Madagascar - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Madagascar, island nation in the Indian Ocean, separated from the southeastern coast of Africa by the Mozambique Channel. Madagascar is made up of Madagascar Island, the fourth largest island in the world, and several small islands. Madagascar was annexed by France in 1896 and gained full independence in 1960. The country’s area totals 587,041 sq km (226,658 sq mi). Antananarivo is the capital and largest city.


A central mountainous plateau dominates the island of Madagascar. Partly volcanic in origin, the uplands rise to 2,876 m (9,436 ft) atop Maromokotro in the north. The massive Ankaratra Mountains, near the city of Antananarivo, attain an elevation of 2,643 m (8,671 ft). The land slopes steeply to a narrow lowland bordering the Indian Ocean in the east and to a somewhat wider coastal plain along the Mozambique Channel in the west.

The country’s best soil is found along the coast and in river valleys of the central plateau. The island’s soils are rich in iron and therefore red in color. The pervasive color of the bare earth and of the rivers that wash through the interior has given Madagascar the nickname Great Red Island.

Rivers and Lakes in Madagascar

The major rivers of Madagascar are the Betsiboka, Tsiribihina, Mangoky, and Onilahy; all rise in the uplands near the eastern coast and flow west to the Mozambique Channel through fertile valleys. By contrast, rivers flowing to the Indian Ocean are short and swift, frequently plunging from the uplands in waterfalls. The largest lake is Alaotra, near Toamasina.

Climate in Madagascar

The eastern part of Madagascar receives much rain, brought onshore by southeastern trade winds, which are forced to rise and drop moisture as they meet the eastern escarpment; annual precipitation in some places exceeds 3,050 mm (120 in). The central plateau gets considerably less moisture, and arid areas in the south and southwest receive less than 380 mm (less than 15 in) of precipitation per year. Most of the rain falls from November to April. The coastal regions generally are hot throughout the year. The central plateau has a temperate climate, with warm summers and cool winters. The average temperature range in Antananarivo on the plateau is 16° to 26°C (61° to 79°F) in January and 9° to 20°C (48° to 68°F) in July.

Vegetation and Animal Life in Madagascar

Tropical rain forests containing valuable hardwoods (including rosewood, ebony, and raffia palm) are common in eastern Madagascar. The coconut palm is extensively cultivated in the lowlands. The eastern coastal lagoons and lower river valleys in the west are fringed with mangroves. Savanna woodland and grasslands predominate in the drier western regions, and desert vegetation occurs in the extreme southwest.

Madagascar’s animal life is unusual. There are no large mammal species except those brought to the island by humans. Lemurs, a primitive family of primate, are found chiefly in Madagascar. There is an abundance of reptiles, including crocodiles, lizards, and chameleons. Insect life is as varied as it is distinctive; the variety and rarity of the island’s butterflies are unique. Although native species exhibit characteristics of both African and Indian animal life, their differences indicate they evolved on Madagascar during a long period of isolation. An estimated 90 percent of the species inhabiting its tropical forests are endemic, meaning that they are found nowhere else in the world.

Mineral Resources in Madagascar

Madagascar has abundant mineral reserves, although many have yet to be exploited. Chromite, graphite, mica, and gemstones such as sapphire, topaz, and garnet are currently mined. The island also contains valuable deposits of bauxite, ilmenite (a titanium ore), and coal.

Environmental Issues in Madagascar

Madagascar’s growing population has put increased pressures on the environment. The timber industry is less of a threat to the island’s forests than slash-and-burn agriculture and reliance on fuelwood for energy. The country suffers an annual deforestation rate of 0.4 percent (1990–2005). In 2005, 22 percent of Madagascar’s total land area was forested.

Inadequate sewage disposal, as well as soil erosion caused by deforestation, has led to surface water pollution. Only 47 percent (2006) of the population has access to safe water, and only 12 percent has access to sanitation.

