In Mada­gas­car, a lust for vanilla — and its riches

The flavour­ing is so pop­u­lar it now trades like co­caine

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - FINBARR O’REILLY

SAMBAVA, MADA­GAS­CAR— Bright moon­light re­flected off broad ba­nana leaves, but it was still hard to see the blue twine laced through the un­der­growth, a trip­wire meant to send the un­wary tum­bling to the ground.

“This is the way the thieves come,” said the vanilla farmer, low­er­ing his voice and sweep­ing his flash­light beam over a ditch.

Each night the farmer, Ninot Oclin, 33, pa­trols his land in the foothills of a vol­cano in Mada­gas­car, bare­foot, with a boltac­tion ri­fle slung over his shoul­der. If he hears some­one fall, he knows yet an­other ban­dit is try­ing to steal his lu­cra­tive crop of ripen­ing vanilla.

The lush moun­tains in Mada­gas­car’s north­east pro­duce about 80 per cent of the world’s vanilla, one of the most ex- pen­sive flavours. Its price has soared, reach­ing more than $600 (U.S.) a kilo­gram last year — more than sil­ver — com­pared with $50 a kilo­gram in 2013.

Grow­ing Western de­mand for the flavour­ing is partly driv­ing the price spike, with vanilla used in ev­ery­thing from ice cream to al­co­hol to cos­met­ics. Sup­ply was di­min­ished by a cy­clone that rav­aged crops last year on the is­land, which lies off the coast of south­east Africa.

With the per­fect cli­mate and soil for grow­ing vanilla, the Sava re­gion of Mada­gas­car is in the midst of an eco­nomic boom.

So-called vanilla man­sions have sprung up above tra­di­tional thatched grass huts. Even the hum­blest homes of­ten boast so­lar pan­els and LED lights that make once-dark vil­lages glow by night. Gleam­ing SUVs ply the bro­ken streets of Sambava, the vanilla cap­i­tal, where bustling mar­kets line the road­sides.

The wind­fall, how­ever, has come at a cost. Vanilla’s high price, com­bined with ram­pant poverty and a cor­rupt, weak state, has made the crop a favourite tar­get of vi­o­lent crim­i­nal net­works.

The story of the vanilla trade in Mada­gas­car is one of dan­gers and re­wards, and can be told through three vi­tal links in the chain that de­liv­ers the flavour from the fields to port, where it is ex­ported to the world.

The peas­ant: Al­ways on guard

Most vanilla still comes from small farms, like Oclin’s, where the work is back-break­ing.

Vanilla plants need to be nur­tured for three to four years be­fore bear­ing pods. The flow­ers bloom once a year for 24 hours and must be im­me­di­ately pol­li­nated.

Melipona bees in Mex­ico, where the Aztecs first used vanilla, orig­i­nally did this job, but the in­sects never ex­isted in Mada­gas­car. So each sea­son, about 40 mil­lion vanilla plants are fer­til­ized by hand us­ing a tooth­pick-sized wooden nee­dle.

Once pol­li­nated, a flower pro­duces green beans within two months; the vanilla fra­grance is tucked in­side in thou­sands of lit­tle black seeds and an oily film. The beans be­gin fer­ment­ing once picked, so grow­ers must quickly find buy­ers. The hard work does not bother Oclin. “The prob­lem is se­cu­rity,” he said, ex­plain­ing that thieves will at­tack and kill farm­ers for their vanilla pods.

So not only does he pa­trol his plot of about 3,000 vanilla vines, he pays three men to stand guard ev­ery night dur­ing the four months be­fore the sum­mer har­vest. The men are armed with dou­blepronged fish­ing spears and clubs, plus Oclin’s ri­fle. Each night, a vig­i­lante group pa­trolling lo­cal plan­ta­tions stops by with a half-dozen men armed with clubs and ma­chetes.

“Ev­ery vanilla plot will be guarded,” Oclin said.

With lit­tle pub­lic trust in a cor­rupt po­lice force and jus­tice sys­tem, mob jus­tice of­ten pre­vails when a sus­pected thief is caught.

In April, a lo­cal mili­tia cap­tured a thief with a lit­tle over 3 pounds of freshly picked vanilla. He was beaten with sticks un­til he col­lapsed, then hacked to death with ma­chetes, ac­cord­ing to res­i­dents.

It was just one of dozens of sim­i­lar “vanilla mur­ders” over the past two sea­sons. But ar­rests do hap­pen. On one day this year, “we had 33 con­vic­tions,” said Volozara Sak­ina Mo­hamady, the direc­tor of the pri­son in An­ta­laha, one of the Sava re­gion’s main ports. “Mostly for vanilla.” De­spite the risks, Oclin has seen a small pay­off from the vanilla trade. He now has a smart­phone and a Face­book ac­count, and his one-room home has a TV and satel­lite dish pow­ered by so­lar en­ergy.

