The wholesale price of the vanilla bean has soared nearly 500% in the past five years, making it worth more in weight than silver. The surge is partly because of increasing global demand and partly because of cyclones and other geopolitical events happening 40,000 miles east of American soil in Madagascar - the "vanilla capital of the world."
Daily life in Madagascar is a stark contrast from the tropical nirvana illustrated in the box-office Dreamworks hit. As much as 93% of Madagascar's working population lives on less than two dollars a day. The country's natural resources are constantly exploited. The currency constantly fluctuates. The government is “characterized by institutional decay and rampant corruption.” Farmers face constant danger. And cyclones, exacerbated by climate change, routinely pummel the already-distressed country, decimate crop yields, which leads to even more unrest and volatility.
And there’s one unsuspecting villain orchestrating this downward spiral: the vanilla bean.
An Origin Story
Madagascar has a quasi-monopolistic position when it comes to vanilla production. The country cultivates 85% of the world's supply. Oddly enough, vanilla isn't native to Madagascar. It originated in what is now known as Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. When Spanish conquistadors invaded the New World in the 16th century, they stole the vanilla bean and took it back to their homeland. But when the noblemen tried to re-introduce the vanilla stalks to European horticulture, the orchids wouldn't bloom. After years of trial-and-error in various European climates, the seedlings eventually found their way south to Madagascar, where the fertile soil and tropical climate nurtured the vanilla bean's proliferation.
Except for one thing. The flowers still wouldn't bloom. Without the flowers, vanilla was just a bland, futile pod.
Eventually, local farmers solved the problem. Turned out Melipona bees – which pollinated the vanilla flowers in Mayan times – didn't exist in Madagascar (or Europe for that matter). Every season to this day, around 40 million vanilla plants are fertilized - by hand - using a toothpick-sized wooden needle. If that isn't painstaking enough, vanilla flowers can only be harvested one day a year. And when cyclones made landfall in 2019, 2017, 2016, and 2014, water and debris blanketed the crops, which devastated vanilla yields and reduced the annual harvest days to zero.
As the global vanilla supply dwindled, and market prices soared, an opportunistic mafia moved in to capitalize on the crisis. These shameless criminals organized brutal attacks and murdered farmers for their remaining vanilla pods. Today, the violence has escalated to where local farmers are forced to take the law into their own hands. They’ve begun to patrol and sleep amongst their dense vanilla vines, strapped with double-barreled shotguns and military-grade artillery. Sometimes, even vigilante groups are enlisted to aid in surveillance.
"We are constantly on the alert," says Dominique Rakotoson, producer and manager of an export company in Madagascar, who was robbed in 2017. “Last week, a man tried to steal plants in our area… he was stoned to death.”
Forests Under Fire
Adding to this crime wave is a connection between the vanilla trade and rosewood trafficking. Rosewood logs are another Michelin-grade commodity, particularly in Asian markets. They have become the world’s most trafficked wildlife asset. Every year, the market for Madagascan Rosewood generates hundreds of millions of dollars. And the profits from this lucrative side hustle are lLaundered through the vanilla trade.
"A criminal gang is behind all of this and some of its members are close to our government," says vanilla producer Rakotoson, blaming the country’s political elite for the nation’s instability. Forty-four percent of Madagascar's natural forests have disappeared in the past sixty years. If you venture into Masoala National Park in northern Madagascar, you’ll hear the unrelenting screech of chainsaws, as thousands of trees get the axe.
“Vanilla is now driving deforestation because the price is so high,” says former park ranger, Armand Marozafy. “People have seen how the government ignored the law and destroyed the forest to sell rosewood. So, they now feel they can do the same for vanilla. It’s a new problem with roots in the old problem.”
Madagascar has a long road ahead. Anyone who tries to brave the endemic corruption will inevitably pay a heavy price. It’s not until lawmakers get their act together that Madagascar will see justice, and its people and ecosystems can begin to recover.
In the meantime, we can all help farmers in Madagascar by buying ethically or fairly-traded vanilla. Fair-trade processes ensure that farmers and other local producers receive a fair price for their goods. These buyers negotiate the price directly with farmers, so there are no other parties, such as abusive "middlemen," marking up the price and taking a disproportionate cut.