Geography and Landscape


Madagascar (officially: French: République de Madagascar, or Madagascar: Repoblikan 'i Madagasikara) is located 400 km east of Africa's east coast, along the Mozambique Strait. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. The surface covers 587,041 km² and Madagascar is therefore slightly smaller than France and Belgium combined. From north to south the greatest distance is 1580 km, from east to west the greatest distance is 579 km. The highest point in Madagascar is the Maromokotro, 2876 meters high.

Madagascar Satellite Image Photo:Public domain


Madagascar is also called the "red island", a reference to the reddish brown earth. Madagascar has a very varied landscape because of the central mountain ridge that runs across the island.

To the north is the mountainous region of Montagne d'Ambre with forests full of ferns, palms and other enormous trees.

A little further south is the largely volcanic Ankarantra Mountains with many caves, caverns, limestone formations and subterranean rivers. It continues to the north and south with an average elevation of 1500 meters. Madagascar's highest peak is the Maromokotro in the Tsaratanana massif (2876 m). The east coast is tropically humid and you will find tropical rainforests here.

Height differences in Madagascar

Photo:Sadalmelik in the public domain

The southwestern tip of Madagascar is a very dry desert area with enormous thorn hedges. Between the savannah landscape in the northwest and the desert landscape in the southwest, there is another area with a steppe landscape. In the northwest, the coast has many deep inlets, in front of which are many islands.

Except in the far north and south, along the west coast there is a 15 to 110 km wide, flat and swampy coastal plain. The largest rivers are Manambolo and Tsiribihina.

Manambolo river, Madagascar
photo: Rod Waddington, CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic no changes made

Climate and Weather

Madagascar has a tropical climate that is largely determined by the southeast trade wind. November, with heavy thunderstorms, is the rainiest month, although the east coast has rainfall almost all year round. Summer lasts from November to March when it is very hot with quite a lot of rainfall. The winter season lasts from April to October and then it is drier with somewhat lower temperatures. In the dry season a constant easterly wind blows. Climatically, Madagascar can be divided into six regions:

Köppen climate classification Madagascar
afbeelding: Ali Zifan, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

The rainfall varies greatly from north to south. Most rain falls in the months of November to April. In Majunga in the northwest, an average of 1520 mm falls per year. In Toliara in the southwest, an average of only 360 mm falls per year. The number of dry months is seven to eight. The day and night temperatures differ more the further south you go.

Central plateau
Temperature and rainfall here are influenced by the height differences. For example, the day and night temperatures in the capital Antananarivo can differ by as much as 14 °C. In the winter months, the temperature on the plateau around Antananarivo can drop to freezing point. The rainy season falls in November-December. Most rain falls in Antsirabe, 1400 mm. On the high plains, the temperature rarely rises above 23 °C.

There is no real dry period in the northeast and central areas. The southeast has a somewhat drier, more stable weather type. In February and March it can rain heavily and the chance of cyclones is greatest. Most rain falls in Maroantsetra, 4100 mm per year. The least rain falls in Taolagnaro, 1520 mm per year.

The rainfall varies greatly from north to south. Most rain falls in the months of November to April. In Majunga in the northwest, an average of 1520 mm falls per year. In Toliara in the southwest, an average of only 360 mm falls per year. The number of dry months is seven to eight. The day and night temperatures differ more the further south you go.

 Cyclone Idai on 13 March 2019 west of Madagascar
photo: ESA, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0 no changes made

This is the driest area in Madagascar. In the western part only 50 mm falls per year and in the eastern part only 340 mm, usually in the months of November and December.

The climate in the north is very similar to that of the eastern regions, except for the Antsiranana region, which has only 920 mm of rain per year. The rain mainly falls in the months of December to April.

Northwest or Sambirano
Due to its location, this small region has its own climate with regular lots of rain alternated with sunny periods.

Heavy rainfall during cyclone in Mahajanga, Northwest Madagascar
photo: WITTus, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

Plants and Animals


About 165 million years ago, Madagascar became detached from Gondwanaland, the primordial continent. As a result, the evolution of plants and animals took place in a completely unique way. Animal and plant species remained intact on Madagascar, while on other continents, often very negatively affected by the presence of humans, they became extinct. Nevertheless, nature in Madagascar has also suffered a lot since the arrival of the first settlers. Large areas of the rainforest were soon cleared away. Furthermore, the giant tortoise and the elephant bird are extinct, along with fifteen species of lemurs.

Laagland regenwoud in het Masoala National Park in Madagaskar
photo: Frank Vassen, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic no changes made

The varied landscape of this large island is another factor that has promoted the diversity of flora and fauna. For example, six complete plant families only occur in Madagascar and a further 1000 species of orchids, thousands of cactus species, countless insects, 300 frog species, 270 species of reptiles, five bird families and more than 100 species of mammals including many primates. It is remarkable that many of these species only ended up in Madagascar after the break with the African mainland

As mentioned, the variety of plant species is enormous. There are more than 10,000 species in Madagascar, 80% of which are native!

Although "tavy" (cutting down trees and then burning the ground) leaves large parts of Madagascar treeless, all types of forests still exist somewhere on the island. Imported species such as the eucalyptus pose a threat to the native species.

Madagascar's most famous tree is the baobab, the national tree of the country. They are thick, round trees with a flat crown. They can reach a height of thirty meters and the trunks can hold sixty thousand liters of water. There are seven species on Madagascar, which can live up to 2000 years old. The tree plays a role in countless African myths and legends. The bark, the fruits, the leaves, the wood, almost everything from this tree is used by the population.

