Introduction

INTRODUCTION to Made in Madagascar: Sapphires, Ecotourism, and the Global Bazaar (University of Toronto Press, 2012)

Google “Madagascar.” Go ahead … try it. Today I got back over 50,000,000 links. For some readers, the most familiar of the top ten will lead to sites associated with the movie that has taken the country’s name as its title. Fight the urge to follow the familiar. Do that other thing that Google enables: consider what you don’t know.

The first link that comes up when I google “Madagascar” from Canada leads to a Wikipedia entry devoted to the country. Here you’ll find what this and other encyclopedic sites like it tend to offer: a collection of facts, figures, images, generalizations, and bits of trivia. Wikipedia informs us, for example, that Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world, that it is home to 5 per cent of the world’s plant and animal species, and that it was a colony of France from 1896 to 1960 (Wikipedia n.d.). Farther down in my search results, a CIA World Factbook report on the country notes that Madagascar has 4,828 kilometres of coastline, that only 5 per cent of its more than 480,000 square kilometres of land is arable, and that 30 per cent of its more than 20 million inhabitants live in towns and cities (CIA World Factbook 2012). Madagascar is not, in other words, the uninhabited “wild” that many—animated characters included—imagine it to be. Nor is it a paradise of plenty. Still farther down my list of links, UNICEF’s most recent country report indicates that more than one in twenty Malagasy children die before the age of five, that the average life expectancy for a Malagasy person is 66 years, and that the per-capita gross national income is US$440 per year (UNICEF 2012). I could go on.

As someone who went through high school and most of university without the Internet, I’m old enough to marvel at how a search engine can generate so much information from so little effort. I’d like to think that if I had had access to the Internet back in 1992, when I was first offered the opportunity to conduct anthropological research in Madagascar, I might have known more about the country at the time than where to find it on a map. The truth is, however, that even with the Internet, I would probably have known as little about the place as do most of the people I meet in Canada today. Google is wonderful when you know what you are looking for, but it isn’t much of a teacher.

This book offers links that Google could never generate on its own. Specifically, it describes the links that might be drawn between northern Madagascar’s sapphire and ecotourist trades, and also those that connect participants in these trades to the foreign consumers served by their work. More generally, and ambitiously, it aspires to get across links of a sort that anthropologists often try to teach: links that connect familiar and unfamiliar realities, reveal unexpected associations and unconsidered entanglements, and encourage new ways of thinking about what ties and divides people in a shared world. To establish the links I have in mind, it makes sense to start by chipping away at the unfamiliar with some fundamentals.

Search: Madagascar

Madagascar is an island. Around 200 million years ago, its landmass was located in the middle of Gondwanaland, the prehistoric supercontinent from which South America, Africa, and Australia originate. Over tens of millions of years, it split off from its place between what are now the east coast of Africa and the southwest coast of India, winding up disconnected from the rest of the world in the midst of the Indian Ocean. Set apart in this way, Madagascar hosted the evolution of a great number of distinctive plant and animal species. Take one look at the aye-aye (a species of primate), the uroplatus (a kind of gecko), or any of the six species of baobab trees found only in Madagascar and you’ll get some sense of what millions of years of isolation can do for the development of flora and fauna in a place.

A tourist map of Madagascar that offers one depiction of the country’s ethnic diversity and mineral wealth.

People arrived in Madagascar only recently, some time within the past 2,000 years, and with them came dramatic changes to the island’s ecosystems. People require land on which to farm, meat to eat, fuel for cooking, and wood for building, and the existing ecosystems have always supplied such fundamental human needs for those living there. Over the past 500 years, the island has also supplied a long list of internationally traded commodities—vanilla, cloves, cotton, sugar, tortoise shell, gold, tropical hardwood, and, in recent years, oil, gemstones, and industrial minerals—the production or extraction of which has required Malagasy people to work the land around them in ways driven by the demand of distant consumers. With these points in mind, it makes little sense to blame the island’s current, and much discussed, “environmental crisis” (Kaufmann 2006) on its residents. That Madagascar’s distinctive biodiversity appears to be under threat in the early twenty-first century is attributable ultimately to the island’s relatively recent and rapid jump from being one of the most isolated to one of the most connected places in the world, from the slow track of gradual geological and evolutionary processes to the fast track of global migration and trade routes.

