Conservationists in Madagascar emphasize the need to educate local farmers about proper land use, while often ignoring the ideas and practices of expatriate residents in past and present debates about Malagasy ecology. The premise of this article is that we need to study both within the same analytical framework to understand the complexities of social-ecological change in Madagascar. The ravinala or “Traveler's Tree” (Ravenala madagascariensis), a longtime symbol of Madagascar, serves here as a kind of cultural common ground. Focusing on changing accounts of the tree over time, I argue that the contradictory images of a living, bleeding Eden—found in many popular and scholarly accounts of Madagascar—are rooted in religious and political conflicts that are relevant to the country's ecological history. This case study furthers our general understanding of“the social life of trees” by showing how people use trees to orient themselves in place and time, to articulate their relations with other living beings in their immediate and more distant surroundings, and to establish and legitimate claims to land.

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