Baobab, Madagascar
photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

Ferns appeared on Earth 350 million ago when Madagascar was still attached to Africa. The large tree ferns in particular dominated the landscape at the time. Smaller varieties of fern are still abundant in the rainforests of the east coast, but now live in the shade of larger trees. About 170 species of palm trees are found in Madagascar, of which 165 are found nowhere else. There are some very special varieties such as the raffia palm, the feather palm and the Ravenea musicalis. This palm species is starting to grow under water! Palms are found all over the island, even near desert areas. Fifty new species have been discovered in the last ten years alone.

Madagascar palm
photo: H. Zell, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

The tropical rainforest is dominated by the so-called "evergreen trees", which are trees that keep their leaves all year round. They can reach a height of 30 meters and one hectare of rainforest can contain up to 250 different species. Other "evergreen" varieties are the tapia tree, nine varieties of mangrove trees and cactus trees.

The rest of Madagascar's tree stock loses its leaves in the dry season. Examples include the banyan fig tree and the giant tamarind. Special is the "traveller's tree", named after the water that remains in the large leaves and thus provided travelers with water in earlier times. This tree is also the symbol of the national airline, Air Madagascar.

Traveller's tree Madagascar
photo: Louise Wolff --darina, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

There are more than 1000 species of orchids on the island, more than in all of Africa combined. Most species live on the trees of the rainforests in the east and have the most diverse colors, patterns, sizes and shapes. Succulents predominate wherever less than 400 mm of water falls per year. They store water in their leaves, trunk or roots and therefore survive the dry climate. Aloes are well-known succulents whose leaves appear to come straight from the ground. The national flower of Madagascar is the royal poinciana.

Flaboyant, nationale bloem van Madagaskar
photo: scott.zona, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic no changes made

Found in the arid Southwest, Didieraeceae are very intriguing plants for botanists. It is a complete family of plants that is found nowhere else in the world and stands out because of its bizarre shapes.


There are approximately 150,000 invertebrate species living in Madagascar. A special feature is the golden orb web spider that often occurs on telephone lines with its web! The threads they make are so strong that they used to be used to make textiles. Another spider throws a web on its prey.

The 300 butterfly species all come from mainland Africa. The approximately 4000 moth species had been on Madagascar for much longer. The most impressive is the comet moth or Madagascan moon moth, which can reach a wingspan of 25 cm. We also find praying mantises, centipedes, flatworms, leeches and large numbers of beetles on Madagascar.

Comet moth or Madagascan moon moth is native to Madagascar
photo: Lsadonkey, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

Interesting fish are the cichlids in all their colors and varieties. Their behavior is remarkable when their young are threatened. The fry then flee into the adult fish's mouth! The blind cave fish live in the underground rivers in western Madagascar. The east coast is known for the many sharks that live there. The coral reefs on the west coast are populated by countless fish species such as clownfish, angels, butterfly fish, wrasses, slime fish, gobies, moray eels, spiny fish and hedgehog fish. Freshwater fish are poorly represented.

Strangely, frogs are the only amphibians in Madagascar. Newts, common salamanders and toads do not occur. At present, hundreds of species are known, of which only two occur elsewhere in the world. However, it has been calculated that a new species is discovered every two months, and it is suspected that more than 300 species will eventually occur in Madagascar. For example, the Mantellidae frog-family has more than 200 species, all endemic to the islands of Madagascar and Mayotte.
The unique history of Madagascar is mainly visible in the reptiles. Many Madagascan species are more like species from South America and Asia than species from Africa.

Boophis albilabris (Mantellidae), live only on Madagascar and/or Mayotte
photo: Axel Strauß, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

About half of all known species of chameleons occur in Madagascar. There are also 70 species of geckos. About half of the varieties have perfect camouflage colors. The other half, on the other hand, can be seen from a considerable distance. The iguanodon is a giant lizard found only in North and South America and Madagascar! The same story with the three types of boas. On the African mainland, only fossils are found, while in South America several relatives still live. The boas and all other snake species are harmless to humans.

The Nile crocodile, although endangered, is still quite common in Madagascar. Several species of turtles are in danger of extinction. Breeding programs are used to try to bring the numbers back to an acceptable level.

Nile crocodile, Madagascar
photo: Luc Legay, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic no changes made

The number of bird species is surprisingly small. About 270 species live on the island, 110 of which are only found in Madagascar. Three types of mesites are among the rarest birds in the world. The best known native birds are the 15 types of catches, all of them specialized in catching insects. Remarkable are the deviating beaks between the species. Most birds are therefore also found elsewhere in the world for eg herons, coots, grebes, ducks, teals, ibises, paradise flycatchers, hops and thrushes. Birds of prey include Madagascar kestrel, Madagascar buzzard, Madagascan cuckoo falcon and six owl species. The Madagascan osprey and Madagascan snake eagle are very rare. The extinct elephant birds, giant ratites, have certainly been the island's most striking birds; the extinction of these birds is so recent that (fragments of) eggshells are still regularly found.

