ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — In Madagascar, speaking out against corporate wrongdoing or government corruption can be dangerous business. So it took some courage for Raleva, a 61-year-old farmer, to stand up and ask questions at a meeting in his village in southeast Madagascar on September 27. A Chinese-Malagasy company, previously expelled from the area, had come to announce that it would resume its gold-mining work. Company representatives had brought with them the “chef de district,” a powerful local official.
The conflict began in August 2016, when the mining company, managed by (and named after) Gianna Mac Lai Sima, a Malagasy woman of Asian descent who lives in the nearby city of Mananjary, came to mine the area. Madagascar’s mining ministry shut down the operation, citing a lack of permits. The company has since submitted an application to the National Environment Office, but no permits have been issued, according to Hery Rajaomanana, the head of the office’s environmental impact unit. Yet at the fateful meeting three weeks ago, the company told the people of Vohilava, Raleva’s village, that the permits had been granted. When Raleva demanded to see them, he was arrested, and has been locked up ever since.
“He should not have to spend one night in jail,” Tamara Léger, who runs the Madagascar desk for Amnesty International Southern Africa, told Mongabay.
But such is the life of an activist in Madagascar. In recent years, those fighting wildlife trafficking or land grabbing have, in the end, often been targeted by the government. “The criminal justice system is being used to silence and harass activists, instead of providing protection to their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and speech,” wrote Muleya Mwananyanda, deputy director for research at Amnesty International Southern Africa, in an email to Mongabay.
A pattern of intimidation
Several Malagasy people have recently run into trouble protecting their communities and their ecosystems. Clovis Razafimalala, perhaps the country’s best-known activist, is a case in point. He heads an environmental advocacy group based near Masoala National Park in northeast Madagascar — ground zero for the illegal rosewood trade. He’s lobbied the government to prosecute timber barons and to reopen a local customs office so that it will be harder for criminals to get rosewood and local wildlife out of the country. Almost all of the Malagasy rosewood (Dalbergia spp.), which is subject to a complete export ban under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, goes to China, where it is prized in the furniture industry for its deep red color. Traffickers have for years tried to silence Razafimalala with bribes and death threats, he told Mongabay.
In September 2016, following a protest that he says he did not attend, Razafimalala was arrested and flown to a prison in Toamasina, some 386 kilometers (240 miles) from his hometown. He spent 10 months there awaiting trial. Because of rumors that he would be poisoned, his wife came for a time to prepare his food herself.
In July of this year, a judge convicted him of destruction of public property and arson. He was fined about $1,800 and sentenced to five years in prison, but immediately released on parole, like many activists before him. Releasing him with a conviction and an unserved prison sentence that can be called in at any moment was an effort to to “shut him up,” Razafimalala explained, in a correspondence to Mongabay.
Armand Marozafy, a member of the same environmental group in Masoala, went through a similar process in 2015 after identifying two alleged rosewood traffickers in a private email. He was subsequently convicted of defamation and served five months in jail.
“The lack of rule of law, shall we say, makes it so that it’s certainly in traffickers’ interest to shut down environmentalists in Madagascar,” Mark Roberts, senior counsel at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, told Mongabay. Roberts said that no high-level traffickers have been prosecuted for their crimes in recent years; instead, the legal pressure remains on the activists.
While Razafimalala and Marozafy insist on staying put in Madagascar despite the danger they face, fellow activist Augustin Sarovy, who worked as a guide in Masoala for 17 years, did not feel he had that option. In early 2012, after traffickers saw that he had cooperated with the Environmental Investigation Agency on a high-profile investigation into rosewood trafficking, he fled the area. He hid out in hotels in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, for a month, and then found a safe haven in Europe, where he remains today. (He asked Mongabay not to identify his exact location as he remains worried about his security.)
Sarovy would like to be part of a more solid group of activists, from Madagascar and abroad, who work to protect the country’s resources. If such a group cannot be formed, the “profiteering” will continue, he insisted.
“The rosewood trade is corrupt on many levels, starting with village presidents and going up from there. Everyone is involved — all, all, all, all, all, all of them,” he told Mongabay.
