Protecting Madagascar’s people and environment
By Doug Tilton, Regional Liaison, southern Africa
In the midst of political and economic turmoil, the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar is working to make the gospel’s promise of “life in fullness” a reality 300 miles off Africa’s southeastern coast. The Reformed denomination known by its Malagasy initials, FJKM, boasts nearly four million members, making it one of the island’s largest churches. The world’s fourth largest island is home to approximately 20 million people, roughly half of whom are Christians.
Antanetibe residents with their new fruit trees
The past three years have been difficult for the people of Madagascar. In March 2009, a military-backed coup d’état led by the mayor of the capital city, Antananarivo, ousted the country’s popularly elected president (who also happened to be a senior official in the FJKM) and shut down the country’s parliament and other democratic institutions. Eight years of steady economic progress came to an abrupt end. In protest, many nations, including the United States, withdrew much of the bilateral support on which Madagascar’s public sector depended. Millions of Malagasy people, who had already been struggling to get by, slipped into destitution. Madagascar became one of the world’s most food-insecure nations virtually overnight.
Through its development department (known as SAF), the FJKM has programs in health care, water and sanitation, and disaster relief, and an environmental program that seeks to protect Madagascar’s unique biodiversity. One of its goals is to help rural communities to develop sustainable livelihoods that do not rely on the exploitation of indigenous trees. For the past decade, SAF nurseries have been propagating a wide range of indigenous and imported fruit trees and introducing them to Malagasy farmers, both to promote improved nutrition and to stimulate income generation.
In late 2010, SAF identified the tiny village of Antanetibe as an ideal area for growing tangerines and other fruit. The community nominated two people for training, which generated such enthusiasm that SAF was asked to provide it for the entire village. In February 2011, SAF distributed 315 citrus trees, showing families how to plant and care for them. Villagers decided to invest in more trees and set up a nursery, yielding more than 1,300 trees within eight months. The farmers had also worked together to dig an elaborate system of ditches, allowing all of the fields to be irrigated by a nearby water source.
SAF visits encouraged the villagers and reinforced their sense of the church’s accompaniment. It allowed the farmers to consult on agricultural issues, while enabling SAF to engage in some environmental education and distribute new varieties of fruit trees—including grafted peaches, nectarines and persimmons, as well as Brazilian cherries and jabotacaba—to see how they would fare in that area.
The people of Antanetibe and SAF’s environment team share a common vision: they hope that with cooperation, hard work and God’s blessing, the community will become an important commercial fruit-producing region within the next decade. If they can realize this dream, the additional income will help to finance upgraded infrastructure, better education and other substantial improvements in people’s lives.
A faithful witness in the midst of crisis
Democracy and human rights are conspicuous casualties of Madagascar’s military-backed coup. Religious leaders who have spoken out in support of basic freedoms have also been victimized. More than 30 FJKM pastors and staff recently told visiting PC(USA) officials about the violence and intimidation that they have experienced.
Last year, Madagascar’s illegal regime shut down dozens of independent radio stations. Security forces seized FJKM Radio Fahazavana’s equipment and detained 10 journalists. Most of the broadcaster’s 23 staff members have been unemployed since. While those arrested were ultimately released—most after spending four months in prison—their trials have been repeatedly postponed, leaving them in perpetual fear of rearrest. Indeed, most of the scores of people detained by the state for political offenses now live in this legal limbo.
Pastors have also been attacked. Rev. Valisoa Rafanonerantsoa was arrested at a prayer service for peace, and security personnel kicked him repeatedly in his head and all over his body. “They said that they would make a sacrifice of me, and they shot next to my ears and my feet. They even stepped on my Bible, and I was not allowed to retrieve it,” he said. Rev. Rinà Rasoanaivo told how soldiers shot her husband, Rev. Ranaivo Rivo Arson, as they walked on a public road to the same prayer service.
Others were forced into hiding. When the police attacked worshipers, Rev. Tiana Ranaivoniarivo sought refuge in a nearby police camp whose officers were [mistakenly] thought to be sympathetic to the church’s peace efforts. When he and others tried to slip away from the camp, they encountered three government soldiers. “They pulled out their guns as if they were going to shoot us,” Pastor Tiana recalled, “but when they saw me, they said, ‘Oh, Pastor! We will not kill pastors, even though we have been ordered to do so, because we are also FJKM [members].” The soldiers ultimately helped him to escape, but he spent the next several months on the run and did not dare stay with his family.
The PC(USA) gives thanks to God for the FJKM’s courageous witness and its commitment to restore democracy through peaceful means. Please pray for the church’s continuing ministry to poor and marginalized people in the midst of great social and political upheaval.
Tracking the elusive harahara: conserving Madagascar’s biodiversity
“We hope people will gain a fresh appreciation for the value of all of Madagascar’s amazing indigenous trees”—90 per cent of which are found nowhere else in the world—says PC(USA) mission co-worker Dan Turk. Antanetibe’s rare, slow-growing species of harahara, sought after for spade handles and firewood, has been exploited to the brink of extinction. This resident helps find and dig up root sprouts to be potted at one of SAF’s nurseries, planted and protected from grass fires.
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