Statue of the extinct Madagascan elephant bird
photo: LoJallen, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, no changes made

Of all the mammals in Madagascar, the lemurs are the most famous. About fifty species are known of these monkeys. In recent years, four new species were found. The "prosimian", the distant ancestor of the lemurs, once appeared on all continents. They are also the farthest ancestors of humans. In order to survive the prosimians in Africa evolved from apes to eventually humans. However, the prosimians who ended up in Madagascar had no reason to evolve. They no longer had any natural enemies, they had remained on the mainland of Africa. Lemurs have fox-like faces and hands that resemble humans. The most famous lemurs are the brown lemur, the ring-tailed lemur, the black lemur and the indris.

Ring-tailed lemur
photo: Alex Dunkel (Maky), Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported no changes made

The strangest lemur species is the aye-aye. This lemur has a foxtail, bat ears and strange hands with a skeletal middle finger to scrape insects from tree bark.

Aye Aye, Madagascar
photo: nomis-simon, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic no changes made

Extinct forms were probably the same size as the modern apes. In February 2001, a German and a Swiss scientist discovered a hitherto unknown species. The species discovered is a so-called wool wall that has been given the name Avahi Unicolor.

Also special are the tenrecs, of which the largest species is also the largest insectivore in the world. The number of young that this species produces can be as high as 24.

There are about 20 rodent species in Madagascar and almost all are nocturnal.
The eight carnivorous species in Madagascar include civets and mongoose. The largest of all is the fossa, a feline with an extremely long tail that helps it chase lemurs up to the canopy of the trees.

Fossa, Madagascar
photo: Ran Kirlian, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

The approximately 25 species of bats also live in Africa or Asia. Three species are active during the day, the rest emerge at night.

In 2010, a hitherto unknown chameleon species was discovered in the rainforest of Madagascar. The German explorers named the species after Tarzan, a movie hero who lives in the jungle. The discovery came as a big surprise to the team of researchers from Germany and Madagascar. The flat snout of the 'Tarzan Chameleon' in particular is unique among chameleons.

In 2012 it was announced that researchers in Madagascar had discovered the smallest chameleon species in the world, with bodies measuring no more than 1.6 cm long, with a tail 2.9 cm. Unlike other chameleons, the newly discovered species cannot change color: they are always brown. The new species, which is in danger of extinction, has been christened 'Brookesia micra' and is only found on the very small island of Nosy Hara northwest of Madagascar.

Brookesia micra, Madagascar
photo: Frank Glaw, Jörn Köhler, Ted M. Townsend, Miguel Vences, CC Attribution 2.5 Generic, no changes made

In February 2016, it was announced that researchers had successfully documented one of the rarest whale species in the world. Off the coast of Madagascar they were able to film a rare omura whale, a not so large whale (about 11 meters) that often lives in shallow coastal waters. It was not until 2003 that these whales were considered a separate species.

Omura whale, Madagascar
photo: Salvatore Cerchio et al. / Royal Society Open Science, CC Attribution 4.0 International no changes made


First inhabitants

Although Madagascar is relatively close to the African mainland, it remained uninhabited until some 1,500-2,000 years ago. The first inhabitants did not come from Africa, but from Malaysia and Indonesia, 6400 km away. The vast majority of the population is descended from these people. It is suspected that these people eventually ended up in Madagascar via East Africa. They also brought their own food, which is why rice is still the main food for the Madagascan today. After a turbulent history, the population has been divided into 18 tribes, the main tribe being the Merina.

Monument in Antsirabe, Madagscar, met het hoofd van een zeboe, de namen van de 19 stammen die de Malagassische bevolking vormen
photo: Aviad2001, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

The first Europeans arrived under the Portuguese flag in Madagascar in the year 1500. The existence of Madagascar was recorded by Marco Polo and by Arab cartographers long before these Europeans arrived. In the centuries that followed, the Portuguese, Dutch and English often tried in vain to settle permanently on the island. Pirates who had their base in Madagascar from the end of the 17th century were successful.

Sixteenth to eighteenth century

Three little kingdoms gradually emerged in Madagascar: Menabe in the west, Zana-Malata in the east and Merina on the central plateau. At the end of the 16th century, the Menabe conquered large tracts of land north along the coast. The eastern highlands were also occupied under King Andriamisara I. His successor Andriandahifotsy wanted to put the entire south and east of Madagascar under his rule, but this was not entirely successful. Later, during the reign of Andriamandisoarivo (1685-1712), his disinherited son founded the kingdom of Boina which lasted until the early 19th century. At the beginning of the 18th century, Ile Sainte Marie became the headquarters of the pirates.

Ratsimilaho, son of an English pirate and Madagascan princess, managed to merge the Zana-Malata and some rival tribes into the realm of Betsimisaraka. In 1750, Ratsimilaho's daughter Bety married a French corporal, Jean-Onésime Filet. As a wedding gift they received the island of Ile Sainte Marie. After the death of Ratsimilaho, Bety ceded the island to the French. Her son Zanahary took over the kingdom from her, but it soon fell apart under his rule. At the end of the 18th century, a Hungarian-French slave trader, Maurice-Auguste Comte de Beniowski, settled in Antongila and proclaimed himself Emperor of all Madagascar.

Count Maurice de Benyovszky
photo: User:Qpeezee, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

In 1786 he was deposed by French troops. In 1787 Chief Ramboasalama ruled the Merina tribe and succeeded in bringing all members of the tribe into line. He called himself Andrianampoinimerina (full name: Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka = The Hope of Imerina) and thus the Merina became the leading tribe of Madagascar who at that time controlled half the island.

