Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Betsileo are peasants—agriculturists in a state-organized society. They grow rice, their preferred and staple food, on permanent plots that are cultivated with a single annual rice crop from year to year. Some fields are irrigated; others are rainfall-dependent. The irrigated fields may be transplanted in October; the others depend on the advent of November rains. Humped zebu cattle are essential to agriculture as most Betsileo practice it. Their dung, collected in stone semisubterranean corrals, is used as fertilizer. The cattle are attached to carts and used to pull plows and harrows, as well as to trample flooded fields after they have been plowed and tilled. There has been a historic shift from cattle (pastoralism) toward rice (intensive agriculture) throughout the Betsileo homeland, a trend that is most evident in the north and east. In the south and west especially, some Betsileo still breed and raise cattle, but most buy them in markets. Cattle are used to store wealth, as a means of production in the rice economy, and for ceremonial slaughter.
The Betsileo supplement a diet of rice and beef with other livestock (pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, turkeys; formerly goats and sheep) and many secondary crops: sweet manioc, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, taro, beans, cape peas, peanuts, maize, greens, tomatoes, onions, and bananas. Tobacco is grown as a cash crop. The Betsileo grow their own coffee and have many fruit trees, both tropical (e.g., mango, guava, passion fruit) and temperate (orange, lime, peach, plum, apricot). Occasional fishing is done in streams and rivers; eels are prized.
Industrial Arts. Houses are made of varied materials, including wattle and daub, bricks, and wood. The best houses are painted or whitewashed and have two or three stories, four to six rooms, tile roofs, and at least some brick or wood. The poorest houses have a single story with one or two rooms; their frames are wattle and daub and their roofs are composed of long grass collected on hillsides near the village. Works in stone dot the Betsileo landscape. These include monoliths raised to commemorate particular events, memorials of people who have died outside their homeland, and family tombs. The most common tomb is a rectangular semisubterranean structure rising about a meter above ground level. The Betsileo hire Merina masons to build their tombs. Modern tombs are of cement; more traditional structures are of small stones, like those used in the cattle corral. Along two or three walls inside the tomb are the beds (between six and nine) where the ancestors are deposited.
Trade. Coastal and interior Malagasy, including the Betsileo, have been linked for centuries through trade (including the slave trade), migration, raiding, and other kinds of contact and exchange. During the seventeenth century, southern highlanders were gradually exposed to various effects of the presence of European traders on the coasts. The emergence of the Sakalava as west coast subsidiaries of the Europeans eventually affected the highlands, as the Sakalava and other western-southern groups sought booty for trade through raiding. Europeans appear to have begun to exchange firearms with coastal Malagasy around 1660 to 1670 (Kent 1970); several decades were to elapse before firearms, exchanged for slaves, reached the Betsileo heartland. During the eighteenth century, muskets, bullets, and gunpowder became standard exchange items for cattle and slaves.
Market towns have a long tradition in central Madagascar, dating at least from the nineteenth century. Today varied products and produce, including beef and bread, are sold at weekly markets held throughout Betsileo country. Market towns hold market on the same day each week, and a given village usually has access to at least two such market towns. Ambalavao, in southern Betsileo country, has one of Madagascar's largest cattle markets. Cattle are taken there from the pastoral south and west (often by members of other ethnic groups, such as Bara and Antandroy) and are bought and taken as far north as I merina.
Division of Labor. On average, the Betsileo expend about 1,700 hours of human labor annually to farm one hectare of Tice land, and about 1,400 hours for the average household rice holding. A division of labor by age and gender is marked in the cultivation and preparation of rice. Before transplanting, an activity performed by women, takes place, fields are flooded. Young men drive cattle through the flooded field and excite them to a frenzy, and, as the cattle trample the field, they produce a mud of even consistency in which rice seedlings are transplanted. Armed with the characteristic angady, a long-handled spade (used also in bund cleaning and the maintenance of irrigation ditches), older men then arrive to break up clumps of earth the cattle have missed. At harvest time, men cut the rice, which women carry to the threshing floor, where they stack it. Older men and women stand on the stacked paddy stalks, stomping so as to compact the pile. After the paddy has dried, younger men thresh, against rocks, and older men use a stick to beat the paddy stalks to remove the remaining grain. All household members work together at winnowing and transport to the granary (as they do in weeding, the most arduous task in rice cultivation). Each day, women use mortars and pestles to pound the rice to remove the husks, and they cook and serve meals. Young boys and old men are the usual cattle guardians. Women tend other animals, especially fowl. The Betsileo lack pronounced gender stratification. Both men and women have been rulers. The Betsileo mention both in their genealogies and ancestral rites. Men and women of various ages sell produce in the marketplace and keep the cash they receive.
Land Tenure. Associated with localized corporate descent groups are estates consisting of tombs, houses, rice fields, water rights, woods (sometimes), and land used to graze cattle and cultivate secondary crops. The original settlers of an area are considered the owners or caretakers of the land. Later immigrants have obtained land through purchase, grants, and government distribution programs. Land may be sold and registered in an individual's name, but in areas where corporate descent remains strong, individuals are discouraged from selling land to nonrelatives. Legal disputes over access to land are common. Status differences are evident in landownership and house type. Older men, who control land, labor, and other strategic resources, also have the most elaborate homes.