Manara Vanilla: Cultivating Delicate Flavor in Madagascar

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Though it was first used as flavoring by the Aztecs in Central and South America, the majority of vanilla beans–over two thirds– now come from the Northeastern rainforests of the African island of Madagascar. For almost 200 years farmers in Madagascar have planted vanilla plants at the base of trees in the rainforest and pollinated the blossoms by hand. But now these humid areas of the island are changing—larger plantations are beginning to supplant the traditional style of cultivation.

The rise in plantations is contributing to deforestation, which is one of Madagascar’s biggest environmental problems, contributing to soil erosion, endangering wildlife populations, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. While vanilla is traditionally grown under the shade of large trees, these plantations practically clear the country’s forests, except for a small number of trees.

But there are efforts to make sure that traditional, small-scale vanilla farmers are able to grow their crops in the rainforest. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the National Association for the Management of Protected Areas in Madagascar (ANGAP) created the Biosphere Reserve of Mananara-Nord, in northeast Madagascar, where vanilla is still grown traditionally. Vanilla growers live in small villages around the Reserve and work on small plots with 20-40 vanilla plants. According to the Maya Mountain Research Farm, an NGO that promotes sustainable agriculture, “most vanilla is grown by farmers who own less than 2 hectares.”

Growing vanilla is a delicate process, requiring extensive knowledge about the plant. Farmers pollinate Vanilla Planifolia by hand, using tweezers or a thin stick; this practice makes vanilla one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world. Once pollinated, the flowers look like bean pods with many seeds.

Farmers using traditional processing blanch the pods in hot water and cover them in a warm place for several weeks until they get black, soft, and aromatic. This strong smell, reminiscent of cloves and dried fruit, is what earned Madagascar-grown vanilla the name bourbon vanilla. In the next phase, which lasts 5-6 weeks, the pods are stored in woolen blankets on elevated floors in farmers’ homes to stay warm and dry. The Mananara women work each day of this period, rubbing each of the beans with their fingers to clean and smooth them.

During this phase, the pods release vanillin, the main vanilla flavor we recognize. This component can be synthesized very cheaply, which is problematic for small-scale growers of vanilla beans. While the flavors of the bean are more complex, the synthetic compound is becoming more popular and lowering demand for vanilla beans.

As part of a project called the Mananara Vanilla Presidium, Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity,Intercooperation, a Swiss non-profit foundation specializing in rural development, and ANGAP established and work with a local cooperative of 900 farmers. The organizations aim is to conserve the traditional low-impact style of production and cultivation and to ensure higher incomes for the smallholder farmers.

Farmers typically receive a very small percentage of vanilla’s market value, but cooperatives like this one enable them to pool their resources and therefore get higher profits. Higher incomes are crucial for Madagascan farmers and encourage them to produce vanilla in the traditional way; many who work in the larger plantations receive little money for their intensive labors and often their children have to work, too. Farmers who grow the crop traditionally, however, enjoy higher standards of living and protect the local ecosystem.

By Mara Schechter

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