Stealing the sacred. Journal MCD.

Stealing the sacred: Why “global heritage” discourse is perceived as a frontal attack on local heritage-making in Madagascar

Sandra J.T.M. Evers, Caroline Seagle


This article analyses Malagasy notions of land as heritage through the concept of fomba gasy, known as ‘Malagasy customs’, within the context of foreign land acquisitions for mineral extraction. Fomba gasy is a concept intimately tied to land – as it provides a social, economic, existential, cultural, and ontological web, which ties past, present and future generations. Global or ‘western’ conceptualizations of heritage generally adopt a more static definition of land as their point of departure, wherein biodiversity or clearly demarcated ‘heritage sites’ become objects of frontier conservation. This vision directly conflicts with Malagasy conceptions and ontologies of fomba gasy – a concept inherently anchored in dynamic, material and intangible uses of land. The model of heritage as universal patrimony does not sit easily with beliefs held by local (land-based) groups within Madagascar. On the contrary, it challenges a core tenet of Malagasy power and belief: their sovereign right to define fomba gasy and heritage through land, and to harness the powers of the sacred. The contested nature of heritage claims in Madagascar is discussed using a case study concerning a mining/biodiversity protection project where international and local stakeholders are vying for the same land.



Cet article analyse la notion des terres malgaches en tant que patrimoine à travers le concept de fomba gasy ('coutumes malgaches'), dans le cadre de l'acquisition de terres par des compagnies étrangères pour les extractions de minéraux. Fomba gasy est un concept étroitement lié à la terre car il fournit une toile environnementale, sociale, économique, existentielle, culturelle et ontologique, qui relie les générations passées, présentes et futures. Les conceptualisations globales ou occidentales du patrimoine tendent généralement à adopter une définition plus statique de la terre comme point de départ. Cette vision se heurte nécessairement à celle de fomba gasy : un concept fondamentalement ancré dans la dynamique matérielle et immatérielle d'exploitation des terres. Au contraire, il remet en cause un principe fondamental et sacré du pouvoir malgache : le droit souverain de définir le fomba gasy et le patrimoine à travers la terre. Cet article discute un différend foncier à Madagascar où un projet minier et de protection de la biodiversité locale met en opposition divers intervenants revendiquant tous des intérêts dans les mêmes terres.


land as heritage, conservation, mining

Full Text:



ALT/PANOS (Andrew Lees Trust and PANOS London). 2011. Oral Testimonies Project. accessed 10 June 2011.

Andrew Lees Trust. No date. A Scoping of Impacts: Rio Tinto in Madagascar. accessed 26 October 2011.

Anseeuw, W., Wily, L.A., Cotula, L. and Taylor, M. 2012. Land rights and the rush for land: findings of the global commercial pressures on land research project. ILC (International Land Coalition), Rome.

Borras, S. Jr. and Franco, J.C. 2010. From threat to opportunity? Problems with the idea of a ‘code of conduct’ for land-grabbing. Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal 13, 2: 507–23.

Borras, S. Jr., Hall, R., Scoones, I., White, B. and Wolford, W. 2011. Towards a better understanding of global land grabbing: An editorial introduction. Journal of Peasant Studies 38, 2: 209–216. (doi:10.1080/03066150.2011.559005)

Blaikie, P. and Brookfield, H. 1987. Land Degradation and Society. Routledge Kegan and Paul, London.

Bloch, M. 1971. Placing the Dead: Tombs, Ancestral Villages, and Kinship Organisation in Madagascar. Seminar Press, London.

Bloch, M. 1989. The disconnection between power and rank as a process: An outline of the development of Kingdoms in central Madagascar. In: Ritual, History and Power, Selected Papers in Anthropology. M. Bloch, (ed.), pp 46–88. The Athlone Press, London.

Campbell, G. 1991. The state and pre-colonial demographic history: the case of nineteenth-century Madagascar. The Journal of African History 32, 3: 415–445.

Cole, J. 2001. Forget Colonialism? Sacrifice and the Art of Memory in Madagascar. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Cotula, L., Vermeulen, S., Leonard, R. and Keeley, J. 2009. Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa. IIED/FAO/IFAD, London and Rome.

Cormier Salem, M.-C. and Bassett, T. 2007. Introduction: Nature as local heritage in Africa: Longstanding concerns, new challenges. Africa 7, 1: 1–17.

Csordas, T. 1990. Embodiment as a paradigm for anthropology. Ethos 18: 5–47.

Delivré, A. 1974. L’Histoire des Rois d’Imerina: Interprétation D’une Tradition Orale. Klincksieck, Paris.

Dubois, H. M. 1938. Monographie des Betsileo. Institut d’Ethnologie, Paris.

Duffy, R. 2006. Non-governmental organisations and governance states: the impact of transnational environmental management networks in Madagascar. Environmental Politics 15, 5: 731–749.