Madagascar’s first human inhabitants came from Southeast Asia via seaports along the South Asian and African coasts of the Indian Ocean. The most compelling evidence of such origins is found in the Malagasy language, classified by linguists as being of Austronesian origin and thus in a category that also includes indigenous languages of Taiwan, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Malagasy people are nevertheless not as homogenous as their common language suggests. Some sources even propose that the people of Madagascar might be neatly divided up into 18 tribes or ethnic groups, each with its own distinctive history, customs, and homeland. If only Malagasy people, past or present, were so easily categorized in reality (see Eggert 1986, Esoavelomandroso 1989, and Astuti 1995, for example). In fact, the Malagasy people I know are no different from any people I know in Canada in associating and affiliating with one another in many different ways: as members of families, participants in community organizations, devotees of religious congregations, and, of course, practitioners of different kinds of work, to name just a few.

Another piece of Malagasy tourist art, this one a marquetry variation on the cover of the popular children’s book Tintin au Congo.

The deeper you get into a search for information about Madagascar, the clearer it becomes that everything Google might tell you about this place has been shaped by the perspectives of those representing it. Nowhere is this simple fact more evident than in the long list of labels and alternative names by which Madagascar has come to be known by foreigners over the years. Some designations, like “the great red island” (Stratton 1965) and “the island of megadiversity” (Wildlife Conservation Society n.d.), refer to the distinctive geography, flora, and fauna of the place, while others, like “island of the ancestors” (Mack 1986), call attention to the distinctive culture and beliefs of the people living there. Some monikers reference Madagascar’s natural and cultural otherworldliness, referring to it variously as “a world apart” (PBS n.d.), “a world out of time” (Lanting 1990), and a “lost world” (Tyson 2000), while others, like “vanilla island” (Nomadic Thoughts n.d.), call to mind its longstanding history as a well-connected centre of global trade. Even National Geographic can’t seem to decide on a single label, classifying it among the world’s “last great places” in one of its many publications (National Geographic n.d.), and calling it an “environmental hell” in another (Bellows 2001). Clearly, whatever sources like these tell us about Madagascar, they tell us even more about how outsiders imagine the place.

How, then, does Madagascar appear within Madagascar? Googling “Madagascar” from the country’s own home page (www.google.mg) provides a list of links that look quite different to those I get when googling from Canada. The top results here will take you to governmental websites, social networking sites, classified ads, and online editions of newspapers, and thus much closer to the Madagascar that I have come to know from spending time there since 1992. Madagascar is a country of workers and citizens, of social people looking to connect and exchange with one another, and of consequential current events. In other words, Madagascar is in many ways not so different from the places you know best. I should be careful not to overstate my own knowledge of the island, however. Most of the three years I have spent living and doing research there has taken place in just one region: Ankarana, or “the place of the rocks.”

Search: Madagascar and Ankarana

Searching “Madagascar and Ankarana” from the Google images portal will provide links to dozens of pictures of “the rocks” from which the Ankarana region of northern Madagasar takes its name. The rocks in question are those of the Ankarana massif, a 25-kilometre-long limestone plateau featuring cliffs, caves, and other sites spectacular enough to have been featured in nature documentaries, distinctive enough to be at the centre of a National Park, and accessible enough to be found all over the Internet in the Flickr sets and YouTube clips of foreign visitors.

The Ankarana massif.

It is an amazing place. In satellite images, the Ankarana massif looks like little more than a smudge on the northernmost tip of Madagascar, but on the ground it appears to erupt out of the surrounding savannah, its distinctive limestone pinnacles—called tsingy in Malagasy—shooting skyward and sharing space with specially adapted vegetation. Among biologists and botanists, the massif is perhaps best known for its extensive network of caves, underground rivers, and forests, all of which contain a range of distinctive and co-adapted species of plants and animals; the website of Madagascar’s National Parks service promises visitors to Ankarana National Park 330 known species of plant life, 96 species of birds, 60 species of reptiles and amphibians, 14 species of bats, and 11 species of lemurs (Madagascar National Parks n.d.). Ankarana is more than just an oasis of biodiversity, however. For many Malagasy people living in the region, the Ankarana massif is first and foremost a cultural and historical landmark. Indeed, throughout Madagascar, Ankarana is probably best known not for its natural wonders but for the people who take their name from this place: the Antankarana, or “the people of the place of the rocks.”

