Unknown Fields

Journey to treasure island

Text by Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie

Photography by Chris Littlewood and Toby Smith

The Unknown Fields Division is a “nomadic design studio” that explores “peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness”. Twice a year its leaders, Liam Young and Kate Davies, who run a diploma unit at the AA also named Unknown Fields, take the studio on the road for one of their research trips, venturing to far-flung places ranging from Alaska to Baikonur.

Tank joined Unknown Fields on their most recent trip to Madagascar, where they aimed to examine complex value relationships between the land, its people and outside forces. The fourth largest island on the planet, it is both ecologically unique and intimately connected to everyday luxuries in countries such as the UK. The cadmium in your mobile phone, the lines on tennis courts, the vanilla in your latte can be traced back to Madagascar. Inhabited by humans for only two and a half millennia, its extreme geographical isolation has produced high levels of endemicity of flora (90 per cent) and fauna (70 per cent). But today its ecosystem is under pressure thanks to relentless global demand for the resources it contains: the source of perhaps 90 per cent of the world’s vanilla, Madagascar is also rich in minerals and ores – ilmenite, nickel, cobalt – used in all kinds of products, and has abundant supplies of precious gemstones. Without a stable government since a coup in 2009, the island is seemingly ripe for exploitation.

Starting at Toliara on the south-west coast, over the course of two weeks we wound our way inland and then up the middle of the country, through the capital Antananarivo to the port of Toamasina in the north-east. Along the way, we stopped to interview some of the researchers and charity workers trying to preserve the country’s biodiversity, representatives of companies prospecting for raw materials, as well as the local traders, farmers and workers caught between the competing interests of these two camps. We were repeatedly told that for centuries, the culture has been based on taking what was needed from the land on a day-to-day basis. It is believed that over 90 per cent of the rainforest cover has been cut away since humans first arrived on the island; satellite photographs show that the rainforest shrank by 40 per cent between 1950 and 2000 alone, a period during which the population quadrupled. On current trends, it is expected to double again in around 22 years. Today, despite its mineral riches, an estimated 90 per cent of the island’s population of 22 million, of whom 41 per cent are under the age of 15, live on less than $2 a day.

Our first meeting in Toliara was with Blue Ventures, an NGO working with fishing villages on the country’s western coast. They told us about a feedback loop in which the strain on fish stocks from a growing population puts pressure on people to have more children, to help supplement the family income; this in turn puts even greater strain on fish stocks, and so on. Inland, slash-and-burn agriculture has proven unsustainable as the rainforest continues to shrink, adding to the burden on marine ecosystems as families move out to the coast in search of food. Gérard Rambeloarisoa, Conservation Director at WWF, suggested that the Malagasy desire to have as many children as possible is also part of a postcolonial hangover – the suspicion being that Westerners want this former French colony’s population to remain small enough that they can “come back and take our land again”.

The tragic irony is that it is precisely this abundance of labour that makes the extraction of wealth so cheap and easy. Colonising a nation in the 19th-century manner is no longer advantageous or even necessary; all that is required is the promise of a meagre wage to a plentiful workforce for the land to be stripped of its value, its resources shipped out for extraction, processing and use. The most dramatic example of this occurs in Ilakaka, a modern day Wild West town that has emerged from nothing in the past 15 years, since the discovery of sapphires. We spoke with Swiss prospector Marc Noveraz, who was among the first to arrive there, and whose company finances one of the largest mines in the area. He refused to be filmed, but we were able to record an audio interview. Under Malagasy law foreigners are not permitted to take from the land directly, but Noveraz persuaded local leaders to let him prospect for the gems, providing tools and rice for Malagasy workers from whom he buys any sapphires they find. He has established a firm footing in a region where government involvement was minimal even before the coup.

Labour in Madagascar is so cheap that it is more cost-effective to employ chains of people – a human conveyor belt – than to use expensive machinery. That would require maintenance and training; it would also formalise the existence of the mine to the extent that permission from the central government would be required – a particularly off-putting complication in the eyes of local leaders and foreign investors. Instead, lines of young men shovel dirt up and out of a pit 20 to 30 metres deep. At the same time, people come to the region from all over Madagascar to operate their own mines. These smaller operations are worked entirely by members of the same family, such is the fear of theft. Unlike in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, the migration of workers here is internal. The buyers who take the gemstones to the international market, on the other hand, mostly come from Sri Lanka and Thailand. When they sell the stones, the source is often obscured: gems from Madagascar are mixed in with those from Sri Lanka, for example, which has a much better reputation on the market – and thus commands a higher price. The material leaves the hands of Malagasy workers at the point at which its value is lowest.

Mindful of the brevity of our trip, Unknown Fields tries not to jump to easy conclusions. The real work happens now: the interpretation of all the interviews, the footage and stills, combining these pieces of information into speculative narratives in a process Liam Young describes as “data dramatisation”. Part of the result appears here in a series of portraits of Malagasy workers, most of whom are drawing value directly from the dirt beneath their feet. These are overlaid with text that speculates as to the value of their hard labour, which feeds the consumption habits of richer countries. More of the output from this trip will be appearing online at tankmagazine.com and can be seen by using the app to scan the pages where you see the hand marker.

