar) has been to make the relationship between short-term transactions and long term cycles of reproduction increasingly problematic as new social hierarchies based more on money than ancestry emerge in response to the opportunities brought by recent economic changes (Cole, 2003). With its concomitants of market production, the decline of collective control over natural resources, and individualization in economic behaviour, the emergence of raketa vazaha producers in Karembola seemed to raise similar questions about the symbolic articulation of money and ancestry. Yet, in contrast to the hostility shown to “slaves” in Anjedava whose attempts to commodify raketa threatened the social order, the trading activities of the raketambazaha producer couples I studied appeared to be generally admired. No one expressed to me the opinion that their profit-oriented behaviour was morally problematic or disruptive of community bonds. The fact is that in Karembola cash in itself is not seen as inherently opposed to “traditional”, ancestry-based modes of reproduction.
- 31 Raketambazaha commodification was not for instance symbolised as household-based activity that thre (...)
- 32 Although the very poor can make one-off gains by selling raketa during drought periods, they gener (...)
- 33 The authors of the reports on raketa mena had overlooked its critical role in food security precis (...)
67It only becomes problematic when the socially ascendant use it in transformational ways.31 And from the socio-demographic data I collected it appeared that the few households engaged in raketambazaha commodification in 2002 were not associated with the emergence of new social hierarchies. Their immunity to social criticism reflected their secure membership in “aristocratic” descent lines as much as general moral approval of the successful private entrepreneur. In other words, while the way informants enthused about growing raketambazaha for sale could lead one mistakenly to think that raketambazaha commodification had become a route to social mobility, this was not in fact the case.32 Karembola élites have been remarkably successful in consolidating their positions by exploiting new political and economic opportunities, including those offered by multiple types of clientelism with international/parastatal disaster relief and nature conservation agencies (WFP/PAM, WWF, ANGAP, etc).33
68The idealised and rather self-deceptive self-identification of all Karembola as emergent capitalists appeared to chime with the Ravalomanana ethos, but was difficult to square with the reality of life as experienced by most men and women in Karembola today. And indeed if one looked more closely at what informants were saying, ideas were deeply divided on what “capitalism”’ and greater co-operation with vazaha actually meant. Some, mainly those in favour of raketa mena eradication who saw vazaha and their instrumental knowledge as vital allies in the eradication of a weed that was beyond their own capability to control, were indeed affirming faith in the power of market solutions coupled with an indigenous capitalism to enrich people and redress food insecurity. For instance, when I asked whether raketa mena eradication would result in a famine as happened in the 1930s after raketa gasy died, many insisted that the situation today would be altogether different because “in those days there were no markets at Soamanitse and Marovato whereas nowadays there’s money, transport, you can buy in food”. But others, especially poorer villagers, saw vazaha (rather like raketa mena) more as providers of food aid and other acts of charity when local food security systems failed.
- 34 Raketa sonjo, and even raketa mena, can become objects of commoditization under food scarcity. The (...)
- 35 Elements of popular discourse seemed to underscore the fragility of this market-based vision of th (...)
- 36 According to the first count of the vote [December 2002], Ravalomanana‘s candidate did not win in (...)
69Raketambazaha commoditization as a phenomenon of neo-liberal economics existed more as discourse than practice. And as a discourse on neo-liberalism it was conjoined to an equally rapturous but better-founded discourse on raketa saonjo as wild, gathered food. The rise of the ideal of the raketambazaha producer might encapsulate the slow surrender of “socialist” goals to neo-liberalism, a process that culminated in Ravalomanana’s ascendancy in 2001. Yet raketa saonjo, a “wonderful food” harvested in the wood, restated the value of non-commodity forms.34 This discursive parity between raketa saonjo and raketambazaha, as two completely different conceptualizations of economy, in a sense encapsulated policy options as they were envisioned for the Deep South. Agricultural production to satisfy Madagascar’s basic needs had been a stated primary objective of the 1975 Revolution (Ratsiraka, 1975: 55-57, 60, 72, 102). This had never been achieved yet Ravalomanana stood for more than the satisfaction of finite wants and the restoration of self-sufficiency. Just as 1980s narrative around prickly pear could be seen as both Ratsiraka-authorized text and unauthorised critique, so too the narratives of the early 2000s can be seen as toying equivocally, even parodically, with the ideas of private enterprise that had brought Ravalomanana to power.35 Despite having presided over the introduction of free market economics in the 1980s, Ratsiraka had been reconfigured as one of the “good, enlightened vazaha who piggy-back Tandroy” (mibabe) in times of need. He was now widely praised for bringing water and food aid to the Karembola region. Judgement on Ravalomanana was temporarily suspended. He was a “newcomer” whose fomba was unknown, much as raketa mena had been in 1991. Villagers were still uncertain what his ascendancy to power would mean for them.36
- 37 For example, Decary‘s elaborations upon the local proverb of ‘’kinship’’ between Tandroy and raket (...)
- 38 Gender is an important aspect of this question but is too complex to discuss here. Generally, alth (...)
