Why famine in Madagascar is an alarm bell for the planet | Big Indy News
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Why famine in Madagascar is an alarm bell for the planet



The UN has called it the world’s first climate-change-induced famine. Madagascar’s government agrees it is a result of the west’s carbon-fuelled lifestyle. A number of scientists and experts disagree, saying it is actually a consequence of poverty and poor governance.

For the people of southern Madagascar, unaware of the international furore, it is known simply as kere — the hunger.

Soanavorie Tognemare, a resourceful 22-year-old who lives with her husband and two toddlers in a village near Ambovombe, did everything she could to keep her children alive. “I fed cactus fruit and wild leaves to my children,” she says, holding her two-year-old daughter, Haova, who was at one point diagnosed as being severely malnourished. “We boiled the leaves and added salt. It had no taste but it filled our stomachs,” she says. “Kere means hunger. No food every day. That’s kere.”

Rain has barely fallen for three years in southern Madagascar, a semi-barren region in a California-sized island nation off the east coast of Africa that is more often associated with tropical forests, baobab trees and lemurs than with starvation.

But in the south, more than 1,000km from the capital Antananarivo, or three lurching days on a dirt track that passes for a highway, even in the best of times people eke out the meagrest of existences. In a part of the country where mobile phones and motorbikes are rare and where only the better-off travel in two-wheeled carts pulled by long-horned cattle, the lack of rain has tipped hundreds of thousands into extreme hunger.

Some 1.68mn people, or a third of the population of the Grand Sud, remain in “crisis” or “humanitarian emergency”, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a standard five-point scale of escalating hunger. In a cactus-filled landscape where people wear wide-brimmed cowboy-style hats and have a proud history of resisting central authority, many were reduced to eating plants and leaves normally fed to cattle.

Marcelline Voatsasinanjara, who grew up locally and who now works for Save the Children, describes the physical effects of extreme hunger. “You can’t move,” she says. “Only the eyes show you are alive.”

The government accepts that many people are hungry but it is wary of the term “famine”, with its implication of state failure. Still, one local official says he knows for certain that on one day alone, 26 people died of hunger.

“They had nothing to eat so they ate cactus leaves or they found leaves on the ground,” says Lalaina Rakotondramanana, the prefect of Ambovombe, capital of one of the three administrative regions that make up the Grand Sud.

Children staggered into town to beg for food, he says. Adults sold their few possessions, including pots and pans, to purchase cassava or rice or to buy water, a commodity so precious that one resident compared it to liquid gold. Like people fleeing America’s dust bowl in the 1930s, some people packed up entirely and headed elsewhere. A few were even filmed boiling and eating their leather sandals, though Rakotondramanana insists this was a hoax.

The prefect of Ambovombe, Lalaina Rakotondramanana
The prefect of Ambovombe, Lalaina Rakotondramanana: ‘The south has been forgotten for a long time’

The slow motion tragedy touches on several issues that go well beyond Madagascar’s particular circumstances. As in many countries, years of neglect by a centralised government have left marginalised communities vulnerable to sudden shocks, whether from the climate or from events like the food-inflationary war in Ukraine. The intervention of aid agencies has highlighted their role in pulling desperate people back from the brink, yet they have a much patchier record in preventing people from falling into crisis in the first place.

More fundamentally still, Madagascar’s humanitarian crisis raises the question of man-made environmental destruction, whether at a global or a local level. As the people of the Grand Sud struggle to scratch out a living from depleted soil, they offer a warning to other countries, and arguably the planet itself, about what happens when humans push nature too far.

As Jared Diamond, the geographer, wrote in his book Collapse, entire societies, such as that of Easter Island, the once-flourishing Pacific island, can suddenly spiral downwards towards self-destruction. Just as one Easter Islander presumably chopped down the last of the trees on which the island’s survival depended, some scientists say, so the people of Madagascar, where deforestation has also been rife, are in danger of wrecking the very landscape they need to survive.