Madagascar -1Left: The miner has dug up a rice field in Ivato, north of Ranomafana National Park, in the hope of finding tiny deposits of gold that fetch $1333 per ounce on the international market (price accurate on 14/08/13). He and his family pan the mud in specially irrigated pools on adjacent fields. Several years ago he made the calculated decision that they could make a better living searching for gold than from subsistence farming in the rice fields. Researchers at the Centre ValBio inside Ranomafana are running pilot schemes to introduce more modern agricultural techniques to the region and provide alternative livelihoods, mostly based on ecotourism; they hope to reduce the temptation for villagers to destroy the forest in search of food and gold.

Right: The seven-year-old boy stands on a pile of rocks that he and members of his family have been salvaging for sale from an abandoned quarry near Toamasina. In the distance behind him is the Ambatovy processing plant this quarry was excavated to build. Family groups of six to eight, mostly comprising women, older men and children, work to extract the final grains of value from the waste left behind by the Ambatovy project, which has to date cost an estimated $6.9 billion.

Madagascar -2Left: Axe in hand, the farmer treks along the path into Masoala National Park in search of firewood, as there is no alternative fuel source. It is estimated that 150,000 hectares of rainforest are cleared each year in Madagascar, primarily for firewood and agricultural land.

Right: The herdsman from Ihosy walked for a week with his 50 zebu to get to the Ambalavao zebu market, the second largest on the island. Along the way, he and his family had to defend the herd from rustlers. For people in rural Madagascar, a zebu is the highest symbol of wealth, imbued with both economic value and cultural significance. More useful to hold than cash, an adult zebu yields around 160 kilograms of meat and costs between $400 and $660 at the market. The herdsman will try to trade his adult zebu for calves to take back to Ihosy. In almost every region, the zebu is a key part of the culture, whether in rites of passage that involve stealing one from a nearby village or sacrificial banquets held when the head of the family dies.

Madagascar -3
Left: The farmer sells his rice for $1 per kilogram. Sixty per cent of the workforce in Madagascar is involved in rice production. It is the country's most vital staple food – Madagascar ranks fifth globally in terms of per capita consumption. Five million tons of it are produced every year, yet towards the end of the season in December, prices can rise by up to 40 per cent as stocks dwindle. The regions hardest hit are the ones furthest from the larger towns, where rice tends to be stored.

Right: The man stands in a rice paddy on the outskirts of the capital, Antananarivo. Once the crop is harvested each year, he uses the mud to make bricks, forcing it into moulds by hand; the bricks are left out to dry before being fired in stacks. Those drying in the sun behind him are worth 70 Ariary ($0.03). The rice field sinks lower and lower each year, until it is useless for both rice and bricks and becomes waste ground, bereft of value.

Madagascar -4Left: The woman is standing on a pile of displaced earth in Manalobe, close to the epicentre of the relatively recent gemstone boom in Ilakaka. The ground beneath her feet conceals sapphire deposits, laid down along an ancient subterranean riverbed left over from when the island was still attached to the Indian subcontinent. One cubic metre of dirt and gravel can contain as much as a gram of sapphire – five carats’ worth – which could fetch more than $5,000 internationally. She is paid $2 per day to work the mine.

Right: The fishermen on the eastern coast of Madagascar, like coastal communities all over the country, are facing increased competition from migrants from the interior. There, the combination of a growing population and overworked arable land has forced people to the coast in search of food. The aggressive fishing techniques they employ (including the use of poison) devastate fish stocks, which are then difficult to replenish. As a result, fishermen whose knowledge of managing stocks has been handed down over generations are forced to travel further than ever along the coast and out to sea in search of fish.

Madagascar -5Left: The man guards the loading facility of Sherrit International’s joint venture Ambatovy in the port of Toamasina. 60,000 tons of nickel and 5,600 tons of cobalt drawn from a mine 200 kilometres inland will leave Madagascar’s soil in the next year to become – among other things – stainless steel pots and pans, magnets, coins, rechargeable batteries, electric guitar strings, blades for aircraft engines, ceramics and blue paint. An underground pipeline links the mine near Moramanga to a processing plant close to the port facility. The plant is protected by Filipino guards on expat wages. Their relatively high incomes make them harder to bribe: more than anything, Ambatovy is wary of industrial espionage. The wages of local workers are kept artificially low at the request of the government, in order to avoid inflation in Toamasina.

Right: Loggers stand by the stump of a felled rosewood tree in Masoala National Park. Traditionally the wood is considered fady – taboo – but they are willing to break with such beliefs for their $3-a-day share of the revenue local traders make on a commodity they can export for up to $2,560 per cubic metre. These rare hardwood trees do not grow in clusters, so they will have had to search the forest for this individual specimen, travelling along the rivers as far as possible. The felled rosewood is cut into three-metre sections and dragged through the mud until they reach the river again. The logs are too dense to float, so they cut down another three to five trees to make rafts that enable them to take the logs back downstream to the edge of the forest. Here they are put on trucks and taken to the coast, where they are exported illegally. Small boats take the logs 200 nautical miles out to sea, where larger boats are moored in international waters. It's suspected that a large proportion of the rosewood is shipped to China, where it is carved into intricately designed furniture. A rosewood bed was known to be on the market in China for over $1 million, made from roughly three cubic metres of rosewood that would have been purchased from the local traders for about $7,500 – less than 0.1% of its ultimate value. §