Edholm, F. 1971. Royal Funerary Rituals among the Betsileo of Madagascar. Unpubl. Ph.D. thesis, London School of Economics, London.

Eriksen, T. H. 2001. Between universalism and relativism: A critique of the UNESCO concept of culture. In: Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. J. K. Cowan, M.-B. Dembour and R. A. Wilson (eds.), pp 127–149. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Evers, S. J. T. M. 2002. Constructing History, Culture and Inequality. The Betsileo in the Extreme Southern Highlands of Madagascar. Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden.

Evers, S. J. T. M. 2006. Expropriated from the hereafter: The fate of the landless in the Southern Highlands of Madagascar. Journal of Peasant Studies 33, 3: 413–444. (doi:10.1080/03066150601062928)

Feeley-Harnik, G. 1982. The King’s men in Madagascar: Slavery, citizenship and Sakalava Monarchy. Africa 52, 2: 31–50.

Feeley-Harnik, G. 1991. Cloth and the creation of ancestors in Madagascar. In: Cloth and Human Experience. A. B. Weiner and J. Schneider (eds.), pp 73–116. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C.

Ferguson, B. 2009. REDD comes into fashion in Madagascar. Madagascar Conservation & Development 4, 2: 132–137.

Ferguson H. B. 2010. Voices from Madagascar‘s Forests: Improving Representation and Rights for Malagasy Forest Peoples, Final Report of the Conference held on the 5–6 June 2010 at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.

Fox, L. 1990. Hainteny: The Traditional Poetry of Madagascar. Associated University Presses, Inc., Cranbery, New Jersey and London, UK.

Fremigacci, J. 1978. L’administration coloniale: les aspects oppressifs. Omaly sy Anio (Hier et Aujourd’hui). Revue d’Etudes Historiques Antananarivo 7–8: 209–237.

Graeber, D. 1997. Manners, deference and private property: the generalization of avoidance in early modern Europe. Comparative Studies in Society and History 39, 4: 694–728. (doi:10.1017/S0010417500020867)

Graeber, D. 2007. Lost People. Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

GRAIN. 2008. SEIZED! The 2008 land grab for food and financial security. accessed 8 August 2012.

Harbinson, R. 2007. Development recast? A review of the Rio Tinto ilmenite mine in Southern Madagascar. Research report for ‘Friends of the Earth’, PANOS London: 1–70. accessed 17 October 2012.

Harper, J. 2002. Endangered Species: Health, Illness, and Death Among Madagascar’s People of the Forest. Carolina Academic Press, Durham.

Horning, N. R. 2008. Strong support for weak performance: Donor competition in Madagascar. African Affairs 107, 428: 405–431. (doi:10.1093/afraf/adn036)

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). 2012. “IUCN-Rio Tinto Relationship” accessed 4 October 2012.

Jarosz, L. 1993. Defining and explaining tropical deforestation: Shifting cultivation and population growth in colonial Madagascar (1896–1940). Economic Geography 69, 4: 366–379.

Kaufmann, J. C. 2000. Forest the numbers: The case of a Madagascar famine. History in Africa 27: 143–157.

Keller, E. 2008. The banana plant and the moon: Conservation and the Malagasy ethos of life in Masoala, Madagascar. American Ethnologist 35, 4: 650–664. (doi:10.1111/j.1548-1425.2008.00103.x)

Keller, E. 2009. The danger of misunderstanding “culture”. Madagascar Conservation & Development 4, 2: 82–85.

Kew Botanical Gardens 2010a. “Kew-Rio Tinto Partnership: Collecting and Conserving Wild Species from Madagascar and Building Seed Conservation Capacity” accessed

November 2010.

Kew Botanical Gardens. 2010b. “Adopt a Seed.” accessed 3 November 2010.

Kew Botanical Gardens. 2011. Madagascar: Recent Achievements (2001–2005). accessed 17 October 2012.

Luke, T. W. 2005. Neither sustainable nor development: Reconsidering sustainability in development. Sustainable Development 13: 228–238.

McNeilly, R. J. 2000. The Global Mining Initiative: changing expectations – meeting human needs and aspirations. Minerals Industry Seminar, Minerals Council of Australia (7 June 2000). accessed 25 March 2012.

Myers, N. 1988. Threatened biotas: “hot spots” in tropical forests. Environmentalist 8, 3: 187–208. (doi:10.1007/BF02240252)

Mines and Communities. 2009. accessed 6 June 2009.

MiningWatch. 2012. “Another Mining Horror Story? Sherritt International.” accessed 25 September 2012.

Peet, R. and Watts, M. 1996. Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements. Routledge, London.

Pollini J. 2007. Slash and Burn Cultivation and Deforestation in the Malagasy Rain Forests: Representations and Realities. Unpubl. Ph.D. thesis, Cornell University, USA.

Rio Tinto/QMM. 2008. Our contribution to biodiversity (PPT, 3 November 2008). accessed 19 February 2012.