However, the country has a long history of conservation. Efforts are under way to increase wood supplies by reforesting eroded upland areas. The government has protected 2.6 percent (2007) of the country’s total land area in national parks and reserves.


Madagascar has an ethnically diverse population of 20,653,556 (2009 estimate). The number of inhabitants was growing at an annual rate of 3 percent in 2009. The average population density is 36 persons per sq km (92 per sq mi), with upland areas more densely populated than coastal regions.

Only 27 percent of the population is classified as urban. Antananarivo, the capital, is the largest city, with a population (2003) of 1,678,000. Other important urban centers are Toamasina (137,782), Mahajanga (106,780), Fianarantsoa (109,248), Toliara (1993, 80,826), and Antsiraana (59,040).

Major ethnic groups in the interior are the Merina (Hova), who make up about 27 percent of the total population, and the related Betsileo (12 percent). Members of both groups are descended primarily from people who emigrated from Indonesia by AD 900. Coastal areas are inhabited mainly by peoples of mixed Malayo-Indonesian, black African, and Arab ancestry; among these ethnic groups are the Betsimisaraka (15 percent), Tsimihety (7 percent), Sakalava (6 percent), and Antaisaka (5 percent).

Language and Religion in Madagascar

The official languages of Madagascar are the Merina dialect of Malagasy (a language of Malayo-Indonesian origin), French, and English. Approximately 48 percent of the population follows traditional Malagasy beliefs, recognizing an omnipotent deity and secondary divinities, the latter including the earliest inhabitants of the island, legendary kings and queens, and other great ancestors. There is a universal cult of ancestors and a tradition of lavish funerals and elaborate rituals surrounding the dead. About 49 percent of the population adheres to Christianity and 2 percent to Islam.

Education in Madagascar

Education is compulsory from ages 6 to 14. Virtually all primary school-aged children were enrolled in school in 2006, but only 14 percent of secondary school-aged children were in school. In 2000 the adult literacy rate was 66.5 percent. Institutions of higher education include the University of Antananarivo (1961), the University of Toamasina (1977), and the University of Fianarantsoa (1988).

Cultural Institutions in Madagascar

Leading libraries with collections of Malagasy history, literature, culture, and arts are the National Library (1961) in Antananarivo and the University of Antananarivo Library (1961). The Historical Museum (1897) in Antananarivo and the University of Antananarivo Museum of Art and Archaeology (1970) are the chief museums.


Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $7.4 billion, or $375.30 per person, in 2007. The economy remains, as in colonial times, predominantly agricultural, with 78 percent of the labor force engaged in agricultural activities. During the 1980s and late 1990s the agricultural sector was hurt by frequent cyclones. Strikes and political instability also limited economic growth in the 1990s and early 21st century. The government’s budget in 2007 included revenues of $4,366 million and expenditures of $4,125 million.

Agriculture of Madagascar

Because of the mountainous terrain, only 5 percent of Madagascar is farmed. The chief food crop is rice, which is grown on about one-half of the agricultural land. Since the early 1970s imports of this staple food have been necessary to meet needs. Other important food crops are cassava, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, and bananas. Leading cash crops are coffee, vanilla, and cloves. Other important crops are sugarcane, cotton, sisal, and tropical fruits. Cattle are the main livestock raised in Madagascar.

Forestry and Fishing in Madagascar

In 2007 some 13.3 million cu m (471 million cu ft) of timber was cut, most of it for local use as fuel. Efforts are under way to increase wood supplies by reforesting eroded upland areas. The fishing industry is expanding, and shrimp, lobsters, and fish products have become significant sources of export revenue. Madagascar allows other countries to fish in its exclusive maritime zone in exchange for compensation.

Mining and Manufacturing in Madagascar

Mineral products of Madagascar include chromite, mica, graphite, salt, and various gemstones. Food processing (meat packing, brewing, and sugar refining) is the leading manufacturing industry. Other manufactures include refined petroleum, textiles, soap, cement, cigarettes, and paper.

