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EDITIONS
 Saturday, 30 November, 2002, 12:39 GMT
Madagascar: Island of potential
Madagascar
Most Malagasy still live in basic conditions

At Antananarivo's international airport it was obvious that some things had definitely improved since my last visit.

For one thing, the collection of rusted, crumbling military aircraft which for many years had littered the apron to one side of the terminal buildings had been cleared away.

We are lucky... This land was given to us by God

Malagasy gold miner

But there were still soldiers around, smartly dressed in camouflage fatigues and sporting red berets as they ran out to mount guard over the disembarking passengers.

There had been rumours of possible mercenaries poised to invade the country in recent days - something of a regular occurrence since former President Didier Ratsiraka fled to exile in Paris in July after months of unrest following his electoral defeat.

Inside the chaos of the arrivals hall had been replaced by an air of calm efficiency as arriving passengers were swiftly processed by officials with computers at their disposal rather than reams of paper forms to fill out.

New arrivals

Outside I noticed too that Air Madagascar's small fleet of aeroplanes had been joined by a smart new arrival - a Boeing 737 - painted in the livery of a presidential jet.

Boeing 737
Shiny new arrivals at the airport are evidence of renewal

It cost $12m and President Ravalomanana said he thought it would be more efficient to have his own plane, rather than inconvenience the state airline when he needed to travel abroad.

In a country where the average annual income is less than $200 the purchase has raised a few eyebrows.

Driving into Antananarivo also brought a pleasant surprise - the giant potholes which had blighted the capital had all been repaired.

Traffic hazards still included men pulling rickshaws laden with bricks and firewood but all along the route there were new buildings in various stages of construction.

There were no signs of the fleets of ancient Renault 4's that Malagasy taxi drivers kept alive long after they should have been consigned to the scrapheap.

People told me that the political crisis of the past few months had kept tourists away from the island, but there were plenty of Vazaha - white men - to be seen around town.

In Antananarivo I met oil prospectors, airline industry executives and agricultural exporters all trying to make contact with the president's office in the hope of securing an entry into the newly liberated markets abandoned by cronies of the old corrupt regime.

Renewal

There was definitely an air of hope and renewal in the air.

The very first time I visited Madagascar it was the British ambassador who told me: "Madagascar is a land of tremendous potential. It always will be."

Malagasy farmers
Subsistance farming sustains most of the population

"There's an inertia here, logistical and economic problems that its almost impossible to see anyone taking control over."

On this visit I travelled extensively along the north-east coast of Madagascar.

In these fertile lowlands they grow peppers, cloves and cinnamon, and the strongly scented vanilla beans which are presently worth upwards of $200 a kilogram.

Madagascar produces the best quality vanilla in the world - and with over 1000 tonnes of beans accounts for more than half the world's total crop.

In this corner of the giant island - which is two and a half times the size of France - they also prospect for gold and precious stones.

It is a shadowy trade: No-one knows how much the precious stones are worth and they are mostly sold for cash to buyers who spirit them away without going through any official exportation channels.

'Gift from God'

In the Darain forest I visited one of the tiny communities where they pan for gold in a muddy river bed.

It was a journey of just 50km (31 miles) from the town of Vohemar but it took five hours - a good speed, my Madagascan friends told me - since this was the dry season.

Malagasy child
Many people exist on less than $200 a year

Deep in the forest I saw half-naked men, women and children scrambling about in a narrow river bed.

They, and everything they touched was coated in sticky orange clay.

They had dug deep wells along the river bank to provide enough water to wash the gold-dust from the earth.

"We are lucky," the villagers told me. "This land was given to us by God along with the gold. We don't care what happens in the capital."

Perhaps the gold miners don't need the help of central government, but their children are many miles from a hospital or from schooling.

New 'Wild West'

That is how the majority of people in Madagascar live. Prospecting for gold, digging for gemstones, growing exotic cash crops like vanilla or herding cattle.

One foreign businessman told me that was why he loved Madagascar.

"Its like the Wild West here," he said. "There aren't too many rules, and once you get out of the capital no-one can keep too close an eye on what you get up to.

"For one thing you need to charter a plane to get around - it's impossible to use the roads."

Marc Ravalomanana has promised these people an economic revolution.

To unlock the potential of what the Malagasy call their Great Red Island he will need to attract billions of dollars in foreign aid and investment.

Without it Madagascar will retain its reputation only for great potential.

See also:

05 Jul 02 | Africa
27 Nov 02 | Country profiles
27 Nov 02 | Country profiles
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