I first travelled to Ankarana in 1992, not to see “the rocks” but to spend time with the people “of” them. Indeed, as I discuss further in Chapter 1, my first trip into the caves mentioned above was not spent marvelling at tsingy, stalactites, and underground rivers, but doing my best to avoid these obstacles in order to keep up with thousands of Antankarana pilgrims on their way to visit sacred sites found within the Ankarana massif. In the years since that first visit, I have expanded my research focus in the region to include people who have come to rely on Ankarana not as a sacred cultural landmark but as a place of opportunity—a place in which to mine sapphires, for example, or to find work as a guide for foreign ecotourists. Most of what I present in this book comes from this latter line of research—research based in and around two highway-side communities located just east of the Ankarana massif: the first a sapphire-mining town called Ambondromifehy and the second a regional ecotourism hub called Mahamasina.

Ambondromifehy’s sapphire trading strip

When I first came to know Ambondromifehy in 1999, it had just recently exploded from a small roadside village of around 400 inhabitants into a sapphire-mining and -trading boomtown of around 15,000. By that time, thousands of Malagasy migrant miners had been digging illegally within the boundaries of the nearby Ankarana National Park for two years already, and hundreds of Malagasy traders were buying and selling sapphires along the town’s main drag; all locally mined and traded sapphires were destined ultimately, as they still are, for foreign exporters and markets. In Chapter 2, I discuss some of the distinctive complexities of work and social life in the midst of such a boom. I should state up front, however, that some of the most interesting things I learned during my time in Ambondromifehy came not from the answers that people gave to questions I was asking, but, rather, from the questions that these same people were asking of me. Most thought-provoking were questions regarding the ultimate destinations and uses of locally mined sapphires: Where do they go after they leave Ankarana? What do foreigners do with them? Perhaps, some speculated, these little blue stones were essential to the production of the electronics that foreign traders brought with them. Or maybe they were used to make nuclear weapons. All that people in Ambondromifehy could be sure of was that sapphires were worth a great deal more to foreigners than they were to Malagasy people.

Ambondromifehy’s miners and traders didn’t need to go far to observe the exotic consumption habits of foreigners. In fact, they didn’t need to leave town. From the earliest years of Ankarana’s sapphire boom, truckloads of foreign ecotourists regularly sped through Ambondromifehy on their way to the nearby entrance of Ankarana National Park, located only 20 kilometres to the south in a community called Mahamasina. As you might imagine, Malagasy miners’ and traders’ observations of, and encounters with, these tourists provided plenty of fuel for speculation. Who were these foreigners, they wondered, and why were they so interested in visiting Ankarana? More specifically, why were these foreigners being welcomed into the sapphire-rich caves and forests of Ankarana National Park while local miners were being chased out? Was this just a coincidence, or could it be that the foreigners travelling into the park were after the same thing as the foreigners for whom sapphires coming out of the park were ultimately destined?

A sign in Mahamasina welcoming visitors to Ankarana National Park.

It would be a mistake to take the questions and conspiracy theories I was hearing in Ambondromifehy as indications of how people living there were confused, disconnected or otherwise out of it. Indeed, viewed from the roadside anywhere in Ankarana, certain workings of the global economy couldn’t have been more obvious.  The fact that wealthy and relatively more powerful foreigners value, and want access to, what can be found inside Ankarana National Park has been apparent to the region’s inhabitants for more than 50 years; in recent decades, this fact has become even clearer in light of the high prices that foreign buyers will pay for seemingly useless stones coming out of this place, and from the expensive trips that foreigners make into it. The questions they ask and speculations they propose in the face of this unfolding reality, then, are not merely indications of what they don’t know about the wider world. Rather, in the chapters that follow, I consider such questions and speculations as indications of these people’s efforts at understanding a paradox that couldn’t be clearer: how is it, they wonder, that Malagasy people working in this region can benefit so little from living in the midst of what wealthy foreigners value so highly?

In Chapter 4, I suggest that one way of making sense of this paradox is by understanding it as a systemic feature of the global economy that Ankarana’s inhabitants share with the foreign consumers who take such an interest in what this region has to offer. For such an argument to make sense, though, it is important to consider just what it is that foreigners are finding in Ankarana that is so special.