Energy in Madagascar

Madagascar’s people rely on traditional fuels such as wood and charcoal for 84 percent (1997) of their energy needs. In 2006 Madagascar produced 980 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. Some 65 percent of all electricity is produced in hydroelectric facilities.

Foreign Trade in Madagascar

Madagascar usually has a negative trade balance. In 2007 imports were valued at $2,124 million and exports at $1,156 million. Foods such as coffee, cloves, vanilla, fruit, and shrimp accounted for 33 percent of export revenue in 2006. Other important exports were fabrics, gemstones, chromite, and refined petroleum. Leading imports were petroleum, foodstuffs, chemical products, machinery, vehicles and vehicle parts, and electrical equipment. France is by far the leading trading partner, accounting for about one-quarter of Madagascar’s trading activity. Other significant purchasers of the country’s exports are the United States, Singapore, Germany, and Mauritius; chief sources of imports in addition to France are the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, China, and South Africa.

Currency and Banking of Madagascar

The Malagasy franc, divided into 100 centimes, is the currency unit (1,874 Malagasy francs equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Central Bank of Madagascar (founded 1973) is the bank of issue. All banks were nationalized in 1975 but reopened to private and foreign investment beginning in the late 1980s.

Transportation in Madagascar

Antananarivo is the main hub of Madagascar’s limited transportation system. Only about 12 percent (1999) of the country’s roads are paved. Toamasina, the chief port, handles about 70 percent of the nation’s foreign trade. Other port cities are Mahajanga, Toliara, and Antsiranana. Madagascar has four major airports, including the international airport at Antananarivo. Air Madagascar is the national airline.

Communications in Madagascar

Until 1990 the state owned all broadcasting operations in Madagascar. That year the state monopoly was abolished by legislation that opened the industry to private stations working in partnership with the government. State restrictions on publishing were also lifted in the early 1990s. The daily newspapers published in Antananarivo include Gazetiko (written in Malagasy), La Gazette de la Grande Ile (French), and Midi Madagasikara (French and Malagasy).


In 1993 Madagascar replaced its single-party socialist system with a multiparty democracy under terms of a new constitution adopted the year before. The country is divided into six provinces, which are subdivided into regions, departments, and communes.

Executive of Madagascar

According to the 1992 constitution, the head of state is the president, elected by the voters to a five-year term. The president appoints a prime minister, who holds executive power.

Legislature of Madagascar

Madagascar’s bicameral (two-chamber) legislature is composed of a National Assembly and a Senate. The National Assembly’s 160 members are directly elected to four-year terms. Of the 90 Senate members, 60 are selected by an electoral college of provincial representatives and 30 are appointed by the president, all to four-year terms.

Judiciary in Madagascar

The judicial system is modeled on that of France. It includes a High Constitutional Court; a Supreme Court; a Court of Appeal; 11 courts of first instance; and special economic and criminal tribunals.

Political Parties of Madagascar

The National Front for the Defense of the Madagascar Socialist Revolution was Madagascar’s only permitted political organization from 1975 to 1990. Legislation approved that year allowed the resumption of multiparty political activity, resulting in the formation of more than 120 parties. Leading political organizations include Tiako I Madagasikara (I Love Madagascar), Association pour la Renaissance de Madagascar (Association for the Rebirth of Madagascar), and Ny Asa Vita No Ifampitsara (People Are Judged by the Work They Do).

Defense of Madagascar

Madagascar has a 13,500-member military, with 12,500 of those personnel in the army. An 8,000-member gendarmerie performs paramilitary functions.

International Organizations in Madagascar

Madagascar is a member of the United Nations, the African Union, and several other international organizations. It is a signatory of the Lomé Convention, an agreement on cooperation between what is now the European Union and 70 developing countries.