As people in rich and poor countries alike exploit the environment for its resources and use it as a carbon sink and rubbish tip, what is happening in southern Madagascar could be a harbinger for communities everywhere. Many scientists believe it is only a matter of time before people in many parts of the world find themselves living in places that simply cannot sustain life as they have known it.

“It’s hard to live here. There’s not enough rain so we can’t grow food,” says Patricia Vola, a community organiser in the Grand Sud.

A portrait of Patricia Vola
Patricia Vola, a community organiser, in the southern region

Tracing the causes

Madagascar’s famine has become a lightning rod for arguments about climate change, in particular whether global heating has contributed to the island’s crisis. It was David Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina and now executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme, who first made the connection. “There have been back-to-back droughts in Madagascar which have pushed communities right to the very edge of starvation,” he said after a visit last June. “This is not because of war or conflict, this is because of climate change.”

Madagascar’s own government picked up the claim. At the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow last November, Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina, then environment minister, excoriated the west for failing to take seriously the links between its own actions and the plight of poor people. Why did Europeans continue to criss-cross their continent on cheap flights, she asked? Even delegates at a climate change conference ate outside warmed by gas heaters.

Nor had rich countries, she said, honoured their pledge, first made in 2009, to muster $100bn annually to help poor countries with climate mitigation and adaptation. With its share of that money, Madagascar could have constructed a pipeline to bring water into its parched southern region, she said.

Amid soaring temperatures in the UK, warnings of a “heat apocalypse” in France and devastating forest fires from Australia to the US, it might seem obvious that Madagascar’s prolonged drought is the result of global climate change. Several regions of Africa, from the Sahel to the Horn, where hunger is also prevalent, have been adversely affected by unpredictable and devastating weather patterns.

However, a report last December by World Weather Attribution, a respected research collective, found that in Madagascar’s case “natural climate variability” rather than “human-caused climate change” was the main weather-related cause of what would normally be a once-in-135-year event. (Such an event has now occurred twice in 30 years.) Moreover, it said, “food insecurity in Madagascar is not just driven by meteorological drought, but also a host of factors such as demographics, poverty, infrastructure, policy and non-climate shocks”.

That report was seized on by some critics as evidence that both the UN and Madagascar’s government had milked the climate-change angle as a fundraising ploy. One charity that works in southern Madagascar concedes that contributions shot up after articles began to appear linking the famine with global warming.

Emre Seri, a Madagascar-based journalist writing for French magazine Revue XXI, called the claim “one of the most successful media stunts of recent years”. Instead of climate change, he blamed the failure of government policies, cattle-rustling and other local factors in a country that is poorer now than at independence in 1960.

An aerial view of Ankilihago, showing arid fields and few trees
Parched fields around the village of Ankilihago in the Androy region

Government neglect has undoubtedly played a role. In the south of Madagascar, provision of everything from schools to roads is inadequate to non-existent. “The south has been forgotten for a long time,” says Rakotondramanana, the prefect of Ambovombe.

Politicians in Antananarivo have been promising to fix the main road for decades, something he thinks may now actually happen, at least on one section, after a recent presidential visit. As things stand, cars and trucks can get stuck for days or even weeks, raising the cost of goods and making it difficult to transport farm surpluses — where there are any — to the cities.

Even more urgent, say local officials, is to bring water to the region, either by piping it in or by tapping the reserves that lie deep underground.

“Rural Madagascar has gone backwards economically in the last few decades,” says Paul Wilkin, an expert on Madagascar at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. “The drought is not primarily caused by climate change, but by poverty. ”

Policy failures aside, some scientists have a different explanation for the drought. Patricia Wright, an expert on Madagascar’s environment at Stony Brook University in New York, argues that unsustainable human practices have pushed the country towards the brink of catastrophe. “Madagascar is in a dangerous downward spiral,” she says. “People get poorer every year. And with climate change breathing down their throat, it makes it worse, accelerating everything.”

