Influx of Chinese investors angers Madagascans

Soamahamanina (Madagascar) (AFP) –


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 7,500-hectare (18,500-acre) 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.

Not just in Soamahamanina, but 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 in Africa as Beijing increases its business presence on the continent for natural resources while flooding the markets with Made in China goods.

"Madagascar belongs to the Madagascans, not the Chinese or any other foreigners," Fenohasina, a local student, told AFP.

"Forty years of operation -- that is called selling the country," said Marise-Edine, a street vendor.

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.

"It's people from outside who are encouraging people here to dislike the Chinese," said Chrysostome Rakotondrazafy, a Jiuxing Mines foreman.

"There is political manipulation behind all this."

Buckling under the weight of the relentless protests, the Chinese mining workers had little choice but to pack up their bags and 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," Stella Andriamamonjy, the mine's spokeswoman, said.

"We hope to return under new terms, (and) repair past mistakes."

How soon that will be, she could not say.

- Xenophobic tensions -

For the locals in Soamahamanina, the return of the Chinese would not be welcome.

"I would like to tell our leaders that the big powers in this world are only turning us against each other to destroy our country," warned resident Marie Rasoloson.

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

In a country where 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, such investment has given an unexpected boost to infrastructure development.

But, as elsewhere on the African continent, 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" sugar factory in western Morondava town.

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

The 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.

Officially launching a Chinese-built road recently, President Hery Rajaonarimampianina praised Beijing's "helping hand".

Chinese ambassador Yang Xiaorong promised to strengthen the "win-win cooperation" between the two countries.

"Chinese companies are well integrated into the local community," said the embassy, adding that 90 percent of the 17,000 jobs created so far are occupied by locals.

Hit by the bitter competition from Chinese outfits, many Madagascans remain sceptical.

"We only pick up the crumbs," Daniel Rafanomezantsoa, a craftsman, told AFP.