National Geographic Young Explorer Alizé Carrère is researching an innovative method of agricultural adaptation in the Malagasy highlands that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as “lavaka”, literally meaning “hole”, they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic benefits, turning a deforested landscape into one of opportunity, not hardship.
At first I thought I heard incorrectly.
“Thirty-three presidential candidates?”, I clarified. I had just arrived in Madagascar and was asking about the many political faces I saw plastered across t-shirts and vehicles.
My field assistant, Ando, nodded and broke into a laugh that suggested even she thought this an amusing, if not somewhat crazy, fact in her country’s first steps towards re-establishing a democratically elected government.
In fact, it had originally been 41 presidential candidates, but eight people were disqualified from the running*. As Madagascar’s first presidential election since the 2009 military coup that overthrew the government, beginning the country’s path to free and fair democratic election with such a high number of competitors struck me as nothing short of precarious.
Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of anticipation surrounding last Friday’s election day. Many were concerned that heated clashes would erupt once results started dribbling in. Alerts had been issued to foreigners across the country to lay low in the event that things went awry and conflict ensued.
I can’t speak to how things unfolded in the country’s cities that day, but from where I stood in a remote village schoolhouse, watching farmers take a break from planting rice to line up and cast their votes in mud-caked bare feet, things looked remarkably calm and promising.
I ended up being witness to this scene quite by chance – doing fieldwork has a way of casting one into the most pleasantly unanticipated roles and settings. For the days leading up to election day, Ando and I had been traveling through agricultural villages around the northeast region of Lake Alaotra, speaking with farmers about links between lavaka and agriculture. Somewhere in conversation we had been told that there was a small village about an hour west where farmers were stabilizing lavaka with vegetation and then utilizing the high concentrations of water runoff for fishponds in the lavaka outflow to raise carp.
Intrigued, we set off in the bush on our moto-bikes.
After spending time down in the valley learning about the lavaka fish pond system (more on that later), we were invited up to the village for coffee. The farmer we had been speaking to remembered he forgot to vote, so we made a detour by the one room schoolhouse.
There were minor glitches, to be sure. For one, many remote villages such as this didn’t receive their voting cards on time, deepening voter uncertainties about this already thrice-postponed election. In response, the Electoral Commission ruled that this time identity cards could be used a substitute.
There was also a great deal of criticism regarding how the election was newly organized. Critics said voting procedures should have been better prepared and explained. To this, I must agree. Despite clear pictures on the ballot that demonstrated how to mark one’s vote, fold the paper, and ink one’s fingerprint, I watched a man as he confusedly folded his ballot into a near origami-like creation before realizing that it wouldn’t fit through the slit on the ballot box. This prompted a large crowd to shuffle around and help properly refold it to ensure its safe deposit. Similar moments of procedural confusion were evidenced a number of other times in the 10 minutes I was there.
But these things are minor. In the one week that has passed since election day, all has proved as calm and fair as the general proceedings I witnessed in that village schoolhouse. The country still awaits results, with a run-off vote scheduled for mid-December. It is unclear who exactly will make it to this second round, but a handful of candidates carry a noticeable lead in the public view.
So far there have been no major complaints, no great bursts of violent fury, no irreparable fracturing of the country’s populace. Frankly, I still find this quite impressive for a presidential election with 33 competitors and a country coming out of a four-year political deadlock.
For now, life goes on as usual on the Eighth Continent – a good thing, because there are lavaka to tend to.
* A correction was made to the original post: 8 of the original candidates did not drop out of the running, they were disqualified