Agriculture forms the livelihood of the overwhelming majority of Malagasy. And yet, although agriculture is a vital export earner, the industry remains underdeveloped, accounting for only one-third of GDP—a level below that of its agrarian neighbors. Despite half the country being cultivable, only 5 percent is currently used for crop production, and only 16 percent of this is irrigated; most farmers eke out a subsistence living on small family plots. Poor transport systems and highly limited access to credit have also inhibited commercial development and discouraged investment in cash crops.
The main staple crop is rice, occupying about two-thirds of all available cropland. Despite a long-standing government goal of rice self-sufficiency, however, Madagascar remains a net importer. Traditional cash crops— most of which were introduced by the French in the 19th century—include coffee, cotton, sugar cane, vanilla, and cloves. But pressure from other producing countries has undermined Madagascar's market share in these commodities and cut into export earnings. Coffee continues to hold its own, accounting for around 8 percent of exports (US$42.5 million, est. 1998), as does cotton (4.1 percent), traditionally the second most important export crop. But vanilla and cloves have been badly hit by sagging world prices, shrinking from a traditional one-third export share to around 5 percent in 1999. Non-traditional crops have fared better and include cassava (the second major crop in terms of land used), corn, sweet potato, and bananas.
With some 50 percent of all Malagasy land used for herding, livestock farming (especially Zebu beef cattle) is another important export earner, though ownership patterns and social imperatives inhibit full commercialization. Timber is also significant. Although Madagascar's native reserves have been largely cleared for farming, there is heavy international pressure to conserve what is left; about 260,000 hectares of pine and eucalyptus forests are currently under cultivation.
Fishing is growing in importance and shows considerable promise. Prawn and tuna exports in particular are valuable export earners, and production is expected by 2001 to have increased by 25 percent over its 1995 levels, with 20 percent more jobs created. Shrimp farming is also taking off; other products include tilapia, black bass, trout, and lobster.