Search: Madagascar and Sapphires

If you search “Madagascar and sapphires” on YouTube, the links that appear give a pretty good sense of the extremes of the global sapphire trade. One sort of video you’ll find here depicts the working and living conditions of sapphire miners in different regions of the island. Here you’ll see the cramped tunnels in which Ambondromifehy’s miners work by candlelight, the rhythmic shovelling of young men digging out a huge sapphire pit in southern Madagascar, and some of the ingenious techniques that Malagasy miners have improvised in the absence of the expensive water and air pumps that would make their work safer and more efficient. Another sort of video you’ll find here shows the final product of all this work: cut and polished natural sapphires, either offered up to admirers for magnified examination, or, more often, mounted in jewellery for sale by online and cable TV retailers such as the Home Shopping Network. If you take note of the high prices of what is being sold in the latter videos, you will have some sense of why so much effort is being expended in the former. Simply put, there is a great deal of money to be made in the multi-billion-dollar international gemstone trade.

A sapphire in the palm of the man who mined it.

Madagascar has long been known as a source of precious and semi-precious gemstones. As several gemologists have reminded me over the years, before the prehistoric tectonic shifts that put the island in the place it occupies today, its landmass fit alongside those of southeastern Africa and India, regions long famed for their coloured gemstones. That noted, Madagascar’s current sapphire boom is a relatively recent development. International traders took notice of Ankarana only in the 1990s, setting off a rush that I will discuss extensively in the first two chapters. Not long after, much larger, international headline-grabbing sapphire rushes enveloped several regions in the south of the island, and, by the turn of the millennium, Madagascar had earned the reputation as one of the world’s most important sources of sapphires. If you or someone you know has bought a piece of sapphire jewellery in recent years, there is a good chance that the sapphire in it came from Madagascar.

As you might guess from the contents of the videos described above, the day-to-day concerns of people involved in Ankarana’s sapphire trade are quite far removed from those of foreign consumers of sapphire jewellery. Many of the questions that people living in Ambondromifehy have faced are those you’d expect to find in any small-scale (sometimes called “artisanal”) mining town like this: “Where to dig?,” for example, or “To whom do you sell?” The town’s inhabitants have also faced questions that come with living among fellow prospectors and relative strangers—“Who can you trust?,” for example, and “For how long?” As the boom subsided through the 2000s, and the local trade went into decline, inhabitants found themselves wondering if, and when, they should give up on sapphires and move on to something else. As of 2012, Ambondromifehy isn’t dead yet, however. Sapphire mining and trading in the region in the 2010s may not offer people the life-changing opportunities that it did in the late 1990s, but for many of the several thousand left in the town, working in Ankarana’s sapphire trade remains among the most attractive of a short list of options. So long as there are people in the world who want to buy the region’s sapphires, I was told on my last visit, there will be people in Ambondromifehy to mine and trade them.

Rough sapphires ready for sale in Ambondromifehy.

Since the earliest years of Ankarana’s sapphire rush, Ankarana National Park has provided Ambondromifehy’s miners with their most productive worksites. Although off-limits to large-scale mining operations, the park has always been easily accessible to miners willing to defy police and conservation workers’ efforts at keeping them out. Not surprisingly, then, Ankarana’s sapphire miners have been branded by some as enemies of conservation. In one National Geographic article, for example, miners working inside the Ankarana National Park are portrayed as “fortune hunters” who have been “hunting lemurs and other endangered species to feed themselves” and have “stripped and scoured the land, increasing soil erosion and damaging the watershed” (National Geographic 2002). Sapphire mining is inherently destructive and unsustainable, the argument goes, and it poses a threat to the conservation of Ankarana’s unique ecosystems. That the commodity being pursued inside Ankarana National Park appears to be as frivolous as the biodiversity found in this same place is irreplaceable only makes the threat posed by mining appear more senseless to some, especially those who imagine that there are far better ways in which people in Ankarana might capitalize on the region’s “natural” bounty.

Search: Madagascar and Ecotourism

If you google “Madagascar and ecotourism,” the highest ranking of the links returned will connect you to sites promoting the island’s booming ecotourist industry. Here you’ll find the site of an eco-tour operator offering two-week junkets through Madagascar’s national parks, a posting from a travel blogger as impressed by the country’s beaches as by its leaping lemurs, and a newspaper article trumpeting ecotourism as a potential saviour of Madagascar’s endangered biodiversity. Don’t let pictures of out-of-the-way places and promises of getting away from it all fool you, however. Over the past several decades, ecotourism has become big business in Madagascar—one of the island’s biggest, in fact. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of foreign visitors to Madagascar increased more than fourfold, from 40,000 to over 170,000 (Peypoch 2012: 1231). Following a dip that accompanied an island-wide political crisis in 2002, this trend continued into the new millennium, with numbers of foreign visitors to the country increasing steadily from 139,000 in 2003 to over 277,000 in 2005 (Freudenberger 2010). Following another dip brought on by a 2009 national political crisis, the numbers are on the rise again—in 2012, the Malagasy Ministry of Tourism expects that the country will welcome nearly 250,000 foreign visitors (L’Express de Madagascar 2012).

