Work in Progress: Vanilla in MadagascarOct 13, 2018
I just spent three months in Madagascar, shooting a story on vanilla. Vanilla is an orchid plant which grows in the island’s warm and humid north. Madagascar produces 80% of the world’s vanilla.
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 as well as the cosmetics industry are dependent on vanilla. For example, a big part of the yearly 1500-2000 tons of natural vanilla is used for Coke.
Here are a couple of reportages I shot around vanilla.
In August, I spent a week en brousse with five vanilla collectors—Leonce, CC, Cassim, Emilien and Zidane—from Antsirabe Nord to Fotsialanana, a tiny village in the middle of nowhere that can only be reached via a piste which is impassable for about three months during the rainy season. We often got stuck in the magaodra (mud—one of the first new words I learnt in Malagasy on this trip and very useful to know as people often debate with their fellow travelers whether the road ahead is magaodra be (very muddy) or not).
This was definitely the craziest reporting trip I’ve ever been on. It took eight hours by moto to reach Fotsialanana—through rivers, mud and across stone fields; I was chauffeured around by Zidane, and died a hundred little deaths on the back of his bike every day.
August 22-26, 2018
The gaong (boys) and I lived in a simple two-room trano vato (stone house) with an outdoor kitchen, but without electricity and without a bathroom (we took showers in the river and peed outside).
All vanilla beans are paid for in cash. The largest Malagasy Ariary denomination is 20’000 Ar (US$ 6) and with 1 kg selling for about 180’000 Ar (US$ 53) sums go up into the millions and billions. All sales and expenses are double and triple-checked by Leonce, le patron de l’equipe, and jotted down by CC and Cassim.
A vanilla farmer and his son. Signs of relative wealth: Flashy furniture, electricity, a DVD player.
After the harvest, the beans go through a long and complex process during which their typical aroma is produced.
Once the beans have arrived, they are being triaged once again. Then the first part of the curing (which turns the green vanilla beans into the black beans that you can buy at the supermarket) finally begins: le chaudage! Leonce is un spécialiste de chaudage and hand-soaks tons of beans in steaming hot water every season. The beans are then stored in bags.
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.
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.
Vanilla pods are stamped by the farmers to prevent the re-sale of stolen beans.
Leonce demonstrating how he would shoot someone if they stole his vanilla.
I also photographed a market in Antanimbaribe, a village close to Andapa, where local farmers gather to sell their green vanilla beans. A kilogram of cured black vanilla can cost up to $500. The amount of money that changes hands on a market day and the presence of buyers gets everyone’s heart rate up: Street vendors gather, in the hope of selling a few clothes, or furniture.
A few weeks later I went back to Antanimbaribe to take pictures of the village, and shoot portraits of people I met on market day.
Ester teaches at the Antanimbaribe public school. She sends her children to private school.
Sister Eugénie Vavizanaka of the convent of the filles de la charité du sacre coeur du Jésu. The women run a private school in Antanimbaribe.
Victor, a vanilla farmer, shows us around his vanilla field. When the beans begin to ripen, he sleeps underneath this little hut to prevent theft.
What does the life of a vanilla farmer typically look like? There are about 80’000 vanilla farmers on Madagascar, 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 sometimes even slavery.
Before vanilla reaches the companies that sell vanilla beans, the spice has often passed through the hands of up to four different middlemen. Each one takes a commission and makes a profit.
Ginot, 27, a vanilla collector in Ambalamanasy. The collectors sometimes pay the farmers in second-hand clothes, solar panels, or mattresses and couches.
The house of a vanilla lord in Andapa. He asked me not to publish his name online for fear of getting robbed.
After le chaudage, the beans are dried in the sun for about two months. I took some pictures at Sambavanille, a vanilla factory in Sambava, to learn more about the curing process.
Vanilla is transported from the rainforests in the north to the capital Antananarivo by Air Madagascar or on small private planes. A whole new sector of private airlines has emerged to meet the vanilla export demands. Airport Antalaha, August 15, 2018
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 is currently a drought and famine happening in the South of Mada.
Construction soars in the north east of Madagascar once the vanilla season opens and money begins to change hands. Antahala, August 15, 2018
Open air furniture shops along the road in Sambava. Pictured above is Mariamou, a 47-year-old seamstress.