1. Mirana stands on a pile of displaced earth in Manalobe, close to the epicentre of the relatively recent gemstone boom in Ilakaka. The ground beneath her feet conceals sapphire deposits, laid down along an ancient subterranean riverbed left over from when the island was still attached to the Indian subcontinent. One cubic metre of dirt and gravel can contain as much as a gram of sapphire – five carats’ worth – which could fetch more than $5000 internationally. Mirana is paid $2 per day to work the mine.

    # vimeo.com/78968063 Uploaded 2,709 Plays 0 Comments
  2. Mahefa is a zebu herdsman from Ihosy who walked for a week with his 50 zebu to get to the Ambalavao zebu market, the second largest on the island. Along the way he and his family had to defend the herd from rustlers. For people in rural Madagascar a zebu is the highest symbol of wealth, imbued with both economic value and cultural significance. More useful to hold than cash, an adult zebu yields around 160 kilograms of meat and costs between $400 and $660 at the market. Mahefa will try to trade his adult zebu for calves to take back to Ihosy. In almost every region in Madagascar, the zebu is a key part of the culture, whether in rites of passage that involve stealing a zebu from a nearby village or sacrificial banquets held when the head of the family dies.

    # vimeo.com/78970031 Uploaded 1,059 Plays 0 Comments
  3. Rado and Luc stand by the stump of a felled rosewood tree in Masoala National Park. Traditionally the wood is considered fady – taboo – but they are willing to break with such beliefs for their $3-a-day share of the revenue local traders make on a commodity they can export for up to $2,560 per cubic metre. These rare hardwood trees do not grow in clusters, so Rado and Luc would have had to search the forest for this individual specimen, travelling along the rivers as far as possible. The felled rosewood is cut into three-metre sections and dragged through the mud until they reach the river again. The logs are too dense to float, so they cut down another three to five trees to make rafts that enable them to take the logs back downstream to the edge of the forest. Here they are put on trucks and taken to the coast, where they are exported illegally. Small boats take the logs 200 nautical miles out to sea, where larger boats are moored in international waters. It's suspected that a large proportion of the rosewood is shipped to China, where it is carved into intricately designed furniture. A rosewood bed was known to be on the market in China for over $1 million, made from roughly three cubic metres of rosewood that would have been purchased from the local traders for about $7,500 – less than 0.1% of its ultimate value.

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  4. Tsinjo stands in a rice paddy on the outskirts of the capital, Antananarivo. Once the crop is harvested each year he uses the mud to make bricks, forcing it into moulds by hand; the bricks are left in the sun to dry before being fired in stacks. The bricks drying in the sun behind him are worth 70 Ariary ($0.03). The rice field sinks lower and lower each year, until it is useless for both rice and bricks and becomes waste ground, bereft of value.

    # vimeo.com/78969133 Uploaded 746 Plays 0 Comments
  5. Rakoto has dug up this rice field in Ivato, north of Ranomafana National Park, in the hope of finding tiny deposits of gold that fetch $1333 per ounce on the international market (price accurate on 14/08/13). He and his family pan the mud in specially irrigated pools on adjacent fields. Several years ago he made the calculated decision that he could make a better living searching for gold than from subsistence farming in the rice fields. Researchers at the Centre Valbio inside Ranomafana are testing pilot schemes to introduce more modern agricultural techniques to the region and provide alternative livelihoods mostly based on ecotourism, hoping to reduce the temptation for villagers to destroy the forest in search of food and gold.

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Unknown Fields Division Madagascar Expedition Portraits

liam young PRO

The Unknown Fields Division is a nomadic design studio that ventures out on expeditions to the ends of the earth to explore peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness. These landscapes - the iconic and the ignored, the excavated,…


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The Unknown Fields Division is a nomadic design studio that ventures out on expeditions to the ends of the earth to explore peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness. These landscapes - the iconic and the ignored, the excavated, irradiated and the pristine - are embedded in global systems that connect them in surprising and complicated ways to our everyday lives. Each year we navigate a different trajectory as we seek to map the complex and contradictory realities of the present as a site of strange and extraordinary futures.

In times past an anarchist community of pirates called Madagascar home. It was an island beyond the law and off the map, a place of rogues, booty and bounties. These were outlaws moored on a marooned ecosystem. Set adrift 88 million years ago, the island is a castaway in the Indian Ocean, inhabited by a band of ecological stowaways. In this splendid isolation it has evolved into an unparalleled wonderland of the weird and unique, diverse and unbelievable.

A political coup in 2009 left the country adrift once more - isolated from the international community, deprived of foreign aid and conservation funding. One of the planet’s most precious ecological treasures is home to one of its poorest nations and it raises difficult and complex questions about the relationship between necessity and luxury. Amidst political uncertainty, the island’s fragile and unique ecology is being smuggled out illegally, boat by boat, gem by gem. Rare tortoises leave in rucksacks, forests are carved into the ebony fingerboards on Gibson Guitars or $1million rosewood beds sold in China.

In the run up to the country’s first election since the coup Unknown Fields heads to Madagascar to catalogue the push and pull of economy and ecology and to trace the shadows of the world’s desires across the landscapes of this treasured island. Along our way we seek to uncover some of the complex value negotiations that play out across this unique island and craft new stories from statistics, data, predictions, projections, measurements and offsets.

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