Nineteenth and twentieth century

His son Laidama succeeded his father after his death in 1810 and called himself Radama I. With the help of a 35,000 strong army, he gradually conquered and occupied all of Madagascar. He got the kingdom of Menabe by marrying the daughter of the king. In doing so, he fulfilled his vow that “my kingdom shall have no bounds except the sea”. He directly established relations with the European powers. For example, a French sergeant was appointed commander of his army, and an Englishman became his personal adviser. In 1820, a treaty was concluded with the English who from that time regarded Madagascar as an independent state under Merina rule. From that time on, the first missionaries also came to Madagascar to convert the population to Christianity. The first schools were also built and the Madagascan language was written down. The first Bible in Madagascan was printed in 1835.

Grafmonument van Radama I bij de Rova van Antananarivo in Madagaskar
photo: Lemurbaby, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

Radama died in 1828 and was succeeded by the xenophobia Ranavalona I who immediately declared Christianity illegal. Many missionaries fled or were killed. In 1861, Ranavalona died and was succeeded by her son, Radama II. He was much more progressive than his mother. This gave the population freedom of religion, modernized the legal system and opened Madagascar again to foreigners. When the Europeans were allowed to re-enter, Christianity soon became more or less the official religion.
In 1862, the capital Antananarivo was hit by a mysterious contagious disease. Deep disagreements arose between the elite of the Merina tribe, and all this resulted in the death of Radama II, murdered by the Prime Minister's brother. He was succeeded by his wife, who from then on called herself Rasoherina. She married, according to tradition, the Prime Minister. However, her power was limited by an agreement that stipulated that she could only make decisions with the consent of the ministers. Then the Prime Minister's brother, Rainilaiarivony, comes back into the picture. He organizes an uprising against his brother, occupies his ministry and marries his wife Rasoherina! Rasoherina therefore remained on her throne until 1868.

Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony of Madagascar inspecting troops
photo: Parrett, John, 1841-1918, publiek domein

She was succeeded by Ranavalona II, who married Rainilaiarivony again. Ranavalona II died in 1883 and was succeeded by Ranavalona III. Meanwhile, due to the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, the English were no longer as interested in Madagascar as a political and strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean. In 1890 France and Great Britain signed a treaty in which Madagascar came under the influence of France and Zanzibar under that of Great Britain. In 1894, the French demanded that Queen Ranavalona III abdicate.

Statue of Ranavalona III
photo: Heinonlein, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

She refused and France sent an army to Madagascar. Despite great losses from disease, the French captured Antananarivo on September 30, 1895. He tried to eliminate the Merina aristocracy by banning the Madagascan language, among other things. All British influences were also suppressed. French became the official language and in 1897 the French managed to depose Ranavalona and she was exiled to Algeria. The French immediately tried to further develop the country by investing in the economy, transport, construction and education. These developments soon created a French-oriented Madagascan elite. Most Madagassians didn't like it, and nationalist groups quickly emerged among the Merina and Betsileo tribe. They organized many strikes and demonstrations.

During World War II, Madagascar was under the pro-German Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain. The British soon conquered Madagascar because they feared that the Japanese would use the island as a base. Madagascar, however, was returned to the "Free French" of General Charles de Gaulle in 1943. After the war, national feelings flared up again, ultimately resulting in an uprising in 1947 that was bloody down by the French (80,000 dead is estimated). Political parties were first formed in the 1950s. The most important party was Philibert Tsiranana's Parti Social Démocratie (PSD). In 1958, the Madagassians voted in a referendum in favor of autonomous republic status as part of the French overseas territories.

President Tsiranana meets the West-German chancellor Willy Brandt
photo: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F013783-0033 / Wegmann, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA 3.0


Not long afterwards, the declaration of independence followed in 1960 and Tsiranana became the first president. He allowed the French to retain control of trade and banking. France could also hold military bases. In fact, this meant that the French still ruled Madagascar. The Merina tribe increasingly resisted continued French "domination" and sought more and more support from the Soviet Union and communism. Tsiranana was strongly against this and focused more on South Africa. Tsiranana's popularity declined rapidly, however, as the economy deteriorated in Madagascar in the 1960s.
In September 1972, after massive demonstrations, Tsiranana resigned and handed over power to the Army Chief of Staff, General Gabriel Ramanantsoa. Ramanantsoa immediately introduced fundamental changes. French military bases were closed, agricultural collectivization began, and diplomatic relations with South Africa, Israel and Taiwan were frozen. Relations with China and the Soviet Union strengthened. The departure of the French soon made it clear that Madagascar was very dependent on their development money and technical aid. Soon heated discussions followed about the path they had taken.

Bust of President Richard Ratsimandrava in the high school amphitheater
photo: LycéeGallieniAndohalo, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

In February 1975, after several coup attempts, General Ramanantsoa was forced to resign and replaced by Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava. However, this was shot after just one week and power was taken over by a number of officers from the army. These officers were soon called back by a number of officers loyal to the murdered Ratsimandrava. A new government was appointed under the leadership of Didier Ratsiraka, previously minister of foreign affairs. Due to these developments, exports had stagnated, all schools were closed and there were hardly any other economic activities. Ratsiraka tried to get things going again with radical political and social reforms. He mainly focused on communist countries. Economically he was a bit more pragmatic. All banks were nationalized and a number of public organizations were set up to deal with different sectors of the economy.