70The cultivation of prickly pears is often portrayed as an essentially pragmatic response to the challenges of farming and herding in arid conditions. Such approaches, while clearly offering vital insights, can produce an essentialist, somewhat unvarying, picture of raketa practice and raketa discourse that takes insufficient account of time or locality.37 It can also assume a consensus within local communities that may not exist. This essay has shown how moral evaluations of raketa, far from devolving solely onto purely practical issues, were finely nuanced for species and for historical period, and intimately linked to understandings of the political order and environmental change. The values and meanings ascribed to prickly pears were not inherent, immutable, or wholly objective, but rather judgements made about them by subjects in the context of political and economic interest informed by culturally constructed notions of production, consumption, and exchange.38
71In all three communities, the ways in which raketa varieties are symbolically represented took on performative meaning in the context of contested moral and political claims involving ideological and material conflicts both within local communities and between local communities and the nation state. These ideological and material conflicts have been reconfigured over the two decades in response to political and economic trends.
72Open dissent was missing from narrative I collected in the early 1980s. There was social dissonance in the references to filthy raketa-eating gasy in the past and to good-for-nothings who subsisted on cactus in the present, but these were not elaborated as conflict between community members in the present. Practical engagement with raketa in the present was unproblematic: Malagasy Cactus was dead, raketa mena was not yet a pest putting livelihoods at risk, and with respect to raketa sonjo the interests of the poor and the rich were not in direct conflict. On the contrary, it suited popular opinion, at a time when Karembola political philosophy remained fiercely hierarchical but references to ondevo could not be freely voiced, to be able to point at destitutes who survived on cactus fruit. These living embodiments of worthlessness became, as it were, tangible proof of a partly imagined hierarchy based on descent. With land in seemingly inexhaustible supply, Opuntia species were not implicated in contested access to land. The master narrative of Malagasy Cactus was critical to collective and personal self-conceptualization but the conflicts it narrated had become more allegorical or mythical than actual, at best metaphors for current battles with Ratsiraka regime. Despite evident disparities of wealth and opportunity between individual households, this could be a consensual memory because community conflicts over labour, land and livestock did not turn around prickly pears.
73By 2002-3 raketa varieties and raketa histories were once again directly embroiled in battles for survival, with the poor championing raketa mena and the more affluent championing its eradication expressing typically antagonistic interests. By contrast to the 1980s, when the wealthy welcomed the presence of poor people (idiomised as base ancestries) who ate nothing but prickly pear because it confirmed the validity of hierarchical ideology and their own position within it, the wealthy now resented those who ate nothing but raketa mena because the latter’s practice conferred social use value on a plant that was impacting negatively on their own productivity. And in so far as superior rank was based on productive prowess and ritual performance based largely on productive prowess, the value the poor conferred on raketa mena was undermining the material base of privilege. The idea of a collective trauma experienced in the 1920s when Malagasy Cactus died, so pronounced in the early 1980s, had been fractured as diverse factions used Malagasy Cactus narrative to promote competing interests.
741991 can be seen as a transitional period when the narrative of Malagasy Cactus had become less relevant in the light of more pressing dilemmas around modern raketa varieties but those current dilemmas had not yet led people to revisit the master narrative and harness it to serving their internal disputes. Sorry tales of raketa past and present that evoked a sense of historic loss and imminent catastrophe were still embedded in a broader politics of generic identity, partly masking those occasions when stands of prickly pear figured in land disputes.
75In all three communities the ways people thought about raketa varieties had some connection to the specific material conditions of production in which they were embedded, most notably the ecological and social-economic relations that condition land and labour supply. While this is a complex issue which needs further investigation, I loosely hypothesise a shift from the consensual positive attitude to raketa that characterised a lowdensity agro-pastoral system in the early 1980s through the more critical conceptualizations of raketa in Anjedava 1991 at a time when growing scarcity of land was accelerating “class” conflict, to the deep contestation of opinion in Cap Sainte Marie 2002-2003 where, due to various factors, including both encroachment by the nature reserve and infestation by raketa mena, land supply had become a critical problem.
76These raketa histories also appeared to reference changing constructions of personhood. In all three settings people were conscious of socio-economic diversity; but the idea of Tandroy as “capitalist” rewarded for effort in the present rather than qualities conferred by the past, together with the increased tendency to describe social difference more in terms of contrasts between “rich” and “poor”, the “worthy” and “worthless”, the “industrious” and the “lazy”, than between roandria and ondevo, the vocabulary of hereditary rank, implies that there was by 2002 a greater acceptance of social mobility than before. Supporting evidence for a shift from primordial to more fluid identities might be found in the general secularization or westernization of popular discourse. Mystifying models of spiritual power (hakeo, asy,...) which had dominated everyday conversation in the early 1980s and 1990s were now less frequently vocalized in public. For example, instead of describing raketa mena as an intervention of supernatural powers in the world of the living against which they were impotent to act, villagers in 2002-2003 generally verbalised the infestations as a grave but essentially secular and potentially reversible predicament which could be overcome with the instrumental knowledge that vazaha typically provide.
- 39 Community leaders (Presiday, Komity) are drawn from among the general category of ondatibe, middle (...)
77This new language of social mobility was, however, deceptive because as we have seen there had been a retrenchment of elite power. Most local community leaders (Komity, Presiday,...) were wealthy men from superior lineages who had gained these positions because of their skill in combining a secular discourse that was accessible to vazaha with a “traditionalist” discourse intended for internal consumption that drew on values of ancestry and references to the past.39