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Released March 10, 2003

By Phil Hearn

HATTIESBURG - French colonialists seeking domination of Madagascar in the early 20th century launched biological warfare against opposing livestock herders who wielded their own weapon of crass obstruction: the prickly pear cactus.

Herders in arid southern areas of the Indian Ocean island nation historically used the thorny cactus to feed cattle during lean months when the grass was dry or eaten to a nub. They also used the impenetrable cactus forests – where some species grow as tall as river birch trees – to dodge French colonial law enforcers and tax collectors.

"The pastoralists (herders) would simply disappear into the cactus forests or ambush columns of French soldiers snaking their way through narrow paths of prickly pear cactus," explained Dr. Jeffrey C. Kaufmann of The University of Southern Mississippi, an expert on the subject. "Dozens of French officers were speared to death in these mazes."

Eventually, in a 25-year struggle to conquer the herders and firmly establish colonial rule on the southern Africa island, the French introduced biological warfare to the region.

"They spread a cactus parasite on the Malagasy prickly pear being cultivated by pastoralists in an area the size of Ohio," said Kaufmann, a Southern Miss assistant professor of anthropology. "The cactus died and so did thousands of Malagasy cattle and several hundred people... The killing famine that some terribly ignorant/smart French brought to Madagascar could have been avoided if they had listened to the pastoralists."

An article by Kaufmann on the subject, entitled "La Question des Raketa: Colonial Struggles with Prickly Pear Cactus in Southern Madagascar, 1900-1923," has been awarded the Robert F. Heizer Prize by the American Society of Ethnohistory for the best article published in the discipline in 2001. The winning article – selected by the Heizer Committee at its annual meeting in Quebec City, Canada -- appeared in the Winter-Spring 2001 issue of Ethnohistory.

"The article looks at how local pastoralist populations in Madagascar were able to thwart French colonialism through the cultivation of prickly pear cactus," said Dr. Ed Jackson, chair of Southern Miss' Department of Anthropology and Sociology. "This prestigious international award was decided by a panel that read all articles published on ethnohistory in lead journals" around the world.

"Committee members noted in their remarks that this sort of ethno-environmental history could help reorient our understanding of contact, colonization and resistance as cultural processes recorded on the land itself," said Jackson, noting that ethnohistory uses both historical and ethnographic data in an attempt to understand culture on its own terms.

Kaufmann – who joined the Southern Miss faculty in 2000 and is an active member of the university's African Studies program – spent last summer in France studying documents, photographs and maps dealing with the French biological campaign to eradicate Malagasy cactus. His work was funded by both a grant from the Lucas Endowment and a Summer Research Faculty Grant.

"The French weren't accustomed to working or living around all that prickly pear," he explained. "Like a lot of us, the French considered grass the most logical plant for cattle to eat. But in southwest Madagascar, where there is very little rain, the water-bearing and nutritious prickly pear was just the thing to feed cattle... The pastoralists go through an elaborate process of cutting, neatly stacking, burning off the thorns, then cutting the cactus pads into strips that cattle can easily pick up and masticate...

"Not until 1928 were the French confident that they held the land and the people," he added. "But to reach that point, they had to introduce biological warfare into the region. The lesson here for us to remember is that no matter how smart we think we are, there are things that we don't understand. Listening to the little guys can avoid big problems later on."

Formerly an independent nation, Madagascar – nearly twice the size of Arizona -- became a French colony in 1896. The country, which regained its independence in 1960, has a population today of approximately 16.4 million.



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July 16, 2003 9:20 AM