A family fills yellow plastic cans with water at a well
A family buys water from commercial wells on the outskirts of Ambovombe. It is so scarce in the south that one person referred to it as liquid gold

Chopping down trees for charcoal

Human settlement on Madagascar, which according to some estimates broke off from the continental landmass more than 80mn years ago, is relatively recent. Ten thousand years ago some Africans found their way across the Mozambique Channel to the island, 400km off the coast, but it was people from Indonesia who colonised the island en masse, probably about 2,500 years ago. The closest language to Malagasy, Madagascar’s national language, is spoken in the interior of Borneo, some 10,000km away.

The new settlers found a heavily forested island — quite how forested is disputed — whose flora and fauna was 90 per cent endemic. For much of the island’s megafauna, the arrival of people spelt extinction. Scientists estimate that some 17 species of giant lemur, a type of mammal only found on Madagascar, two species of hippo, two species of giant tortoise and four species of elephant bird were wiped out, either hunted for meat or deprived of their habitat by slash-and-burn agriculture.

The introduction of cattle, so venerated in the south that their horns adorn owners’ graves, created need for pasture.

Wright at Stony Brook argues that recent human activity has been more destructive still. Poverty has pushed people into increasingly unsustainable practices, she says, including chopping down trees for the charcoal that people in the cities use to cook. The country’s population has grown sixfold from 5mn at independence to almost 30mn today, adding to land pressure, she says. “Where does this end? It ends in disaster, doesn’t it?”

Alison Richard, a senior research scientist at Yale, pushes back against what she calls the “Paradise Lost” version of Madagascar’s environmental history, one that she says was characterised by constant flux well before the arrival of humans. Author of a recent book, The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present, Richard says that much of the island was covered in wild grasses, not forests, and that soil in the south has probably always been poor and droughts frequent.

Satellite imagery, she concedes, shows that some 40 per cent of forest cover has vanished in the past 50 years, swallowed up for farmland, forestry, mining and charcoal. Though there have been attempts to blame Malagasys for everything, she says, there are plenty of other culprits.

France, which colonised the island in 1896, accelerated environmental destruction by expropriating the best farmland, forcing rice farmers up the slopes on to unsustainable land. In the south, much land clearance came after 1990, she says, the unintended consequence of a well-meaning EU policy to promote commercial agriculture.

“There are many hands on the axe,” she says.

Richard argues that, with more political will, environmental destruction can be reversed and people’s lives improved. She advocates the planting of native trees. Farmers could grow valuable cash crops like vanilla, of which Madagascar supplies 80 per cent of the world’s needs, and green peppercorn. “It’s not the fact of human presence. It’s what you do,” she says. “That to me is a seed of hope. Otherwise, it’s a kind of: ‘We’re doomed. It’s in our DNA to destroy ourselves.’”

In the village of Somontsala, a three-hour drive from Ambovombe, Letoto Manantsoa, an elder, accepts the link between deforestation and drought. “As Malagasy people, we think maybe it’s because we cut the trees,” he says. “That’s why there’s no more rain.”

Wilkin at Kew agrees there could be a connection between local deforestation and changing rain patterns. The same could also be true for fearsome dust storms, known as tiomena, or “red winds” that destroy seedlings and make life unbearable. “The tiomena comes from the east, bringing red sand,” says Fenosoa, a villager who goes by one name. “All the leaves and everything else in the village turn red. Even the cows turn red.”

A boy  runs past stands of cactus
The arid land sustains cactus but food crops will only grow when there is sufficient rain

Rakotondramanana, the prefect, says: “The sandstorms are a result of deforestation. There are not enough trees to maintain the land.”

As the soil degrades, it becomes yet harder to grow crops, forcing people to seek other income. One man agrees to show his illegal charcoal operation using wood harvested from trees several hours’ walk from the road. A large sack goes for 10,000 ariary, or about $2. “I can’t give my name. I’m scared of going to jail,” he says.