Rio Tinto. 2009. A promise fulfilled. Rio Tinto Review (March 2009, words by David Bannister). accessed 19 February 2012.

Rio Tinto. 2011a. Cultural Heritage. accessed 20 October 2011.

Rio Tinto 2011b. Why cultural heritage matters: a resource guide for integrating cultural heritage management into communities work at Rio Tinto. Available at

Rio Tinto. 2012. Communities. accessed 4 October 2012.

Sarrasin, B. 2006. The mining industry and the regulatory framework in Madagascar: Some developmental and environmental issues. Journal of Cleaner Production 14: 388–396.

Scheper-Hughes, N. and Lock, M. 1987. The mindful body: A prolegomen to future work in medical anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1, 1: 6–41.

Scott, J. 1977. The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Haven: Yale University Press, New Haven.

Seagle, C. 2009. Biodiversity for Whom? Local Experiences and Global Strategies of Land Use and Access near the Rio Tinto/QMM Ilmenite Mine in Fort Dauphin, Southeast Madagascar. Unpubl. M.Sc. thesis, Vrije University Amsterdam.

Seagle, C. 2012. Inverting the impacts: mining, conservation and sustainability claims near the

Rio Tinto/QMM ilmenite mine in Fort Dauphin, southeast Madagascar. Journal of Peasant Studies 39, 2: 447–477. (doi:10.1080/03066150.2012.671769)

Senapati, N. (Regional Vice President of Rio Tinto). 2006. Sustainable Mining, the Rio Tinto Approach – Madagascar (19 December 2006). Speech given at the Sustainability Summit Asia 2006, of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

Simsik, M. J. 2002. The political ecology of biodiversity conservation in the Malagasy Highlands. GeoJournal 58, 4: 232–242. (doi:10.1023/B:GEJO.0000017954.58269.69)

SIRSA. 2006. Atlas des données structurelles concernant la sécurité alimentaire dans la région de Anosy Madagascar (Mars 2006), pp. 1–177. accessed 9 October 2012.

Sodikoff, G. 2005. Forced and forest labor regimes in colonial Madagascar, 1926–1936. Ethnohistory, 52, 2: 407–435. (doi:10.1215/00141801-52-2-407)

Sodikoff, G. 2008. An exceptional strike: A micro-history of ‘people versus park’ in Madagascar. Journal of Political Ecology 14: 10–33.

Southall, A. 1986. Common themes in Malagasy culture. In: Madagascar Society and History. C. P. Kottak, J.-A. Rakotoarisoa, A. Southall, P. Vérin (eds.), pp 411–426. Carolina Academic Press, Durham.

Ten Kate, K., Bishop, J. and Bayon, R. 2004. Biodiversity offsets: Views, experience, and the business case. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK and Insight Investment, London, UK.

The Economic Times. 2011. “Varun Group discovers rare earth, minerals in Madagascar. accessed 26 October 2011.

Tsing, A. L. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Uellenberg, A. 2009. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Land in Madagascar. Eschborn: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (Work of Division 45 – Agriculture, fisheries and food, GTZ, Eschborn).

Vidal, J. 2010. How food and water are driving a 21st Century Land Grab. Guardian Observer (March 7 2010) accessed 6 August 2010.

Vincelette, M., Dean, L. and Ganzhorn, J. U. 2007. The QMM project history in Tolagnaro and its social and environmental concepts. In: Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation of Littoral Ecosystems in Southeastern Madagascar, Tolagnaro (Fort Dauphin). J. U. Ganzhorn, S. M. Goodman and M. Vincelette (eds.), pp 1–8. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Virah-Sawmy, M. 2009. Ecosystem management in Madagascar during global change. Conservation Letters 2, 4: 163–170. (doi:10.1111/j.1755-263X.2009.00066.x)

Virah-Sawmy, M. and Ebeling, J. The difficult road towards real-world engagement: Conservation science and mining in southern Madagascar. Conservation Letters 3, 4: 288–289. (doi:10.1111/j.1755-263X.2010.00126.x)

Walsh, A. 2005. The obvious aspects of ecological underprivileged in Ankarana, northern Madagascar. American Anthropologist 107, 4: 654–665. (doi:10.1525/aa.2005.107.4.654)

Wellcome Trust. “Millennium Seed Bank” accessed 4 October 2012.

World Bank. 2012. Madagascar at a glance. accessed 17 October 2012.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 2008. “Monumental Debt-for-Nature Swap Provides $US 20 Million to Protect Biodiversity in Madagascar, WWF Announces.” accessed 9 October 2010.

Zoomers, A. 2010. Globalisation and the foreignisation of space: Seven processes driving the current global land grab. Journal of Peasant Studies 37, 2: 429–447. (doi:10.1080/03066151003595325)


Madag. conserv. dev.
ISSN: 1662-2510