Dominance of Chinese firms in Madagascar sparks social backlash

Protesters against Chinese mining company Jiuxing in Soamahamanina on Oct 6. The company left the site later that month.
Protesters against Chinese mining company Jiuxing in Soamahamanina on Oct 6. The company left the site later that month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SOAMAHAMANINA (Madagascar) • The mine had not yet opened, but Madagascans were already seething with rage and the Chinese management finally quit Soamahamanina, leaving behind empty tents and cigarette butts.

For months, this small city in central Madagascar was engulfed by protests targeted at a Chinese gold mining company, Jiuxing.

Every Thursday, city residents would take to the streets in downtown Soamahamanina to demonstrate against Jiuxing, which had secured a 40-year gold mining licence on a 7,500ha piece of land.

For the protesters, the mining operation risked ruining their farms - one element of a nationwide aversion to the new wave of Chinese investors on the large Indian Ocean island.

Across the country, Madagascans have openly expressed their hostility towards the growing presence of China, the country's largest trading partner.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise as Beijing increases its business presence on the continent for natural resources while flooding markets with "Made in China" goods.

Many farmers who were eager to take advantage of the windfall and had agreed to sell their land to the Chinese miner are now regretting it. "Our compatriots are angry with us and accuse us of selling away the country," said farmer Perline Razafiarisoa.

But a local worker at Jiuxing blames the hostilities on politics.

Jiuxing Mines foreman Chrysostome Rakotondrazafy said: "It's people from outside who are encouraging people here to dislike the Chinese... There is political manipulation behind all this."

Buckling under the weight of the relentless protests, the Chinese mining workers had little choice but to leave in October.

"As a company we think we have the right to stay, but for the sake of social appeasement, we chose to withdraw," said the mine's spokesman, Ms Stella Andriamamonjy. "We hope to return under new terms, (and) repair past mistakes."

How soon that will be, she could not say.

With more that 800 companies now on the island, China has established itself as Madagascar's largest trading partner.

In a country where 90 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, such investment has given an unexpected boost to infrastructure development. But the mass arrival of Chinese investors has created tensions.

In 2011, police stepped in to prevent riots in the Chinatown section of the capital Antananarivo after an Asian trader beat up his two Madagascan employees.

Three years later, clashes over wage demands left six people dead at a Chinese-run sugar factory in western Morondava town.

The Chinese embassy has warned the authorities in Madagascar against tarnishing its image as an investment destination.

The Madagascar government is concerned at the growing hostilities towards its powerful partner.

"It is essential to prevent this from degenerating into xenophobia," said the ruling HVM party leader Rivo Rakotovao.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Dominance of Chinese firms in Madagascar sparks social backlash'. Print Edition | Subscribe