Touring Ankarana National Park.

Numbers don’t do justice to the changes that a booming tourist industry has brought to Madagascar. Having seen this boom first hand, I can offer some more telling anecdotal indicators. On my first trip through northern Madagascar’s provincial capital city of Antsiranana, for example, the nicest hotel in town was La Rascasse, a run-down leftover from the 1960s with a sidewalk bar that seemed always to be taken up by sunburned merchant marines. Today, the city boasts at least a dozen high-end hotels, the most luxurious of all being Le Grand Hotel, a complex that features a casino, a pool with swim-up bar, and a continental breakfast that costs only a little less than what one would have paid for a night at La Rascasse. And that’s just a start. The past 15 years have also seen the development of the island’s first all-inclusive beach resorts, the renovation of its international airports, and, most significantly here, the development of ecotourism infrastructure in and around the country’s growing number of conservation areas. In Ankarana, it was the community of Mahamasina that changed most as a result of Madagascar’s ecotourism boom. While Ambondromifehy was booming as a result of the region’s sapphire trade, Mahamasina was becoming established as the de facto main entrance to Ankarana National Park—a convenient roadside location at which foreign visitors could buy the permits, hire the guides, and stock up on the supplies they would need to discover the marvels of the Ankarana massif.

Madagascar’s popularity as an ecotourist destination has developed alongside increasing international awareness of, and concern about, the island’s status as what Conservation International calls a “biodiversity hotspot” (Conservation International n.d.). As I discuss in Chapter 3, the country’s ecotourism industry has also been the product of a great deal of planning and effort by representatives of the Malagasy state, national, and international conservation organizations, and international lenders and donors. Promoters argue that ecotourism offers a means for protecting the island’s unique ecosystems by providing people living in communities around National Parks and other protected areas with opportunities for work and incentives for becoming more conservation minded. If wealthy foreigners are willing to pay for the privilege of visiting undisturbed Malagasy environments, the argument goes, Malagasy people might reasonably hope to be compensated for helping them to do so and will thus have good reason for keeping such places undisturbed.

Signs indicating Ankarana’s ecotourist attractions.

A number of Malagasy people in Ankarana have done very well from the growth of ecotourism in the region. For some, work in the ecotourism industry has even brought with it just what advocates hoped it would: not only work opportunities, but also an appreciation of the need to conserve the endangered plants, animals, and landscapes that foreigners come to Madagascar to see. That noted, these direct beneficiaries of ecotourism are in the minority in Ankarana. They are nowhere near as numerous, for example, as the thousands of men and women who have sought and found opportunities in the region’s sapphire trade over the past 15 years. There is simply no comparison; and yet comparing is just what many seem inclined to do. For those drawn to the region’s spectacular biodiversity, certainly, attributing praise and blame in a place like this seems easy to do. On the one hand you have Malagasy people who make their living from ecotourism—exemplars of responsible environmental stewardship who have chosen to embrace the goals and ethos of conservation with an admirable entrepreneurial spirit. On the other you have sapphire miners and traders, people accused of ripping the region’s precious landscape apart in search of treasure and profit. The truth is, however, that on the ground shared by Ankarana’s ecoguides, miners, park guards, and gem traders, the work that makes a person either a conservationist hero or a short-sighted criminal in the eyes of others is similar in more than one way. Most relevant for the purposes of this book is the fact that the work of people involved in Ankarana’s sapphire and ecotourist trades supplies the demands of foreign consumers.