A smattering of rain earlier this year, combined with a big international aid effort — catalysed partly by the famine’s alleged association with global climate change — has eased the situation somewhat, though many people remain desperate. The IPC says that the likelihood of poor harvests of maize, cassava and sweet potato, the region’s staples, mean that tens of thousands could slip back into extreme hunger. After three years of drought, it will take more than a few days of rain to restore equilibrium, aid workers say.

In Somontsala, villagers say that monthly cash payments from Save the Children have staved off starvation. But the last of six instalments was paid in July.

Asked what they will eat now, Mary Blandine breaks open a tiny nut and displays the seeds on the palm of her hand. “This,” she says.

A hand displays the seeds from a nut that villages eat, along with leaves and cactus, when the harvest is poor

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here.

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Sister Patricia Daly, 66, Dies; Took On Corporate Giants on Social Justice



For years, Sister Pat and other environmentalists had urged ExxonMobil to take significant steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from its operations and products. In 2007, she proposed a resolution that called on that energy giant to set a firm date to report on its progress.

“We’re the most profitable company in the history of the planet,” she told Rex Tillerson, then the company’s chief executive (and later secretary of state in the Trump administration), at the company’s annual meeting, “but what will be our long-term health when we are really faced with the regulatory and other challenges around global warming?”

She added: “We are now, this company and every single one of us, challenged by one of the most profound moral concerns. And we have the wherewithal to respond to that.”

The proposal won 31 percent of the ballots, or about 1.4 billion shares, the largest tally for an ExxonMobil climate-change resolution. If not an outright victory, it was a page in a decades-long narrative that led ExxonMobil to put a climate scientist on its board in 2017. Three executives who recognized the urgency to address climate change joined the company’s board in 2021, nominated by a tiny activist hedge fund, Engine No. 1.

“The arc of her work led us to those victories by working from the inside and the outside,” John Passacantando, the founder of Ozone Action, an anti-global warming group, and a former executive director of Greenpeace, said in a phone interview.

In 1999, Vanity Fair named her to its Hall of Fame, applauding her as one who “translates belief into commitment and never backs down from a fight.”

Mary Beth Gallagher, who replaced Sister Pat as executive director of the Tri-State Coalition in 2017, said Sister Pat had not become frustrated when her resolutions were routinely voted down.

“She lived in hope,” Ms. Gallagher said. “We never talked about winning or losing. It was about raising consciousness and educating. If we’re not asking these questions, who will?”

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Families can make a tax-free rollover from 529 plans to Roth individual retirement accounts starting in 2024



Maskot | Maskot | Getty Images

Americans who save for college in 529 plans will soon have a way to rescue unused funds while keeping their tax benefits intact.

A $1.7 trillion government funding package has a provision that lets savers roll money from 529 plans to Roth individual retirement accounts free of income tax or tax penalties.

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The House passed the measure Friday and the Senate did so Thursday. The bill heads to President Biden, who’s expected to sign it into law.

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The rollover measure — which takes effect in 2024 — has some limitations. Among the largest: There’s a $35,000 lifetime cap on transfers.

“It’s a good provision for people who have [529 accounts] and the money hasn’t been used,” said Ed Slott, a certified public accountant and IRA expert based in Rockville Centre, New York.

That might happen if a beneficiary — such as a child or grandchild — doesn’t attend a college, university, vocational or private K-12 school, or other qualifying institution, for example. Or, a student may receive scholarships that mean some 529 funds are left over.

Millions of 529 accounts hold billions in savings

There were nearly 15 million 529 accounts at the end of last year, holding a total $480 billion, according to the Investment Company Institute. That’s an average of about $30,600 per account.

529 plans carry tax advantages for college savers. Namely, investment earnings on account contributions grow tax-free and aren’t taxable if used for qualifying education expenses like tuition, fees, books, and room and board.

Retirement plan changes in the omnibus spending bill

However, that investment growth is generally subject to income tax and a 10% tax penalty if used for an ineligible expense.

This is where rollovers to a Roth IRA can benefit savers with stranded 529 money. A transfer would skirt income tax and penalties; investments would keep growing tax-free in a Roth account, and future retirement withdrawals would also be tax-free.  