The people of Madagascar are believed to be descended from Indonesians and Africans who reached the island in ancient times. Diogo Dias, a Portuguese sea captain bound for India in 1500, was the first European to sight the island. During the 17th century the Portuguese, the English, and the French successively and unsuccessfully attempted to colonize Madagascar.

French Encroachment

The French gained a temporary foothold on the island in 1642 but were driven out in 1674. They finally acquired a few trading bases along the east coast in the following century. Their sphere of influence was restricted, however, as a result of the rise of a powerful monarchy among the Merina, a people of Malay origin in the central plateau. From 1810 to 1828, during the reign of the Merina king Radama I, who was hostile to the French, the British gained influence. British officers trained Merina troops, and British missionaries introduced schools and Christianity. Following the death of Radama, a strong reaction against European culture developed. Reforms were abolished, the missionaries were persecuted, and trade relations with Britain were severed. On the accession of Radama II (in 1861), a generally progressive ruler, some of the early reforms were reinstituted. Radama II, who was friendly to the French, was subsequently murdered by the conservative faction at the Merina court. A protracted period of strained relations and recurrent hostilities with the French culminated in 1895 in submission by the reigning monarch, Queen Ranavalona III. In 1896, as a result of popular uprisings, Madagascar was proclaimed a colony of France; military rule was instituted, and the queen was exiled.

Various reforms and improvements were introduced in Madagascar during the following decades, but discontent with French rule gradually assumed serious proportions. In 1916 a secret nationalist society was outlawed, and hundreds of its members were jailed.

In May 1942, two years after the fall of France in World War II, the British government, fearful that the Japanese would seize Madagascar, dispatched an expeditionary force to the island. In 1943 the British surrendered control to the Free French government. The postwar period was marked by a resumption of nationalist agitation.

Movement Toward Independence

Under the provisions of the French constitution of 1946, Madagascar and some dependencies became an overseas territory of France. The constitution established elective Madagascan provincial assemblies with limited powers. In March 1947, nationalists in east Madagascar began an armed revolt against the French that was not suppressed until August. After the revolt the government emphasized efforts to improve the economy by extending the road system and by exploiting coal deposits more systematically.

During the 1950s France took measures to increase self-government on the island. Elections held in 1951, 1952, and 1957 generally favored those who advocated gradual attainment of independence. The constitution of the Fifth Republic of France was approved by 78 percent of the Madagascan electorate in a referendum held on September 28, 1958. A subsequent congress of the members of the provincial councils proclaimed Madagascar, renamed the Malagasy Republic, a semiautonomous member of the French Community. Philibert Tsiranana, leader of the Social Democratic Party, was inaugurated as president and head of state on November 1. On June 26, 1960, the republic became fully autonomous while retaining a cordial association with France. In September it was admitted to the United Nations.

Ratsiraka’s Rule

After a decade of political stability, Malagasy underwent serious unrest in the early 1970s, although Tsiranana was reelected for the second time in January 1972. In the spring, however, a student strike grew into general rioting, and Tsiranana was forced to turn power over to the army chief of staff, General Gabriel Ramanantsoa. Ramanantsoa was ousted by other elements of the military in early 1975; in June, Lieutenant Commander Didier Ratsiraka was named head of state. On December 30, the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Madagascar, and on January 4, 1976, Ratsiraka began a seven-year term as president.

Economic pressures in the late 1970s added to political unrest, to which the government responded with a series of alerts and arrests; alleged antigovernment plots were reported in 1977, 1980, and 1982. Reelected in November 1982 and March 1989, Ratsiraka suppressed another coup attempt in May 1990. After massive antigovernment demonstrations, he promised in August 1991 to institute democratic reforms; a transitional government took office in November, and a new constitution was approved by popular referendum in August 1992. Albert Zafy defeated Ratsiraka in a presidential runoff election in February 1993.