Didier Ratsiraka, former president of Madagascar
photo: Cerveau KOTOSON, CC Attribution 4.0 International no changes made

In 1981-1982 another serious economic crisis followed, forcing Ratsiraka to loosen the reins a little. As a result, he also received more money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. As a result of this foreign aid, the economy recovered somewhat, albeit temporarily. In March 1989 Ratsiraka was re-elected for another seven years after dubious elections. Riots killed six and injured dozens. Months of demonstrations and strikes against the Ratsiraka regime followed in 1991, causing the already fragile economy to cease functioning. New riots followed and 30 people were killed. France exerted heavy pressure and demanded new elections.
In October 1991, Ratsiraka signed an agreement with the opposition calling for new elections. These elections were won by the doctor Albert Zafy, who was trying to make Madagascar a democracy. In this way, parliament was given far-reaching powers, including the removal of the president with a two-thirds majority. Despite all the good intentions, this experiment also ended in complete chaos. Within three years, eight cabinets fell and a new prime minister was elected three times. The economy also collapsed and the population became poorer. After those three years, Zafy demanded his power back.

Albert Zafy (left), former president of Madagascar
photo: Yvannoé, Creative CC-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

Parliament immediately tried to impeach him, but he refused. He did, however, call new elections that were won by the former president, Ratsiraka. Ratsiraka was now trying to make Madagascar a federal state like the United States. Madagascar is already divided into autonomous self-governing provinces. There is also a strong focus on economic growth and the reconstruction of education and health care. The French are also welcome investors again. Ratsiraka quickly organized a referendum asking the people to return power to the president. The people voted in favor by a large majority, tired of the unstable political conditions of the past decades. The 1998 elections were again won by Ratsiraka's party. Pascal Rakotomavo became prime minister. After the 1999 municipal elections, pragmatic, often non-party businessmen came to power in almost all major cities.

21th century

Presidential elections were held on December 16, 2001, with former president Ratsiraka and Marc Ravalomanana, the mayor of the capital Antananarivo as the main candidates. Soon after the elections, strong rumors of irregularities circulated. With massive popular support, the mayor of Antananarivo proclaimed himself head of state and appointed his own "government". He claimed victory because he would have received 52% of the vote, while no candidate would have more than 50% of the vote, according to the election commission, which meant a second round was needed. The official result put Ravalomanana in front of the incumbent president, Didier Ratsiraka with 46% against 41% of the vote.

Marc Ravalomanana, former president of Madagascar
photo: Mogens Engelund, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

This was followed by a period of peaceful protests in the capital by mass demonstrations and strikes, on a scale unprecedented. The crisis marks a major change in the country's political relations, where Ratsiraka's Arema party appeared to be heading for an easy victory. Ravalomanana is backed by the united opposition, which is located in different parts of the country and includes diverse social and ethnic groups. Even after the elections, the opposition has managed to maintain its unity. Arema, however, does not have a majority in the country, but has so far maintained its position due to the fragmentation of the opposition and the willingness of some opposition leaders to hold positions in government or to support government policies such as economic reforms. Ratsiraka has not been able to properly assess support for the opposition. He declared martial law, a tactic that failed as the security forces proved unwilling to take sides in the conflict. In the eyes of the military, the army is at the service of the state and not individual politicians.

In response to Ravalomanana's takeover in the capital, Ratsiraka granted new powers to the governors of the six provinces. They also belong to the Arema party. One of the provincial governors distanced themselves, but the other five sided with Ratsiraka, who installed an alternative government in the port city of Toamasina (aka Tamatave). However, this situation was not further substantiated by Ratsiraka himself.

Emblem of the Democratic Republic of Madagascar.
photo: Thommy, CC CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication no changes made

Several African mediation attempts followed to find a solution to the crisis. The main aim of the mediation efforts in the conflict by representatives of the AU (African Union) has been to prevent the division of Madagascar's national unity. Ultimately, this mediation attempt resulted in a recount of the votes. Ravalomanana received more than 50% of the vote and was proclaimed president in May 2002. New presidential elections are scheduled for April 2007. At the end of 2007, parliament will also be elected. In September 2007, President Ravalomanana's party won 106 out of 127 parliamentary seats.

At the end of January 2009, dozens of people were killed in violent protests. The riots started in the capital Antananarivo, but soon spread. The protesters demanded the resignation of President Ravalomanana. It angered the opposition by shutting down a TV station of its political rival Andry Rajoelina, the mayor of Antananarivo.

Protests in the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo (2009)
photo: fanalana_azy, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic no changes made

In March 2009, Ravalomanana resigns and hands over power to the military. In April 2009, new president Andry Rajoelina issues an arrest warrant against his rival Ravalomanana, announcing his return to Madagascar. In June 2009, Ravalomanana was sentenced in absentia to 4 years in prison. In February 2010 Rajoelina announces elections in May. This is repeatedly delayed. In June 2010, the EU decided to suspend development aid due to insufficient progress in the democratic process.

From 2011 to 2013 there are always elections to be held. Ultimately, those elections will be held and in January 2014 Hery Rajaonarimampianina will become the new president. In 2015, the parliament wants to initiate an impeachment procedure against the president, the constitutional court disapproves. The senate will be elected in December 2015, after it was dissolved six years ago.

Hery Rajaonarimampianina, former president of Madagascar
photo: Chatham House, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic no changes made

In January 2019 Andry Rajoelina wins presidential election, defeating President Rajaonarimampianina and his long-standing rival Marc Ravalomanana.