Search: Global Bazaar

Googling the phrase “global bazaar” will take you shopping. The first link that comes up when I search these terms brings me to a site advertising a recent tradeshow in New York City organized by Travel and Leisure magazine (Travel and Leisure 2011). At the 2011 occurrence of this event, Travel and Leisure’s readers were offered the opportunity to “explore the global bazaar”: to “taste the famed street foods of Singapore,” for example, and to see “Bula dancers from Fiji.” Attendees were also given the chance to consider the possibilities presented by different vacation destinations, everything from the “singular natural wonders” of South Africa to the “cultural richness and striking natural beauty” of Chile, and to browse the “authentic goods” offered by a range of retailers. One vendor in this “global bazaar” scours the earth “for exotic, exclusive, and edgy finds from the world’s most stylish destinations,” for example, while another offers “exotic essentials for the home and garden” from Marrakesh.

Tourists visiting Ambondromifehy on their way to Ankarana National Park.

Surely this isn’t the global bazaar I refer to in the subtitle of this book? In a sense, it is. As I have come to understand it through the research documented here, the global economy in which people involved in Ankarana’s sapphire and ecotourist trades have become caught up is perhaps better known to foreign consumers as a system that presents them with a world of “transporting,” “sensuous,” and “authentic” commodities and experiences akin to those on offer at the event described above.

My interest in the global systems and processes that have given rise to Ankarana’s sapphire and ecotourist trades was first sparked by questions and speculations of the sort mentioned earlier: questions about the future uses of sapphires, for example, and about the real intentions of foreign visitors to the region (Walsh 2004, 2005). Sitting at the roadside in Ambondromifehy, watching as kilograms of sapphires were leaving Ankarana while truckloads of ecotourists were arriving, it was hard not to wonder, as the people with whom I was sitting did, at the paradoxes presented by a humming global economy in a place like this. People and commodities were coming and going, and plenty of money was being made from all of this activity, but who was really benefitting? More precisely, who was benefitting most, how were they managing to do so, and at what cost to others? It was hard to conceive of Malagasy sapphire miners who risked being killed by cave-ins or arrested inside Ankarana National Park as winners in all this, or to imagine that Malagasy sapphire traders being cheated by their foreign counterparts were flourishing competitors on what some claim is a level global economic playing field (Friedman 2005; see also Aronica and Ramdoo 2006). Just down the road, in Mahamasina, the scene was just as perplexing. Here, several dozen Malagasy people were doing quite well from hosting and guiding foreign visitors to Ankarana National Park, but several hundred others living within a short walk of the park entrance experienced the burdens and surveillance that came with conservation efforts much more than they did the benefits of ecotourism. There was no doubt that wealthy foreign visitors were attracted to Ankarana National Park’s undisturbed ecosystems—but where were the opportunities that were meant to come with them?

A sapphire trader scrutinizing a sapphire in search of information.

My decision to use the phrase “global bazaar” to refer to what I saw of the global economy’s workings in Ankarana is more than a product of my dissatisfaction with other, more popular and googlable, metaphors. My use of this phrase was inspired, rather, by how people in Ankarana have come to experience and understand the global economy themselves through their work in and observations of the region’s sapphire and ecotourist trades. As discussed in Chapter 2, both Ambondromifehy’s sapphire trade and its global counterpart share certain features of the Moroccan suq, or bazaar, described by Geertz (1979). As Geertz envisioned it, a bazaar economy is an economic system that involves participants not just in the buying, selling, and trading that one would expect to find in any market, but also in a perpetual “search for information” (1979: 124) that will help them get ahead. Like Geertz’s bazaar, Ankarana’s sapphire trade is a context in which good information (on matters ranging from the qualities of sapphires to the state of the global market for these stones) is “intensely valued” (1979: 124) but hard to find, and, as in any bazaar economy, this makes those who are less informed especially vulnerable in dealings with those who know more.  Indeed for players in Ankarana’s sapphire bazaar, as for the participants in Geertz’s bazaar, the primary problem encountered is “not balancing options but finding out what they are” (1979: 125). Not only do Ambondromifehy’s miners and traders know what they don’t, and can’t, know about the workings of the global bazaar in which they have become caught up, they know how much this stands to hurt them.

One of Madagascar’s many one of a kind natural wonders: a Brookesia chameleon.

