February 18 - Delayed in Tana
In the midst of a popular revolution

The staff at ICTE/MICET have been spectacular. Surely it would be impossible for us to even contemplate engaging in this research without their assistance, especially during these difficult times. Everything is closed. All government offices are closed including ANGAP (the national organization of protected sites) from whom we need to get our collecting permits. Permitting might seem to be an unnecessary inconvenience to some, but in fact it serves a crucial role at either end of an international relationship. First it ensures that flora and fauna are extracted only under the strictest supervision (thus providing a level of control against pet trade and poaching) and it also serves to document our own museum’s legal possession of the material we collect. One might wonder for example if the Louvre has a document attesting to their ownership of the Venus de Milo, and whether Crete might one day ask for it back.

We met with our Malagasy student counterparts this morning at the MICET offices and immediately tried to establish what our options might be for getting the fieldwork underway. It is not an easy thing. The streets were already filling with people protesting as we were driving out of the city center. Partisans of the incumbent president have erected roadblocks all over the country in order to starve out various areas of support for the opposition candidate. Tana has sufficient reserves to withstand the onslaught. On the other hand, the word is that Tamatave is near ruin. There’s no food, no fuel, no monetary resources… almost nothing. Heavily armed members of the armed forces who are sympathetic to the incumbent president man the blockades. Yesterday a reporter went missing on the way to Brickaville to the east of here on NR2. It was our hope to head in that direction to Perinet (Mantadia National Park, where the Indri Lemurs live) and begin our collecting. When the reporter was eventually found, his driver had been beaten so badly that he needed hospitalization. We decided perhaps this was not the best time to attempt a foray east.

Instead we have firmly focused southward. Midongy is still impassable, so it’s off to Berenti and Andohahela first. The MICET staff very helpfully booked all of us on the first available flight to Fort Dauphin. Thursday… meaning 3 more days in Tana in the midst of this unbelievable time. It was not our intent to spend a week and a half of the 4 weeks in this way. Nonetheless, we are convinced that there still is enough time to collect, and moreover, we are likely to be even more successful because people are bending over backwards to give us information on localities and incidence of leeches and crocs.

The country is at a crux. Ravalomanan (the challenger and Mayor of Tana) today asked the Prime Minister’s staff to join the general strike. Hardly a trivial move, for if heeded it would effectively destroy any credibility and power of the head of parliament. And heeded it was. Not only is this a demonstration that that people are unwilling to be governed until Ravalomanan is recognized, but that some substance of the governing apparatus is itself unwilling to govern.

Having come here in the midst of this crisis we can attest to several misconceptions. The notion that it is only the people of Tana who are supporting Ravalomanan is completely incorrect. Everywhere from Tana, to Tulear, Ft. Dauphin, Majunga, Diego Suarez, Fianaratsoa, Morandava and across the land this country has been shut down by popular demonstrations against the incumbent president’s refusal to leave office. There were 3 million people demonstrating in Tana today… the city officially only has 2 million people. Perhaps more significantly, the Organization of African Unity, and the UN apparently with France leading the diplomatic effort has asked Ravalomanan to concede to run-off elections. But it is clear from these streets that the people believe he won fair on the first round even though it might have been rigged by the incumbent administration. Moreover, they already see Ravalomanan as their new president and do not wish to go through the rigors of what they see as a farcical second round without observers, simply to satisfy foreign diplomatic niceties.

Tomorrow may be interesting. Ravalomanan has asked the armed forces to remove all roadblocks in the country (roadblocks manned by other heavily armed members of the forces). Clearly there are several ways this could go. We are hoping for the best of course. If the army carries out his wishes it would be a clear indication that Ratsirika (the incumbent president) does not even have their support and that they no longer consider themselves answerable to his minister of defense. Already it is clear that the armed forces are no longer deploying to move on the Central Bank (last night’s crisis).

Each of us finds it more than a little depressing that this story of people power, popular revolution, and democracy-in-action has hardly even hit the North American media radar screen. Of course… they don’t speak English and there’s no oil here.

All of this is happening as a full scale typhoon (the Indian Ocean version of a hurricane) is bearing down on the island. Looks like it wil hit the north end and mostly spare us its ravages. One wonders if there is some serious fady against collecting leeches!