President Andry Rajoelina meets United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon


Madagascar had 25,045,161 inhabitants in July 2017. The population density is approximately 43 inhabitants per km2. In the west, 2 inhabitants per km2 is no exception. The average growth of the population is about 2.5% per year. This means that the population doubles about once every 25 years. This high growth rate is due to the fact that the average mother has many children and families with more than 10 children are quite normal. The average life expectancy is not very high, more than 66 years. Almost 63% of the population still lives in the countryside; around 37% live in the cities. However, the migration to the big cities is great.

Family portrait, Madagaskar
photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

The capital Antananarivo currently has 3 million inhabitants. The entire agglomeration has about 4 million inhabitants. Other large cities are Toamasina, Fianarantsoa, Antsirabe, Mahajanga and Antsiranana.

The Madagascans are predominantly of Malay-Indonesian descent and to a much lesser extent there are black and Arab groups. About 1% of the population consists mainly of French, Comorese, Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese. The traditional Madagascan population is divided into 18 tribes, based mainly on the boundaries of the former kingdoms rather than on ethnic characteristics. While some tribes are of distinctly Asian or African descent, the Madagascan population is generally a mix of the following tribes:

Ethnic groups Madagascar
image: Ms Sarah Welch, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

Small tribe. Name means "those who live in the sand". Farafangara region on the east coast.

Name means "she of the coastal region". Manakara region on the east coast. Related to the Arabs.

Small tribe. Name means "she from Sakalava land". Split from the Sakalava tribe. Southeast coast region.

Very small Muslim tribe. Name means "she of the cliffs". Ankàrana region in the far north. Fishermen and shepherds.

Name means "she of the community". Mananjary region in the southeast. Adhere to Islamic traditions.

Semi-nomadic tribe. Name means "she of the thorns". Poor tribe in the arid south. Income from charcoal sales. Many flee to other regions due to miserable circumstances.

Antandroy dancers, Madagascar
photo: Tojosoa Raherinirainy, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

Name means "she of the island". Southeast region.

Antanosy is a Malagasy tribe found in the south-east of Madagascar
photo: Miora Andrialalaina Florlys, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

Origin name unknown; probably from Bantu language. Clearly of African descent. Shepherds.

Houten beeld Mara, Madagaskar
photo: Ji-Elle, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

Name means "the invisible" "Region Fianarantsoa. Woodworkers and farmers. Subgroup are the Zafimaniry. Region east of Ambositra. Renowned woodworkers.

"Ray aman-dReny" or "Heads of families of a certain age", with the "lamba" during a funeral in a Betsileo village near Fianarantsoa, Madagascar
photo: JeanMicheletAnne, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

Second largest tribe in Madagascar. Name means "those who are inseparable". Central and northeast coast region. Mainly farmers, growing coffee, sugar cane and cloves.

Betsimisaraka village, Madagascar
photo: Heinonlein, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

Small tribe. Name means "she with many little braids" after the Afro hairstyle. Region between Merina and Betsimisaraka, mountainous rainforest.

Bezanozano village, Madagascar
photo: Heinonlein, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

Name means "makers of taboos". South-southwest region. Only arrived in Madagascar about 900 years ago. Farmers.

Mahafaly village, Madagascar
photo: Jose Antonio, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

Largest tribe. Name means "she of the highlands". Of Asian descent with Madagascar's lightest complexion. Region around the capital Antananarivo. Population is divided into three castes: andriana = nobility, hova = free, andevo = workers (in fact slaves).

Merina-girls, Madagascar
photo: Saveoursmile (Hery Zo Rakotondramanana), CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic no changes made

Name means "she of the long valleys". Populate the largest area: West Madagascar region. Dark skin colour. Two subgroups, Makoa descended from African slaves and Vezo, mainly fishermen.

Sakalava sculpture. 17th-late 18th century. Southwest coast of Madagascar
photo: Ji-Elle, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

Name means "those who roam the swamps". Fishermen and rice farmers. Lowland region around Lake Alaotra.

Name means "she of the forest". Mountain region of the eastern rainforests.

Tanala family, Madagascar
photo: Steve Evans, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic, no changes made

Name means "those who do not cut their hair". Northwest region. Shepherds and rice farmers.

Small tribe. Origin name unknown. Same region as the Antaifasy; Farafangana on the east coast.

Percentages of Madagascar ethnic groups
image: Heinonlein, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made


Malagasy and French are the two official languages of Madagascar. Malagasy belongs to the Malay-Polynesian language family. The main colloquial language is Hova, spoken by the Merina, the largest population group.

French is mainly spoken in cities and in business. French lessons are also taught in education, especially in secondary education. English is really only spoken in the capital and the tourist centers. The Malagasy alphabet consists of 21 letters. The C, Q, U, W and X do not appear in the alphabet. In recent years, books and newspapers have also been published in Malagasy.

Kaart van de dialecten van de Malagassische taal
afbeelding: User:SUM1, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

To give an impression of Malagasy the following words:


The Afro-Asian ancestry of the Madagassians has created a complicated but fascinating world of belief. In particular, the belief in the power of the dead ancestors (the razana) who still intervene in daily life is very strong. For example, accidents are attributed to evil ancestors, who have to be appeased with a sacrifice.

Another phenomenon is called "fady". Fady is the belief in actions and behavior that are "dangerous to ..."
An example: “it is dangerous to give an egg to someone immediately; it must be put on the ground first.

