"It was a surprise that there was gas beneath my land. Before we thought this was a wonderful thing," says Jean Manantsoa, remembering when he was first told of the riches beneath his rice.
But since I gave it to the Chinese it has been a disaster."
Feeling pressured by the representative of the company, Madagascar Southern Petroleum Company (MSPC), Jean signed an open-ended lease for five million Malagasy ariary a year (£1,420). He received the first year's payment but nothing this year even eight months after the 1 April deadline. Jean now claims his paddies are ruined; a metal drilling bore and concrete slab sits on his rice field and the surrounding brown earth is churned into dry clods.
An investigation by the Forum for African Investigative Reporting (FAIR) has found a Chinese company in Madagascar, with strong links to the government, is accused of unlawfully acquiring land, blighting the environment and leaving farmers destitute. In previously unpublished documents, Madagascar's National Environment Office, ONE (office national pour l'environnement), slams MSPC, owned by one of China and Madagascar's most powerful mining billionaires, Dr Hui Chi Ming. Hui is currently Madagascar's consul in Hong Kong and advises the prime minister and president on economic and Asian affairs. "He's the top of the top", says one Malagasy official who dined at Hui's Hong Kong residence close to when the philanthropist and billionaire appeared on Forbes's 2009 "400 Richest Chinese List" with an estimated wealth of $815 million.
Hui's MSPC is a subsidiary of Hoifu Energy Limited recently announced plans to increase profits through growing "the portion of oil and gas businesses". Neil Bush, the 58 year-old brother of former U.S. president George W. Bush, is one of eight directors.
Madagascar is a resource-rich country but the island's oil and gas wealth has been largely unexplored and extractive industries made up just 0.53% of GDP in 2011, the last assessed year by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
At the turn of the century, officials granted 20 onshore blocks on the country's west coast to a handful of Chinese, British, Australian, American, Indian and Malagasy companies.
Among them was MSPC, which scooped up a 9,260 square kilometer plot — larger than Devon and Cornwall combined — known as Block 3112. Eight years on, Block 3112 is promising and should start producing gas in 2017, according to Hery Zaka Razafindrakoto, the deputy head of petroleum at Madagascar's oil and gas regulator, OMNIS. But since July 2012, the ONE has visited MSPC's Mahaboboka site and questioned the company about what the government regulator identified as "grave failures committed by MSPC with regard to environmental legislation in force." One experienced government official says: "The worksite, from an environmental perspective, was a dump. It was in the worst condition that I had ever seen."
"The Chinese lied to the villagers," says Mahababoboka's Mayor Emile Rakotondravelo from his second-floor office, a concrete building where broken green lino covers the floor.
"The company said that I had already agreed to sign the contracts," something the mayor denies. Without the mayor's consent and signatures, the contracts are invalid under Malagasy law.
"I told them I wanted to legalise the contract before the Mayor," says Manantsoa. "But the company said they had already had discussions with the mayor and gotten his approval."
Accusations of land grabbing in Madagascar are not new. But ONE's response to MSPC is rare, according to insiders, reflecting the increased attention to foreign ownership of the country's natural resources.
"Land and resource grabbing in Madagascar is far from experiencing a downward trend," says Giulia Franchi, land campaigner with the Italian NGO Re:common. "Whether this happens through lease or sale contracts, the actual results for local communities is the same: their land is being grabbed and they lose any possibility to sustain themselves."
Despite MSPC submitting a document confirming it owns no land in the Mahaboboka area "The Chinese bought land through a female employee," claims another official with detailed knowledge of the case. Land registry documents show the purchaser of 74.48 acres and 2.1 hectares at Ankida is Ms Brigitte Monique Andrianifahanana, manager of Gold (Grand Investment Limited). Hui holds 21.98% of shares in a company that last year increased its stake in Gold Grand to 40%. Andrainifahanana is an employee of Hui's company Banque Industrielle et Comerciale de Madagascar and denies any link between Hui and her purchase.