Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 813-817
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The African island of Madagascar is known to the world more for its natural wonders, its plant and animal life, than for its human cultural life. This book moves toward correcting that imbalance. That nature and culture are inextricably connected is the subject of this highly readable study of Tanala swidden horticulturalists by a medical anthropologist trained at Michigan State University. There is a twist however. The book's strength is not in demonstrating how people via their indigenous practices are involved in constructing nature (cf. Fairhead and Leach 1996). Its strength is communicating effectively to an academic audience that not many peasants have the luxury of being the conservationists that Westerners expect them to be. The author illuminates a range of factors, from local to transnational levels, that contribute to increasingly insecure lifeways facing Malagasy inhabitants of the forest around Ranomafana National Park. Poor health and death have become a "choice" for the most dispossessed and disenfranchised among the population (see also Feeley-Harnik 1991).
Harper discovered a frightening deterioration to quality of life among Malagasy who live within the reaches of one of Madagascar's most well funded and famous national parks, Ranomafana. This book serves to document that the island's at risk populations are not just lemurs and rainforests but forest dwelling [End Page 813] people too (hence the title Endangered Species). Perhaps this well written and researched, but terribly sad, book will alert its readers and the media that picks up on it to the plight of some desperately impoverished people who see no future within the midst of premature death staring hard into their present.
It is somewhat surprising that Harper's significant yet "politically incorrect" message was published at all. That it was suggests that the so-called "information lid" controlled by the powerful Ranomafana National Park Project (RNPP) has its limits. It is no fluke that Harper's book is groundbreaking in this regard. It is a good book with an important message about human / biophysical environment interactions that needs to be better known among readers too steeped in the plant / animal side of things, at the expense of the human side. (Although one has to wonder if publishing for anthropologists is the best venue; perhaps it would be better to write for a popular press next time rather than an academic press.) For those expecting an ethnography demonstrating that RNPP victimizes poverty-stricken peasant victims, you will have to wait for such an ethnography. This book shows just how complex and troublesome is the presumed victim-victimizer dichotomy (Stern 1993).
Chapter one orients problem, method, and theory. (Curiously, there is no map of southeast Madagascar, in this or any other chapter that locates the research site for general readers.) The problem belongs to medical anthropology: rather than finding a link between conservation of the forest and improved health and well-being of forest dwellers—a well-promoted campaign theme among conservation organizations on Madagascar—Harper found a steady decline in health that resulted from giving one's access to forest, land, and resources to the conservation project. Her methods included the standard dissertation complements of a one-year, village-level, participant-observation study that included informal interviews, oral history, and some degree of archival research. The main theoretical lens came from political ecology—the view that human-nature interactions are keyed to access to resources, which are influenced differently at local, regional, and international levels. For example, several processes beyond the level of the residents themselves mediate access to medicines by residents.
Chapter two problematizes the dichotomies "traditional" and "modern" within a contemporary medical anthropology framework. Harper does a good job of illustrating one of the functions of anthropology: seeing how things are in the world far away from us helps us reflect on how things are in our own world close to us. After reading 44n3...