There is still a taboo on twins among the Antaisakas, and it still happens that they are killed or left in a forest after birth.

Tomb in Madagascar covered with zebu horns
photo: Moongateclimber, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

“Vintana” is another custom and has to do with time. Every day has something special. Thus, Thursday is the day for weddings and Friday is the day for funerals.

Funeral customs are many and differ from tribe to tribe and even from family to family. Madagascar's most famous ritual is the reburial or Famadihana. It is the most direct way to get in touch with the deceased ancestors. During this ritual, all the dead are taken from the family grave. They dance and party with them to show them that people still care deeply about the deceased.

Fady, dansen met de doden op Madagascar
photo: Smarteeee, CC CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication no changes made

Half of the inhabitants also adhere to animistic beliefs. Animism is a primal belief in which it is believed that all earthly things such as trees, animals or even stones have their own spiritual power.

From the 18th century, missionaries were coming and going. Protestantism was the first to gain a foothold in Madagascar.

Protestant church in Antananarivo, Madagascar
photo: Antsahadinta, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

As French influence grew stronger, Catholicism soon gained the upper hand. About 45% of the population is Christian, about the same number of Roman Catholics as Protestants.

Cathedral of Antsirabe, Madagascar
photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

About 5% of the population is Muslim. They mainly live in northern cities like Mahajanga.

Mohammed V Mosque in Antsirabe, Madagascar
photo: Boldair, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made


State structure

Madagascar has been a presidential republic with a national assembly (138 seats) and a multiparty system since the new constitution. The head of state is the president, who is elected for five years by universal suffrage. The prime minister is appointed by the president who chooses from a list compiled by parliament. The ministers are again appointed by the prime minister. There is a multiparty system, but from 1975 to 1992 only political parties on a socialist basis were allowed. Everyone over the age of 18 has the right to vote.

Presidential residence in the capital Antananarivo, Madagascar
photo: Lemurbaby, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

Administratively, the territory is divided into six provinces (Antsiranana, Fianarantsoa, Mahajanga, Toamasina, Antananarivo and Toliary), which are divided into prefectures, sub-prefectures, districts and traditional village assemblies called fokonolona, which play an important role in local decision-making. For the current political situation see chapter history.


Education is free in Madagascar and all children between the ages of 6 and 11 are required to attend primary education. Officially 87% of the children attend school, but only one third finishes primary school. Madagascar has 13,000 primary schools, 700 secondary schools and 80 Lycées. Secondary education is only completed by 10% of the children. These percentages are even lower in rural areas. Between 1980 and 1990 the percentage of children attending school fell from 60 to 40 percent. The quality of the public schools is not very high. The wealthier people therefore let their children go to French-speaking private schools.

Simple school on Madagascar
photo: Harald Kreutzer Madagaskar Vision e.V., CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

About 60% of the population is illiterate and that percentage is only likely to increase. One of the reasons for this is that more and more children are being taken out of school by their parents to help boost the family's income. There is also a great shortage of teachers. In order to make education more accessible to the masses, the official language of instruction French was replaced by Madagascan in 1972. In 1986, however, French was reintroduced in further education.

The University of Madagascar in Antananarivo has five branches in the five other provinces. In the mid-1990s, 40,000 students were studying at the university. There is also a pedagogical academy, where efforts are being made to reduce the great teacher shortage.

University of Antananarivo Madagascar
photo: Lemurbaby, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made



Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, where more than half of the population lives from agriculture. The export also consists largely of agricultural products. The economy is growing very slowly due to, among other things, corruption, low world trade prices, poor infrastructure, isolated location, low purchasing power of the population and natural disasters. The gross national product per capita is currently (2017) only $1,600 dollars per year. About 70% of the population lives below the poverty line. Famine even occurs in the dry south.

With regard to other countries, Madagascar has been pursuing an open-door policy for several years, that is to say that any country may enter Madagascar to invest.

Agriculture, livestock and fishing

Food crops are generally grown on small-scale farms on the high plateau. Rice is by far the most important product; rice has been imported since 1972. The aim is self-sufficiency, but that will not be easy due to the lack of modern machines and outdated irrigation systems.

Rice paddies in Madagascar
photo: Maky (Alex Dunkel), CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

New planting methods give some hope again. Cassava, sweet potatoes, avocados, bananas, lemons, groundnuts and vegetables are grown for their own use. Export products such as vanilla, coffee and tea are less affected by nature. They are grown in the fertile regions. Coffee is the main export product. Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla in the world. The vanilla is grown in areas between the high plateau and the northeast coast. Furthermore, Madagascar accounts for about a third of the world's clove production. Sisal, pepper, sugar cane, tobacco and cotton are also grown and tea plantations have begun.

Women sorting vanilla in Sambava, Madagascar
photo: Lemurbaby, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

Despite the large number of livestock, especially important as a status symbol, livestock farming has almost no economic value. The livestock keepers are semi-nomads. Pasture land is used inefficiently. Mainly zebu are kept, as well as cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens. Zebus are mainly held by the Antandroy tribe and the Mahafaly tribe of the south and the Bahalava tribe of the west. The zebu are almost sacred animals, slaughtered and eaten only during social and religious festivals. There are almost as many zebu as there are people in Madagascar.
The French tried in vain to turn the Madagascan farmers into modern livestock keepers with cattle from Europe, but they failed. The Madagascans preferred to hold on to the zebu.

