Update: Vanilla in MadagascarMar 16, 2019
Vanilla is an orchid plant that needs to be hand-pollinated. The plant grows in the warm and humid north of Madagascar.
Madagascar produces 80% of the world’s vanilla. After the harvest, vanilla beans go through a long and complex process during which their typical aroma is developed.
Cyclones, El Niño, and weird weather patterns influence the vanilla trade as the plant is especially sensitive to sudden weather fluctuations. Climate change also drives vanilla prices up but the farmers don’t benefit. Madagascar in general suffers hugely from the effects of climate change and deforestation.
There are about 80’000 vanilla farmers on the island, most of them impoverished. They are often indebted to vanilla middlemen, also known as “collectors.” Not making enough profit from their harvest, the farmers borrow money from collectors, using the coming vanilla harvest as collateral. But if the harvest fails, or if the vanilla is stolen from their fields, the farmers cannot repay their debt.
This is especially serious if vanilla prices rise, as they often do, because then the value of the loan increases as well. It’s a vicious circle and it keeps the farmers locked in poverty and even slavery.
Vanilla is used in a lot of packaged foods and has become a valuable raw material, like gas or ore. It’s the most volatile spice on the planet in terms of cost. Big global food corporations such as Nestlé, McDonalds, Hershey’s, Unilever and Coca Cola, as well as perfume makers, are dependent on vanilla.
For example, a big part of the yearly 1500-2000 tons of natural vanilla is used for Coke.
Prices for one kilo of vanilla have gone up from $20 in 2013 to $515 in 2018. The high price of vanilla brings a lot of cash to Mada’s north, and crime also.
There have been increasingly more theft and criminality within the farming communities. Villages set up defence forces trained by the local gendarmerie. Vanilla thieves face up to 3-4 years in prison. Some are killed by farmers in mob-justice.
The local gendarmes try to do their best to patrol the area but the institution is notoriously underfunded and ineffective. Most people in the business hire private security guards and carry their own guns at all times.
Madagascar is the only country in the world not in conflict whose population grows poorer every year. Corruption is rampant in all areas of life. In schools, there are often more than 60 students crammed in one room, and without “handing a small gift” to headmasters and deans, it’s impossible to enter college or university.
Stolen vanilla is often mixed with ‘regular’ vanilla and then exported out of the country. Due to this extreme intransparency, one has to presume that big food companies buy and import stolen vanilla (knowingly or unknowingly). Trading with fenced goods however is punishable by law in most Western countries.
Once the vanilla is cured and ready for export, it’s shipped off the island either by boat or by plane. Air Madagascar handles cargo, but the packages are often „lost“ or stolen in their hangars, so exporters resort to renting private aircrafts.
The economy in the northeast of Madagascar centers around the vanilla trade, but the area is infamously hard to access: The roads are terrible and haven’t been kept up since the French colonialists left in the 1960ies. During the rainy season, some areas in the north are completely cut off from outside traffic.
But most roads are often intentionally left in a dismal state: The most influential vanilla lords of the country are rich enough to fly their vanilla off the island by private planes, and want to prevent their small-time competitors from transporting the spice in camions, so they pay off the government which, in turn, leaves the roads alone.
In the months of November, December and January, planes owned by the privately-owned airline Madagasikara Airways land at Sambava airport two or three times a day, picking up all the region’s vanilla and flying it to Antananarivo, where it is then put on reliable commercial aircrafts and flown all across the globe.
Renting the plane pictured above costs US$ 65.000 for one trip, and it can transport up to five tons of vanilla in one go, which is worth more than two million US dollars.