As my research interests expanded beyond Ambondromifehy to include Ankarana’s ecotourist trade and, eventually, the global industries that make marketable commodities of the region’s sapphires and ecotourist attractions, the image of the global bazaar came to seem even more appropriate. Viewed from away, Ankarana is clearly a source of one-of-a-kind natural wonders: “natural” sapphires that have taken shape in the ground here over millions of years, for example; and “natural” areas featuring Madagascar’s famed endemic biodiversity. Ultimately, though, the full economic value of these natural wonders can only ever be realized by drawing them into a global bazaar that is not so different from the one put on by Travel and Leisure magazine—that is, a marketplace in which foreign consumers can browse a world of one-of-a-kind options that are, in fact, all of a very similar kind. Simply put, the global bazaar that I intend to describe in this book is one that presents a world of paradoxes to people in Ankarana while presenting a world of possibilities to foreign browsers.

As demonstrated throughout this Introduction, browsing the global bazaar has never been easier for many people in the world—if you are reading these words, you are probably no more than a few search terms away from more information than you could ever want about Madagascar, Ankarana, sapphires, and ecotourism. As you may also have gathered by now, however, having access to an engine designed to facilitate “the search for information” (Geertz 1979) that so occupies people in any bazaar economy is no guarantee of being able to process search results in meaningful ways. In fact, the Internet is as much a feature of the global bazaar described in this book as it is a tool that we might use to try to understand it. Like the “enormously complicated, poorly articulated, and extremely noisy communication networks” (1979: 125) that connect people in Geertz’s bazaar, the Internet can give the global bazaar the feel of something knowable. Indeed, Geertz’s description of the bazaar as a “crowd of rivals, a clatter of words, and a vast collection of ponderable news” (1979: 203) may serve just as well to describe what Internet searches of the sort described in the previous pages can provide. “Pondering” all this news “and coming to decisions about what to make of it” is no easy task, however; “keeping your feet” on the Internet, as in Geertz’s “bazaar mob,” “is mainly a matter of deciding whom, what, and how much to believe” (1979: 203).

This book does not argue for or against the value of the Internet, nor is it intended as a consumer’s guide to the global bazaar. It is, rather, a work of anthropology that, like others of its kind, has come from a distinctive kind of search for information on the people, places, and processes introduced in the preceding pages.

Search: Madagascar and Anthropology

Searching the terms “Madagascar and anthropology” through Google’s “scholar” portal will tell you as much about anthropology as it will about what anthropologists have made of, and in, Madagascar over the years. Some of the links that appear will lead you to the products of “social” or “cultural” anthropological research focusing on living Malagasy people and communities. Others will lead you to the work of “physical” or “biological” anthropologists and primatologists whose research focuses mostly on Madagascar’s other, non-human, primate inhabitants—the 35 species of lemurs that call the island home. Still more links will lead you to the work of linguistic anthropologists who have studied the development and use of the Malagasy language, and to the work of archaeologists who have studied human settlement and state formation in Madagascar. It isn’t only anglophones who are interested in the anthropology of Madagascar, however. Searching “Madagascar et Anthropologie” from Google’s French homepage will net you an equally varied list of sources from francophone anthropologists, many of them Malagasy. Although most of the sources that come up in such searches might be classified as anthropological, the scholarly traditions underlying the approaches to the study of humanity on which they are based are often very different. This same observation applies to this book, as well. The approach that I have taken in my own “search for information” on the topics addressed in the chapters that follow is one I have learned.

What first drew me to anthropology as an undergraduate student was the great ambition of the discipline. The class that hooked me was one in which I had to read what seemed like an odd assortment of things: a classic article concerning the relationships between mothers’ brothers and sisters’ sons in southern Africa (Radcliffe-Brown 1952), for example, as well as a more recent paper about the meaning of professional wrestling matches in small-town Ontario (Freedman 1983), and Germinal, Emile Zola’s fictional account of life in a nineteenth-century French coal-mining town. These sources, and others like them, made a simple point in necessarily complex ways: all people everywhere lead complicated but not incomprehensible lives. Tutorial discussions of the ethnographic research methods behind these sources made sense to me: If you want to know more about how people think about and act in the world, then you must take the time it needs to ask them good questions and to understand the answers. Live, talk, sit, walk, and eat with people. Listen more than you speak. Pay attention. Get involved when you can. Although anthropologists (and others who take this approach) are destined to consult a wide range of sources in order to better understand the systemic features of, and broader influences on, social life that are often hard to discern in the midst of it, the kind of anthropology that drew me to the discipline was fundamentally grounded in the idea of “taking people seriously” (MacClancy 2002) in the way that one takes any partner in a meaningful conversation seriously.

