An aerial view of Antananarivo shows its colorful character. Photo by Dudarev Mikhail
By Elizabeth Maynard and Marinà Rakotonarivo
Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is arguably the most biodiverse country on earth. An exceptional variety of plant and animal species, and the threats facing them, also make it one of the world’s highest conservation priorities. The country is home to more unique species of plants and animals than the entire African continent: more than 80% of the 200,000 species endemic to Madagascar are found nowhere else on earth.
One may already be familiar with the lemur, Madagascar’s most famous endemic species. Lemurs became especially popular in 2005, after they were featured in the DreamWorks animated movie which was itself titled, “Madagascar.” More than one hundred species of these primates are found across the island. Madagascar is home to these and thousands of other unique species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects. Iconic images of the country also feature the island’s most notable tree, the baobab. Of the nine baobab species in existence, six are found only in Madagascar. The baobab appears to many like a tree turned upside-down. In one African legend, God was upset with the baobabs’ arrogance and punished them by first tearing them out of the ground and then replanting them again the other way around—so the baobabs’ roots became branches. The most iconic spot to view these emblematic trees is at the Avenue of Baobabs in southwestern Madagascar. There, one can see baobabs lining both sides of a dirt road, a picture-postcard place one should be sure to visit during a trip to the island. The best times to visit this one-of-a-kind avenue are sunrise and sunset; unforgettable memories and great photos are guaranteed.
In addition to breathtaking flora and fauna, Madagascar is also known for its parks and protected natural areas. The Tsingy de Bemaraha national park in western Madagascar is one of the most stunning places to visit. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to a fortress of massive limestone needles, was formed over centuries by the movements of wind and water. The Netflix documentary series “Our Great National Parks,” narrated by former U.S. President Barack Obama, highlighted Tsingy de Bemaraha and the wildlife that live there as one of the world’s most important national parks.
Despite a wealth of natural resources, Madagascar is among the world’s most underdeveloped countries. Predominantly rural, only a third of the population lives in urban areas. Much of the population survives on subsistence farming, cattle herding, and fishing. Up to 80% of Malagasy people live in poverty. This poverty, high birth rates, and unsustainable land management practices threaten the country’s rich biodiversity. Many of Madagascar’s citizens face great risks as natural resources become permanently depleted. Climate change also threatens the country’s future, as the frequency and destructiveness of droughts, cyclones, and other natural disasters increase. That is why the U.S. embassy, working through the Department of State, USAID, and other U.S. agencies, partners with environmental scientists, international experts, Malagasy conservationists, the private sector, and local government agencies to preserve, promote, and protect sustainable management of Madagascar’s unique ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as its other vast natural resources, to address global challenges of development and climate change.
Just as rich as Madagascar’s natural diversity is its cultural diversity. One of the last major land masses settled by humans—its earliest settlers reached the island by outrigger canoe more than 1,500 years ago—not from neighboring east Africa, but from almost five thousand miles across the Indian Ocean. These first residents—from what is now Indonesia—were later joined by settlers from Africa and merchants from the Arabian Gulf. The country’s unique history created a people of many origins, including Indonesia, east Africa, Arabia, India, China, Europe, and many other parts of the world. This diversity is reflected in the country’s eighteen recognized ethnic groups.
Madagascar’s modern history began with the 16th century rise of the Imerina Kingdom, followed by successive cycles of engagement and retreat from foreign powers. The first contact with Europeans in 1500, when a Portuguese ship sighted the island, was followed by more extensive exchange and settlement in the late 17th century when the northeast coast served as a base for pirates and the trafficking of people and firearms. The British struck up the first formal European relationship in 1817 through an alliance with the reigning king, but upon his death, his wife Queen Ranavalona revoked the treaty, rejected French diplomatic moves, banned Christianity, and expelled all foreigners in 1857. Her son King Radama II reopened relations with Britain and restored freedom of religion, but by 1885, France occupied and later colonized the country. Madagascar regained its independence in June 1960.
The United States and Madagascar have enjoyed a steady relationship for more than a century. For the past 40 years, the U.S. has worked with the Malagasy people to advance health care, improve conservation, grow the economy, strengthen democracy and governance, and provide critical humanitarian assistance in response to natural disasters such as drought and cyclones. The two countries cooperate to support Madagascar’s maritime border security, counter illegal and unregulated fishing, prevent theft of natural resources, and end human trafficking.
The U.S. Mission In Madagascar, through USAID and partners, deploys a wide range of programs to promote food security, particularly in the drought-stricken south, and combat COVID-19, malaria, and other diseases. In 2022, USAID named Madagascar a Feed the Future target and a resilience-focus country in response to dire conditions created by the global food crisis and climate-related emergencies, and the potential opportunities for positive growth. These designations allow the U.S. to increase investment in climate-resilient agriculture, improve market access, boost incomes, and strengthen safety nets to help the Malagasy people respond to ongoing change. Most importantly, these designations enable the United States to offer critical resources to thousands more Malagasy people.
The U.S. is the largest single-country donor to Madagascar’s health sector. Projects implemented through USAID and local partners address maternal and child mortality, provide access to sanitation and potable water, improve access to family planning, support medication supply chains, combat malaria and infectious diseases, and bolster national health policy.
The two governments work together to expand trade and support fair trade practices. The U.S. is one of Madagascar’s top export markets, representing 20% of exports. Key exports include vanilla, cloves, essential oils, textiles and garments, nickel, and cobalt. The Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) give Madagascar enhanced access to the U.S. market. Madagascar was a past participant in the Millennium Challenge Corporation (2005-2009) and is working towards regaining eligibility.
As the country prepares for presidential elections in late 2023, Mission programs promote free, fair, and transparent electoral processes. President Joe Biden met with the presidents of six African countries, including Madagascar, during the December 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to underline the key role of these elections in African democracies, and the Mission recently announced programs in excess of $1 million to improve voter turnout and promote public participation.
The U.S. Mission in Antananarivo coordinates these and many other programs to support the people of Madagascar and the Union of the Comoros. More than 30 direct-hire Department and USAID employees partner with 250 locally engaged Malagasy and Comorian colleagues to implement mission priorities. They are joined by representatives from the Department of Defense and the Peace Corps to support the Malagasy people.
A Malagasy proverb, adopted as the embassy tagline, says: “Mpirahalahy Mianala isika; ianao tokiko, izaho tokinao”—we are like siblings walking in a forest; you have my back and I have yours. The United States stands side by side with Madagascar to develop the island and improve the everyday lives of the Malagasy people.
Elizabeth Maynard is a public diplomacy officer at Embassy Madagascar and Comoros. Marinà Rakotonarivo is a press assistant at Embassy Madagascar and Comoros.