Vanilla Plantation

The Future of Vanilla Farming

Over 80% of the world’s vanilla is produced on the island of Madagascar. One of the poorest countries in the world, this key export provides crucial income for 80,000 farmers across the country. Highly variable, the price of vanilla has soared in recent years, reaching a peak of 600 US dollars per kilogram in 2018. The result of these high prices: increased pressure to clear forests for vanilla production, organised theft of vanilla, and conflicts over land ownership. With just 20% of its original forests remaining, adopting sustainable vanilla farming practices will be integral to protecting both the island’s biodiversity (the variety of living things found in a region) and local livelihoods.

How is vanilla produced?

Vanilla production is time-consuming and labour-intensive, requiring hand pollination, harvesting and processing. New vines take 3 years to mature, and once pollinated, the plant takes a further 9 months to bear its fruit – the vanilla pod.

The shadow of climate change hangs over the industry. Due to global heating, tropical cyclones and drought are becoming more frequent and intense, putting harvests at great risk. This has the effect of raising vanilla prices on the world market, as occurred in 2018. While extremely high prices may seem like a good thing for farmers, this is not the case. Organised theft of vanilla has become rampant on the island, forcing farmers to harvest their crop early, and this results in lower quality product: in turn, the price of the product falls.

These cycles of boom and bust are bad for both people and the planet: unpredictable market prices means many farmers cannot depend on the spice as a consistent source of income, while the rush to grab land through rapid clearing when vanilla prices are high endangers the island’s biodiversity.

Sustainable vanilla agroforestry

Nevertheless, there is vast potential for environmentally sustainable vanilla production. Vanilla is unique in that it is a shade-crop, growing best in the semi-darkness provided by trees. When grown alongside native trees and shrubs in a practice known as agroforestry, the environmental impacts can be drastically reduced. For instance, a 2018 study found that lemurs – Madagascar’s iconic primate species – may be able to sustain their populations on vanilla agroforestry plantations. Over 70% of vanilla agrosystems in the Northeast region of Madagascar have low canopy cover, having been established on open land. By planting native trees in open-land systems, farmers and conservation groups may be able to restore forests while maintaining high vanilla yields.

The role of farmer’s cooperatives and NGOs

While production has typically been informal and uncentralized, worker’s cooperatives are emerging as a way to protect farmer’s livelihoods. By working together to set standardised prices and selling volumes, the value of vanilla can be stabilized on the market. These co-operatives are often mediated by NGOs, which also help to implement climate-resilient growing practices and improve protection against crime. Thus developmental and environmental goals can be addressed together, ensuring a stable future for Madagascar’s farmers and forests.

 

 

Kaya Jumbe

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