Taking people seriously in the way that anthropology encourages can lead to approaches and careers that some might consider unconventional. This book, for example, is based not simply on dozens of hours of recorded interviews (some of which will be quoted directly in the chapters that follow), but on hundreds of hours spent in conversation, and hundreds of days spent living, with people in Ankarana. Sometimes, conversations took place at “social locations” (Cerwonka and Malkki 2007: 50)—in trading booths by the side of the road in Ambondromifehy, for example, or on a bench in Mahamasina at which Malagasy guides would gather to wait for foreign clients. Other times, these conversations involved spending time with people on the move—with mobile traders heading into Ankarana National Park to buy sapphires from miners, for example, and with foreign ecotourists touring the park. As often happens in this sort of research, these conversations have tended to direct my interests as much as they have served them. Although anthropological researchers always bring their own peculiar aspirations and the baggage of their training with them, so long as their research involves listening to people with different priorities, it is hard to stay on a pre-determined course. This is not a drawback of the discipline, mind you. When taking people seriously is more than just a method—when it inspires research rather than just enables it—the topics it leads to are always worth considering.

A polished and set star sapphire that originated in Ankarana.

People involved in Ankarana’s sapphire trade are among millions in the world who live in the wake of internationally traded commodities, working to supply the demand of distant, and often unknown, markets. In fact, this book joins others in the genre of anthropological writing that has emerged in recent decades to describe how some of the world’s most marginal workers are connected to distant consumers through, for example, the tomatoes they pick on Mexican farms (Barndt 2002), the broccoli they grow in Guatemalan fields (Fischer and Benson 2006), or, in an especially influential historical case study, the sugar cane they cut on Caribbean plantations (Mintz 1985). In Chapters 2 and 4, I show how similar commodity connections might be drawn through a consideration of the international trade of Ankarana’s sapphires.

As noted earlier, a significant feature of sapphire work in Ankarana is that it often involves extracting and/or trading, gemstones that are obtained illegally from within the boundaries of a nearby National Park; as signs posted all around the park make clear, this place is meant to be off-limits to miners. As you might imagine, though, the reasoning behind such restrictions makes more sense to those who would like to conserve Ankarana’s biodiversity than it does to those looking to extract what might be sold from this place. This situation is not so unusual; similar conflicts of interest have been studied in conservation hotspots around the world (see, for example, Igoe 2004, West 2006, and Vivanco 2007, for example). In Madagascar specifically, such research has been especially good at pointing out the problems that come with placing the bulk of the burden of conserving the world’s endangered species and ecosystems on the shoulders of those who are least able to bear it (see Harper 2002, Keller 2008, and Sodikoff 2009, for example). In Chapter 3, I continue in this tradition of research, pointing out the limits and complications that can come with promoting ecotourism, in particular, as a means for achieving conservation and development goals simultaneously.

A photograph taken on the roadside north of Ambondromifehy in 1999, at the height of Ankarana’s sapphire boom. In the foreground, a sign that warns Malagasy miners to keep out of Ankarana Special Reserve (as the National Park was then known), here referred to as “ALA FADY” or the “TABOO FOREST”. In the background a billboard welcoming French-speaking tourists into the same place.

Based on my description of what is to come in the following chapters, some might imagine that this book is about two very different topics: Ankarana’s sapphire trade, on the one hand, and the region’s ecotourist trade, on the other. In fact, there is good reason to consider these trades alongside one another as I do here. What became clear to me while shuttling between Ambondromifehy and Mahamasina over the past decade is something that Ankarana’s speculators had assumed all along: namely, that these two trades are not nearly as different or disconnected as some might assume. As I discuss in Chapter 4, they are fundamentally similar, for example, in how they supply foreign demand for what I term “natural wonders”—dazzling gemstones and awe-inspiring ecotourist attractions that are commoditized and valued in ways that reveal just how profoundly entangled foreign consumers are in the global bazaar that people in Ankarana have come to know through a very different sort of experience. In sum, my goal is to show you that the global bazaar seen from a roadside in Ankarana is the same one you might see from an entrance to the aforementioned trade show in New York City, or from an Internet search of “sapphires” or “ecotourism,” or even, as I will discuss in the first half of the Conclusion, from a seat at a table in a Starbucks around the corner. You can’t get away from it.  Indeed, as I discuss in the second half of the Conclusion, even this book can be understood as a product of many of the global systems and processes that it claims to be about.

Welcome to the bazaar.

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