The transition to civilian rule was marked by opposition from troops loyal to Ratsiraka and by conflicts with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) regarding the exchange rate of the Malagasy franc. In September 1996 the National Assembly impeached Zafy for, among other things, failing to reach an agreement with the IMF. Zafy officially stepped down in October, and new presidential elections were held in December. Ratsiraka defeated Zafy and was proclaimed president once again in January 1997.

Recent Developments

Ratsiraka also struggled with the IMF, and delays in obtaining IMF relief funds led to an erosion of support for his administration. In December 2001 presidential elections Ratsiraka finished second to Marc Ravalomanana, the popular mayor of Antananarivo and a self-made multimillionaire. However, because the vote count showed that neither candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election was required. But Ravalomanana rejected the results of the vote count, claiming to have won more than 50 percent of the vote. Backed by the overwhelming support of Antananarivo residents, he had himself sworn in as president in February 2002. Ratsiraka refused to step down, demanding that the runoff election take place. Supported by rural and coastal provinces, Ratsiraka established a rival government at the port city of Toamasina. Madagascar’s High Constitutional Court conducted a recount and in April declared Ravalomanana the rightful winner with more than 51 percent of the vote. Most of the international community recognized Ravalomanana’s presidency over the subsequent months. Ratsiraka fled Madagascar for France in July.

Ravalomanana’s party, Tiako I Madagasikara (“I Love Madagascar”), easily won parliamentary elections in December 2002. The new government’s priorities included improving the country’s infrastructure (especially the paving of roads), expanding education and health services, and fighting corruption. Imposing businesslike objectives for government ministers, Ravalomanana successfully encouraged international aid and investment in Madagascar. Although opponents accused Ravalomanana of using his position to further his own business interests, he remained popular. Ravalomanana was reelected to a second five-year term in December 2006, winning nearly 55 percent of the vote.

In a referendum held in April 2007, voters approved constitutional changes giving more powers to the president. The expanded powers included the authority to make laws directly during a president-imposed state of emergency. Ravalomanana’s party won by a landslide in parliamentary elections held in September 2007.

Many people in Madagascar, where the average annual income is $400, became discontented with Ravalomanana’s government, however, after it was disclosed that the president intended to purchase a $60-million private jet. Impoverished citizens were also angry at reported plans to lease large tracts of land to a South Korean company to grow crops for export, even though there is widespread hunger in rural Madagascar. Business elites were also angered when they learned that the company expected to pay nothing for the lease arrangement.

The crisis came to a head in December 2008 when Ravalomanana ordered the closing of a television station owned by opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, the 34-year-old mayor of Antananarivo, the nation’s capital. In response to the closing, Rajoelina began organizing demonstrations against Ravalomanana, accusing him of corruption. As 2009 began, the protests became violent, leading to riots, the burning of buildings, and the deaths of about 100 people. In February, Rajoelina declared himself the leader of the country, and in retaliation, Ravalomanana dismissed him as mayor. In March 2009 Ravalomanana was forced to resign under pressure from the military, which backed Rajoelina.

The African Union (AU) attempted to intervene, suspending Madagascar from membership in the AU for what it termed a military coup. Under Madagascar’s constitution, when a president resigns, the head of parliament’s upper house is supposed to lead a caretaker government until new presidential elections can be held within two months of the resignation. Instead, Rajoelina simply seized power and suspended both houses of parliament. However, his supporters argued that the nation’s Constitutional Court approved the transfer of power. Rajoelina said he would amend the constitution and hold elections within two years. Under the current constitution Rajoelina, a former disc jockey who married into a prominent Madagascar family, is too young to hold the presidency.

In August 2009 negotiations presided over by former Mozambique president Joachim Chissano began between Rajoelina and Ravalomanana. Also included in the negotiations were former presidents Ratsiraka and Zafy. The negotiations were successful and a new power-sharing agreement was reached. Under the terms of the agreement, an interim government would take power until elections for a new president and parliament were held. Also included in the agreement were amnesties for both Ravalomanana and Ratsiraka.

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