Madagascar, troubled vanilla island

© Getty images A Malagasy fisherman is seen at work in the waters in front of the fishing community of Anakao

From: AFP
The Indian Ocean island of Madagascar is the leading global producer of vanilla and blessed with a bountiful biodiversity, yet it remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Fourth largest island

Stretching across 587,000 square kilometres (nearly 227,000 square miles), Madagascar is the world's fourth largest island, bigger than Spain or Thailand in size.

The island country lies just over 400 kilometres (250 miles) off the southeastern coast of Africa and is home to a population of nearly 25 million people (2016, World Bank), including 18 ethnic groups.

Madagascar is frequently exposed to extreme weather events, such as tropical storms, flooding and drought. One of the most powerful cyclones in recent years, Enawo, claimed nearly 80 lives on the island in March 2017.

While it is renowned for its luscious biodiversity, some of this is under threat including critically endangered lemurs, the rare and ruby-coloured rosewood, and various tortoises and turtles.

Wildlife smuggling and trafficking of its abundant natural wealth remains a national concern.

Political divisions

The former French colony, which gained independence in 1960, has been mired in political division and upheaval for decades.

A disputed 2001 presidential election led to violent clashes that ended with Marc Ravalomanana, the mayor of the capital, taking power.

© Getty images An elderly man walks between boats moored at the fishing community of Anakao

The outgoing leader was Didier Ratsiraka, a one-time Marxist who had ruled since 1975 and went into exile.

Ravalomanana was toppled in 2009 by another Antananarivo mayor, Andry Rajoelina, in an army-backed coup.

But Rajoelina was disqualified as a candidate in 2013 elections for his links to the country's troubled past, as were Ravalomanana's wife and Ratsiraka.

Protests erupted again in April 2018 over claims that laws ahead of the presidential vote would see certain candidates barred.

After weeks of unrest and calls for him to quit, President Hery Rajaonarimampianina was forced to replace his government with a "consensus" administration in June 2018.

Vanilla, sapphires, malnutrition

Heavily reliant on international aid, Madagascar has since 2016 registered annual growth of more than four percent, the World Bank says.

But most people have not benefited from the improved economic situation with 76 percent living in extreme poverty.

The country supplies about 80 percent of global vanilla bean stocks and is also one of the world's leading producers of sapphires.

Its agriculture sector, the main source of income for most people, is vulnerable to its regular natural disasters. Rice production, for example, fell by about 20 percent from 2016 which led to unbearable price hikes, according to the World Bank.

Madagascar has the sixth highest rate of malnutrition in the world, with nearly half of all Malagasy children under the age of five suffering from chronic malnutrition according to Unicef.

The impoverished nation has among the highest global levels of illiterate children.

Only about 13 percent of its population has access to electricity.

Sources: AFP, Unicef, World Bank