VANGAINDRANO, Madagascar, March 12 (Reuters) - Velovano's baby is starving because her mother is.
When one-year-old Meolaldine's skeleton started showing through her skin, Velovano took her to a clinic where a doctor said the baby was near death.
"I can't produce enough breast milk to feed her because I have been too hungry myself," the 25-year-old Madagascan villager said, nursing her tiny infant with a cup of milk funnelled through a plastic tube strapped to her breast.
Like others in Vangaindrano, an isolated district of southeast Madagascar, Velovano has suffered from a chronic food shortage that has ravaged the population of 24,000 and left a fifth of children malnourished, many severely.
But Vangaindrano doesn't look like a famine zone.
Green and well-watered, with over 2,000 mm of rainfall a year, forests and bright green rice fields thrive.
While much of drought-prone East Africa is going hungry because of too little rain, Vangaindrano's problem is that it got too much.
"Heavy floods came down and washed out all of our rice fields," said Velovano. "They were all covered in sand and mud. Everything was destroyed. Now, we have nothing."
Madagascar is a puzzle to development workers.
Though warm and wet with a landmass bigger than France, the Indian Ocean island produces barely enough to feed its 17 million inhabitants.
Child malnutrition is among the worst in Africa and yields of the staple crop, rice, are lower than in Mali, a country on the edge of the Sahara.
The World Bank says a lack of roads leaves farmers with no access to markets for their produce, giving them little incentive to grow a surplus and condemning most of the 12 million people in rural areas to subsistence living.
Last year, Madagascar became the first recipient of U.S. President George W. Bush's flagship development fund for poor nations, winning $110 million from the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA).
The government plans to spend the MCA money on reforming the island's semi-feudal system of land ownership, which it says deters poor peasants from investing in land they have farmed for generations. Better access to rural credit is another goal.
In the southeast, a weak economy left Vangaindrano vulnerable to external shocks. Aid workers say many factors came together to cause the food crisis.
A series of tropical storms that ripped through the island last year ruined subsistence crops.
"It was a litany of natural disasters," said Dr Clovis Razafimbelo, who runs an emergency therapeutic feeding centre. "Floods, then a drought came after the floods, then a parasite that killed all the sweet potatoes. I've never seen a crisis like this."
Adding to woes were lower yields of Vangaindrano's only serious cash earners: cloves and lobsters.
A poor clove harvest from old, dying trees and fewer lobsters after new environmental regulations on the export size slashed the region's income.
"It is an isolated region. In good years (it) has enough food. But in bad years, the situation collapses," said Barbara Bentein, country director of the United Nations children's fund.
"So few investments have been done, roads are broken, there are lots of rivers with no bridges."
Poor nutritional practices such as over-dependence on staple crops like rice, and taboos about breast-feeding one child when pregnant with another have worsened the situation.
Tsahandroa, 20, stopped breast-feeding her first baby after only a few months. The child quickly became emaciated.
"I stopped feeding because I got pregnant again and the milk is poisonous if you are pregnant," she said. "I tried to start her on rice but she wouldn't eat. She got so thin."
Despite Madagascar's severe rural poverty, the government says development schemes are starting to bear fruit.
"To prevent crises like these in the future, we are looking at economic development. What can they produce? What can they sell? How can they get it to market?" said Ambimintsoa Raveloharison, head of the National Nutrition Office.
"They need ways of getting money."
Aid workers say President Marc Ravalomanana's government has done more to tackle rural poverty than any before it.
"In the past, national policies have tended to favour cities over rural areas," said Bentein. "Now, finally the government is putting emphasis on rural areas. The gap is closing."
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