The mid­dle­man: ‘Life is sweet’

In Sambava, in the shade of a mango tree, Pas­cale Rasafind­akoto, 44, a “com­mis­sion­aire” for lower-level sell­ers to ar­rive from the coun­try­side with small plas­tic bags of vanilla beans.

The aroma, tex­ture, and bean size (big­ger is bet­ter) are ex­am­ined and a price ne­go­ti­ated.

Some­times, Rasafind­akoto ven­tures into the coun­try­side in a bat­tered car in search of deals. His trip back might in­clude a forced stop at one of the fre­quent road­blocks, where the po­lice ex­pect a pay­off to pass.

“I’ve never had any prob­lems with gen­darmes,” he said smil­ing.

“I work with them. I have to give them some­thing so they are my friends.”

With beans spoil­ing so quickly, grow­ers have lit­tle bar­gain­ing power. They of­ten get much less money for their beans than mid­dle­men like Rasafind­akoto re­ceive when sell­ing the beans to a cen­tral cur­ing fa­cil­ity.

“We’ve been poor for too long,” said Do­minique Rako­to­son, 55, a long­time farmer in Sambava who rep­re­sents 100 fam­i­lies of vanilla grow­ers.

“De­spite the price hike, most farm­ers re­main poor be­cause they sell their crops right away, or too early.”

Tales of com­mis­sion­aires swin­dling grow­ers abound. They also are widely ac­cused of low­er­ing over­all qual­ity by mix­ing good and bad vanilla.

“The mid­dle­men is where the shady busi­ness goes on,” Rako­to­son said.

Rasafind­akoto shrugs off talk like this. His fam­ily now has a new house with a flat screen TV and makes fre­quent trips to the beach to bar­be­cue with friends.

The vanilla trade is hard work, he said, so why not en­joy the good times while they last?

“With vanilla, life is sweet,” Rasafind­akoto said.

“It has sped up and we can live it fully.”

The ex­porter: ‘It’s like co­caine’

Michel Lomone presided over his ware­house in An­ta­laha, watch­ing a small army of aproned women cur­ing, sort­ing and pack­ing tons of dried vanilla into boxes for ex­port to multi­na­tional flavour­ing and fra­grance com­pa­nies.

While wealthy by lo­cal stan­dards, Lomone’s big­gest con­cern is the same as Oclin’s: theft.

“There is no se­cu­rity of goods or of peo­ple,” Lomone said.

“The sys­tem of jus­tice is rot­ten. There’s to­tal im­punity. It’s like co­caine in Latin Amer­ica. They get the lit­tle guys, but not the head.”

Lomone said hun­dreds of pounds of vanilla have been stolen from his ware­houses over the years. All his em­ploy­ees are frisked when they leave work.

“The pods are so small and valu­able it’s easy to hide them,” he said. “It’s like with di­a­monds in South Africa.”

Lomone pro­duces the high­est qual­ity “bour­bon” vanilla, us­ing a cur­ing tech­nique that takes months. “Vanilla takes pa­tience,” Lomone said. This year, with sup­ply less af­fected by bad weather, the price may dip, but vanilla’s worth is ex­pected to stay far above his­tor­i­cal norms.

Lomone said he was con­cerned about the boom’s ef­fect on lo­cal cul­ture, with peo­ple do­ing what­ever they can to get rich quick.

“Now in Mada­gas­car, it’s not a prob­lem of poverty to eat, but of so­cial poverty,” he said. “It’s about the com­pe­ti­tion to keep up with oth­ers mak­ing fast money. It’s not good. We can’t keep go­ing like this.”

Cured vanilla from the 2017 har­vest.

FINBARR O'REILLY PHO­TOS THE NEW YORK TIMES

Vanilla farmer Ninot Oclin, cen­tre, guards his small farm from thieves in Man­dena, Mada­gas­car. Vanilla’s high price, com­bined with poverty and a cor­rupt state, has made the crop a tar­get of vi­o­lent crim­i­nal net­works.

An aerial view of the vil­lage of Man­dena and the lush sur­round­ing moun­tains in Mada­gas­car’s north­east­ern Sava re­gion. With vanilla prices reach­ing hun­dreds of dol­lars a pound, the re­gion is in the midst of an eco­nomic boom.

Jao Diry prunes a vanilla vine at a plan­ta­tion in An­ta­laha.

A so-called vanilla man­sion looms above a street in An­ta­laha.

Vanilla traders and friends at a beach in Sambava.

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