Some think it’s a handout for the rich

However, some critics think the rollover policy largely amounts to a tax handout to wealthier families.

“You’re giving savings incentives to those who can save and leaving behind those who cannot save,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

A 2012 analysis conducted by the Government Accountability Office found the typical American with a 529 account had “much more wealth” than someone without: $413,500 in total wealth for the median person, about 25 times the amount of a non-accountholder.

You’re giving savings incentives to those who can save and leaving behind those who cannot save.

Steve Rosenthal

senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

Further, the typical owner had a roughly $142,000 annual income versus $45,000 for other families, the GAO report said. Almost half, 47%, had incomes over $150,000.

The new 529-to-Roth IRA transfer provision doesn’t carry income limits.

Limitations on 529-to-IRA transfers

While the new tax break primarily benefits wealthier families, there are “pretty significant” limitations on the rollovers that reduce the financial benefit, Jeffrey Levine, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant based in St. Louis, said in a tweet.

The restrictions include:

  • A $35,000 lifetime cap on transfers.
  • Rollovers are subject to the annual Roth IRA contribution limit. (The limit is $6,500 in 2023.)
  • The rollover can only be made to the beneficiary’s Roth IRA — not that of the account owner. (In other words, a 529 owned by a parent with the child as beneficiary would need to be rolled into the child’s IRA, not the parent’s.)
  • The 529 account must have been open for at least 15 years. (It seems changing account beneficiaries may restart that 15-year clock, Levine said.)
  • Accountholders can’t roll over contributions, or earnings on those contributions, made in the last five years.

In a summary document, the Senate Finance Committee said current 529 tax rules have “led to hesitating, delaying, or declining to fund 529s to levels needed to pay for the rising costs of education.”

“Families who sacrifice and save in 529 accounts should not be punished with tax and penalty years later if the beneficiary has found an alternative way to pay for their education,” it said.

Are 529 plans already flexible enough?

Some education savings experts think 529 accounts have adequate flexibility so as not to deter families from using them.

For example, owners with leftover account funds can change beneficiaries to another qualifying family member — thereby helping avoid a tax penalty for non-qualified withdrawals. Aside from a kid or grandkid, that family member might be you; a spouse; a son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother-in-law; sibling or step-sibling; first cousin or their spouse; a niece, nephew or their spouse; or aunt and uncle, among others.

Owners can also keep funds in an account for a beneficiary’s graduate schooling or the education of a future grandchild, according to Savingforcollege.com. Funds can also be used to make up to $10,000 of student loan payments.

The tax penalty may also not be quite as bad as some think, according to education expert Mark Kantrowitz. For example, taxes are assessed at the beneficiary’s income-tax rate, which is generally lower than the parent’s tax rate by at least 10 percentage points.

In that case, the parent “is no worse off than they would have been had they saved in a taxable account,” depending on their tax rates on long-term capital gains, he said.

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Goldman grumbling grows for banking giant to sack CEO David Solomon



The knives are out for Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, and this time the people brandishing them aren’t the usual suspects — his junior staffers annoyed that they have to work late or come into the office several times a week.

Solomon’s problems are more serious and existential, I am told, and how he handles what can best be described as a revolt in some quarters of Goldman’s middle and upper management ranks could determine how much longer he stays in his job.

Solomon, 60, took the job in 2018 and was always somewhat of an odd choice to run the white-shoe investment bank that usually cultivated its leaders from within. He cut his teeth at a decidedly un-Goldman-like venue: the scrappy investment bank Bear Stearns (ultimately one of the causalities of the 2008 financial crisis).

He joined Goldman in 1999, as a partner, no less, because his deal-making chops allowed him to skip layers of management.

In other words, Solomon is an outsider at a firm with a wickedly insular culture. He has a quirky side gig as a DJ in the summer Hamptons party circuit. He’s also not one for small talk, and doesn’t consult with a lot of people before handing down his edicts. 