Zebu shepherd on Madagascar
photo: Wayne77, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

Fish exports are becoming increasingly important. The tuna and shrimp production, which has tripled in a short time, is to blame for this. Eighty percent of fish exports go to European countries. The Vezo tribe in particular are real fishermen, often still in a traditional way.

There is a treaty with the European Union on fishing by EU countries in Madagascan waters in exchange for payment.

Minerals, trade and industry

The presence of many minerals has been demonstrated, but little is exploited, partly due to poor accessibility and poor infrastructure. Main minerals are graphite, chrome ore, mica, iron ore and various semi-precious stones such as tourmaline, beryl, zircon, topaz, amethyst and celestine. In recent years, many sapphires have been found and exploited. The largest crystal in the world has been found in Madagascar, 18 meters long, 3.5 meters in diameter and weighing 380 tons. The exploitation of bauxite and titanium ore began in the 1980s.

Mining activities in the jungle nearby Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar
photo: RoseyPerkins, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

The trade balance still shows a significant deficit. An attempt is made to limit the negative balance with a very cautious import policy. Food (especially rice), petroleum, machinery and means of transport are imported. In 2017, $2.7 billion was imported mainly from China, France and further from South Africa, India and the Gulf countries.The main export products are coffee, cloves, vanilla and shrimp. In 2017, $2.3 billion was exported mainly to France, Hong Kong, Japan, China, the United States and the Netherlands.

The President of Madagascar speaking at the UK-Madagascar Trade & Investment Forum in London, 19 November 2015
photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC Attribution 2.0 Generic no changes made

The industry is mainly oriented towards the domestic market, only about 6% of the labor force is employed in this sector. Most companies process agricultural products such as rice, tobacco, coffee and cotton. The sugar and meat processing industries produce for export. However, the meat and poultry industry is seriously affected by Europe's protectionist policy. Madagascar even started importing chickens from Europe at one point. The exploitation of existing oil reserves has not yet got off the ground. Other important industries are the cement and fertilizer industry. About 400 French companies have settled in Madagascar in recent years.


The construction of roads and railways is difficult and expensive due to the climate and landscape. 15% of the approx. 60,000 km road is paved. But paved or not, in the rainy season the roads flood, become muddy and are barely accessible. Even important cities are sometimes not accessible by road. The best roads are on the central plateau and on the east coast.

The cyclo-rickshaw is a very widespread means of transport in Madagascar, especially in the towns in the provinces
photo: IanjaMbola, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, no changes made

There are hardly any good roads in the west. This regularly causes problems for the food supply. Short sea shipping and aviation are important due to inadequate land connections. Much freight traffic takes place through the 600 km long Pangalanes canal, which consists of a succession of lagoons and about one third is navigable.
Toamasina is Madagascar's main port with a direct rail line to the capital Antananarivo. The port of Antsiranana is a military port. Mahajanga, on the west coast, also has a large harbor that is too shallow for large sea-going vessels.

The port of Toamasina (Tamatave) serves as the most important gateway of Madagascar to the Indian Ocean and the world
photo: JialiangGao, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International no changes made

Many goods and people are transported over the few railway lines. There are mainly railway lines in the north and south of the central plateau. Antananarivo has an international airport. Most other somewhat larger cities have small airports for domestic flights. The network of flight routes is the densest in the world in relation to the size of the population. Air Madagascar is the national airline.

Air Madagascar, TF-EAB, Airbus A340-313
photo: Anna Zvereva from Tallinn, Estonia, CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic no changes made

Holidays and Sightseeing

Madagascar has pinned its hopes on the increase in tourism. The target number is at least 700,000 visitors per year. In high season there is a threat of a shortage of hotel rooms and in many smaller towns there are no facilities at all. Furthermore, transport by bus, train and taxi is unreliable and sometimes very dangerous.

Hotel Le Cactus Vert, Antananarivo, Madagascar
photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

On the positive side, some French hotel chains are currently investing in luxury accommodations on the coast. The main city is Antananarivo.

Manjakamiadana Palace, Rova of Antananarivo, Madagascar
photo: Hery Zo Rakotondramanana, CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic no changes made

In Madagascar, you will find beaches that are interesting for tourists and others that have not even been explored yet. There is something for everyone, whether you are looking for luxury or something more authentic. The most popular beaches are in Diego, Anakao, the areas around Morondava, and the islands of Nosy Be, Sainte Marie, & Nosy Ve.

Ifaty Beach, Madagascar
photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes made

The unique baobab trees can be found all over the country. Just an hour's drive from Morondava, there is a unique set of trees along the way where you can take exceptional photos at sunset.

The main tourist attraction in Madagascar is the impressive stone forests. It is not easy to get there, it takes a whole day with a 4 × 4 over rough terrain. There are two parks, Big Tsingy (large park) and Small Tsingy (small park). You will have no regrets.

"Forests" of limestone needles, Madagascar
photo: Olivier Lejade, CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic no changes made

Click the menu button at the top left of the screen for more information


Bradt, H. / Madagascar

Greenway, P. / Madagascar & Comoros
Lonely Planet

Lanting, F. / Madagascar : een wereld verdwaald in de tijd

Rozeboom, A. / Madagaskar: mensen, politiek, economie, cultuur, milieu
Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen/Novib

Stevens, R. / Madagascar
Chelsea House Publishers

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated October 2021
Copyright: Team Landenweb