Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Master of Arts



Collaborative Specialization

Environment and Sustainability


Walsh, Andrew


I examine the various ways in which the rice, wild yams, and vanilla that grow in northern Madagascar feature in the lives of numerous people including rural community members, representatives of the Malagasy government, and foreigners, focusing especially on the distinctive networks of relationships entailed by each of these plants. Each case presents interesting dilemmas from which we can gain insight into the everyday lives and hardships faced by rural Malagasy. Rice is a staple crop which both feeds and employs many Malagasy. More importantly it is at the base of everyday life, sustaining and creating important social ties. Wild yams are a famine food which are largely foraged by food-insecure communities. Foreign investment in protecting this plant, along with other species and landscapes, has alienated those who rely most on it. Vanilla is an economically valuable cash crop, similar in some ways to gemstones or precious minerals, requiring producers to invest substantial time and effort in a commodity prone to significant swings market value. Producing vanilla connects rural communities to global markets, allowing for a greater flow of cash to vanilla producers, but also requiring farmers to navigate many risks. Looking at the similarities and differences among vanilla, rice, and yams, I detail the insights that can come from considering these cases alongside one another. In considering multiple perspectives and drawing from various bodies of knowledge, I explore the dynamics of these plants and the people who value them. I argue that as people invest in relations with these plants, they also enter into a network of relations with others.

Summary for Lay Audience

This thesis is an analysis of plant cultivation in northern Madagascar, focusing on the ways in which relationships form between people through their various engagements with plants. By specifically focusing on rice, yams, and vanilla, I explore the different ways people become connected through plants. Rice is the most important staple crop in Madagascar, while yams are a famine food, and vanilla is a cash crop. In the accounts of each of these plants, I explore a variety of social dilemmas which illustrate some important aspects of everyday life in northern Madagascar. My research draws from interviews, surveys, and observations conducted during my fieldwork. Additionally, my research draws on the works of others who have explored similar themes and issues, especially within Madagascar. My findings suggest that people who have vested interests in these plants are connected to others in ways that enable the production of food, the development (and resistance) of conservation efforts, and the trading of export goods. I argue that due to the various demands required by different sorts of work required by these plants, people build or are forced into distinctive sets of sustaining social relationships.