“He doesn’t breed a lot of love,” said one former Goldman executive who knows Solomon well.

Lots of people at Goldman don’t like him, and they’re letting their views be heard both internally and with pals at rival firms.

Solomon as a DJ
Solomon is an outsider at a firm with a wickedly insular culture.
David Solomon/Instagram

For the record: I’ve met Solomon and like him for his no-BS style. And until pretty recently, the numbers show him doing a great job. Goldman was running on all cylinders in deals and trading. Even as the market corrects, shares are up about 60% since Solomon took over as CEO in 2018 compared to around a 44% rise in the S&P during that time.

Goldman is still the top M&A shop, even widening its market share over rivals in that important business line. Solomon was the first among his fellow CEOs to see the downturn and enact significant layoffs to cut costs.

Still, the grumbling about Solomon is spreading to the managing director and partner class. High-priced Wall Street talent don’t call all the shots at any firm, of course. But Goldman’s MDs and partners have historically been a powerful force when the board decides the fate of current management, which makes Solomon’s hold on his job increasingly precarious as more and more of them defect from his camp.

David Solomon as a DJ
Solomon was the first among his fellow CEOs to see the downturn and enact significant layoffs to cut costs.
David Solomon/Instagram

Here’s how they’re building a case against him: Goldman’s longtime archrival investment bank Morgan Stanley now easily dwarfs Goldman in market value, $144 billion to $116 billion, continuing a trend that predates Solomon. That comes amid a slowdown in banking deals, Goldman’s bread-and-butter business, and Solomon’s home turf.

Morgan’s CEO James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues. Solomon’s effort to diversify was an overindulgence in something called Marcus, a digital retail bank launched by his predecessor Lloyd Bankfein that Solomon made his baby. So far, it’s been a disaster, so much so that Solomon has been forced to scale back, possibly on the way to winding it down.

Goldman, meanwhile, has missed targets in its recent earnings announcements, and more downward surprises could be in store as markets continue to wobble. Bonuses are down, in some places cut in half, albeit from the nosebleed levels of 2021.

Goldman Sachs headquarters
The grumbling about Solomon is spreading to the managing director and partner class.
AFP via Getty Images

Traders did well in 2022 because Goldman’s are particularly adept in profiting off turbulence, but part of their pool is being diverted to bankers to keep them in-house until the deal slowdown ends.

Since Solomon is a banker, he’s also being accused of favoritism, which in truth is a pretty lame charge, since bankers often subsidize trader bonuses when the markets aren’t profitable. Still, the Goldman trading department is powerful and can spark management change, as it has done in the past.

There’s also a question about Solomon’s allegiance to Goldman’s stand-alone culture. In its 153-year existence, Goldman has operated on the assumption that it would be the acquirer in any major strategic acquisition. Solomon’s experience at Bear, then one of the most transactional places on Wall Street, means he could be looking for a deal and not one that keeps Goldman in charge.

Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues.
Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues.
AFP via Getty Images

At a time when most Goldman insiders believe he needs to do a “transformational deal,” i.e., something big that allows it to better compete against Morgan Stanley and super banks like JP Morgan, there is speculation that Solomon might allow Goldman to be swallowed whole by, say, a big asset manager or bank if the price was right.

As best I can tell, this grumbling, though real, doesn’t immediately threaten Solomon’s job. Then again, there is something to be said for keeping your producers happy.

Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, was a notorious screamer and demanding beyond belief. Yet Welch knew how to nurture his people.

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch
Jack Welch was a notorious screamer and demanding beyond belief. Yet Welch knew how to nurture his people.
Getty Images

“Jack could chew your ass, then put his arm around you and make you feel great,” one of his longtime executives, Bob Nardelli, once told me.

It’s why so many other talented execs chose to stay around under Welch, abuse and all, and left when his successor took over, watching GE implode from the outside.

Maybe it’s a good time for Solomon to take a page from Welch and start hugging it out.

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