Mining projects, which bring in cash and often draw government support, can also be hard to fight. In the summer and fall of 2016, protests in Soamahamanina, a village in the central highlands, became the talk of Madagascar. The national mining ministry had given Chinese-owned Jiuxing Mines the rights to some 6,000 hectares (almost 15,000 acres) of land for a 40-year period, and the National Environment Office had begun issuing the company permits to mine there.
The area includes native forests dominated by tapia trees (Uapaca bojeri), which are the only home for the worms used in silk production for Malagasy scarves and burial shrouds. Locals in Soamahamanina organized large protests each week. Six protesters were convicted and given suspended prison sentences, and others were forced by police to take down protest banners from the walls of their homes, according to the latest annual human rights report from the US State Department.
Earlier this month, popular Malagasy musician Rah-Ckiky, who had just released a song in support of the protesters, was stabbed in a nighttime attack on his home. He suffered serious injuries to his head and upper body, but nothing was stolen. This led to rumors that he was attacked for his activism, but the real motive remains unclear; a government official said Rah-Ckiky was targeted due to a family dispute, according to L’Express de Madagascar, a Malagasy news outlet.
In another mine-related case last month, Raymond Mandiny, an activist in Ambanja, a town in northwest Madagascar, was taken to court. Mandiny opposes a foreign-owned rare earth project that could, like similar mines in China, wreak havoc on the environment of the Ampasindava peninsula, near Ambanja. After an apparent argument about the project, the local representative of Madagascar’s environment ministry brought Mandiny to court on three charges, including defamation. To avoid legal trouble, Mandiny reconciled with the ministry representative and, along with the two top political figures in Ambanja, signed a document that reads: “The dispute here comes to an end and both sides will forgive, and they will not bring the case to court. They will forget any disagreement and consider it as if nothing had happened.”
Mandiny seems hesitant to speak to the press now that the reconciliation agreement has been signed. Indeed, many Malagasy activists are pressured not to speak to journalists. This week, Raleva’s supporters in Mananjary were told that they must be silent if they want to continue “negotiating” for his release from prison.
“Talking to journalists is considered by the authorities as an act of dissent and/or provocation on the part of activists,” Zo Randriamaro, coordinator of the Research and Support Center for Development Alternatives (RSCDA), a civil society group based in Antananarivo, wrote in an email to Mongabay. “In all the cases in which we have been involved, our local partners have either been told not to talk to the media, or have been accused of having done so. This is definitely a form of intimidation and a deliberate attempt to silence the dissenting voices.”
The intimidation extends to journalists themselves. Fernand Cello, a Malagasy journalist, has reported on illegal sapphire mining in Isalo National Park in southern Madagascar. Earlier this year, he was charged with seven crimes including defamation, endangering state security, and incitation to hatred. Some of those charges were dropped, but he was convicted of check theft and forgery — charges he maintains are bogus. Last month, he was sentenced to two years in prison and immediately released on parole.
“I have to be careful with my work because if it continues, they are going to kill me,” Cello told Mongabay. “In general, in Madagascar, freedom of speech doesn’t exist. Human rights don’t exist.”
In the hands of the powerful
Officially, Raleva is being held in prison for “usurping” the title of chef de district. “Usurpation de function” was also one of the charges levied against Raymond Mandiny in Ambanja. Both so-called usurpers, seen to be overstepping their bounds by challenging powerful interests, are members of local affiliates of RSCDA.
The real chef de district in Mananjary, Timothée Roger Andriamihitsakisa, who locals say is directly responsible for Raleva’s imprisonment, declined to discuss the case with Mongabay when reached by telephone. The prosecutor in Mananjary could not be reached. The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Madagascar has strong freedom of speech and assembly laws written into its constitution; if it does not follow them, it risks jeopardizing its standing internationally. In July, a UN Human Rights committee reminded Madagascar of its commitments, as a member country, to protect activists and human rights defenders. But it’s unclear if this is a priority for the current administration. “We are yet to see the government of Madagascar’s efforts,” wrote Mwananyanda of Amnesty International.
Raleva’s arrest has been difficult for his family. His wife, in need of quick cash, rented out the family rice fields and went to Mananjary, where Raleva is now imprisoned, to make sure he was being fed. She told Mongabay she cannot sleep day or night and worries for the safety of their many children and grandchildren. She’s just hoping that the authorities will release her husband soon.
Banner image: Common flat-tail gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus), a native of eastern Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
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