According to HEALTHVV, the island’s soil is rarely naturally fertile, because it is poor in fertilizing elements. It has already been said that the whole central mountainous part of Madagascar is arid and sterile, and that crops are only possible in the valleys and at the bottom of naturally or artificially dried up lake basins; in the plains of the western part the soil would be less unfavorable for agriculture, but the rains are not always sufficient: the best arable areas are along the rivers; in the southern region the extreme drought makes cultivation almost always impossible.
Among the food plants, rice should be remembered in the first place: this cereal, which forms the basis of food for most Malagasy and which is also increasingly important as a genus of export, is cultivated throughout the island, except for the southern desert region; it constitutes the main source of wealth of the whole central region of Madagascar, where other crops are, it can be said, impossible.
There all the slums of the valleys and even the slopes of the mountains, when it has been possible to reduce them into terraces and lead water, are transformed into rice fields; the largest expanse of rice fields is the one called Betsimahatra, which lies at the foot of the capital, in the plain crossed by the Ikopa. The cultivation of rice, currently also practiced by European settlers, is practiced by the natives in a rather primitive way. The soil is dug up as soon as the water, during the rainy season, has invaded the ground or been brought there artificially. When the earth is minutely removed, the natives lead their herds of oxen into the field and force them to trample the ground until it turns into a liquid mud. Then the women bring to the field the rice plants that have been sown in small rice fields called “nurses”, to which it is possible to give water at any time of the year, and replant one by one these fragile stems, which measure from the 10 to 12 cm., In the mud of the paddy field; this is then left to itself until the plants mature, without neglecting, however, to monitor it and gradually eradicate the bad herbs. Once the rice is ripe, the water is allowed to drain away and the field dries up to proceed with the harvest, done by means of a scythe; the beating is carried out in the most primitive way, by beating the ends of the plants on a stone and then collecting the grains accumulated around: these are then separated from the straw and other impurities by means of large fans of woven reeds. Alongside the marsh rice, the most widespread, the natives also cultivate, in the E. and in the SE., mountain rice: they cut down a strip of wood and burn the wood, then at the first great rains they sow rice, which they reap in March or April; the same land is used at most twice: but the French government tries to prevent this cultivation, which has the effect of a rash deforestation.
The total production of rice, whose cultivation covers about 600,000 hectares, is currently 1,250,000 tons: the export in 1913 was 10,664 tons, valued at 2,287,000 francs; in 1931 it marked a value of 25 million francs in the customs registers.
Of the other cereals, corn is important, which is grown for the consumption of indigenous people especially in the south-western region of the island: the total production is more than 100,000 tons: throughout the island, but especially in the west and south., Sorghum or African millet is grown. After rice, cassava is of great importance for indigenous food, especially cultivated in the north-western region, where there are also important crops conducted by Europeans; Cassava is in fact an object of export, as it is used in the industries of starch, tapioca, alcohol, etc. Following, for the place it occupies in the diet of the indigenous, the sweet potato, grown in all regions of the island, which gives an annual production of about 300,000 tons. They still need to be remembered, antakai or Malagasy beans, and other legumes, that of songes ; under the European influence, the cultivation and consumption of potatoes are expanding, especially in the central regions.
Among the colonial crops, that of sugar cane, already exercised for a long time by the natives, who consume it directly or make fermented drinks from it, currently covers an area of about 11,000 hectares: important sugar factories have sprung up especially in Nosy Bé, in the Sambirano valley and around Tamatava and sugar and rum are exported. Of great importance are the coffee plantations, already cultivated by the natives, which cover various expanses in the eastern regions, and also in the northwest and in Betsileo: in 1931 the export was over 11,000 tons for a value of 70 million. The French administration encourages the cultivation of cocoa, of which there are plantations on the east coast, almost exclusively in the province of Tamatava: in 1931, 200 tons were exported. of cocoa for a value of 600,000 francs. Among the most profitable colonial crops is that of vanilla, which has taken a great development on the eastern side and also in the north-west of Madagascar; in 1930, however, it was hit by a strong crisis. The cultivation of carnation is also very profitable, which is practiced almost only on the island of S. Maria in front of the east coast: in 1931 2800 tons were exported. of cloves worth 22 million. The Europeans also have tobacco plantations, but also cultivated extensively by the natives, who make extensive use of it. Cinnamon, pepper, kola nuts, etc. are also produced. The French government tries to extend the cultivation of cotton; that of hemp is practiced in certain points of the central plateau. Among the tree crops it is worth mentioning that of the coconut palm in the North, along the west and south-east coasts. Also noteworthy is the cultivation of sesame, which serves local needs, and that of ambrevates, whose leaves are used for the breeding of silkworms.
As a whole, the island of Madagascar is not rich in woods, however the forests of the eastern chain offer an abundance of wood, sometimes precious, that can be used for various uses; but the exploitation of the forest must be done more rationally – and the efforts of the French administration tend to this – in order to be able to feed a larger export than what is currently being done. The peels of some plants are used for the preparation of tannin; there are also textile or dyeing plants, others that supply rubber, gums and resins, wax, oil grains. The rind, used in the tannery, is obtained from the paletuvieri, very frequent on the western coast.