New flavor of vanilla farming aims to stop deforestation in Madagascar

  • Madagascar is the world’s biggest producer of vanilla, with the plant grown in agroforestry systems established in forests or on fallow lands.
  • Conservationist Andriamanana Rabearivelo introduced a new technique of vanilla cultivation with promising early results.
  • His goal is to develop new agricultural methods to help the impoverished rural community near his farm in eastern Madagascar improve its conditions so it can reduce its reliance on the area’s natural forests.
  • These forests are subject to runaway deforestation from the illegal harvest of timber and conversion to agricultural land.

MANAKAMBAHINY ATSINANANA, Madagascar — To make a simple phone call here requires walking for at least an hour, over deforested foothills, through a small village and across a river to reach a mountain peak where cell service is available. This trek is among the duties of a dozen teenagers working on a farm in this remote part of eastern Madagascar. On the ground, they are helping bring a new method for growing vanilla orchids (Vanilla planifolia) to Madagascar, in an attempt to preserve the area’s endangered forests and wildlife.

Andriamanana Rabearivelo, 56, has been experimenting with farming techniques on the 20-hectare (49-acre) plot of farmland since he purchased it in 2019. His goal is to improve people’s livelihoods in this impoverished area, so they won’t have to rely on farming practices or timber harvesting that are destroying the rainforest. His innovation consists of cultivating vanilla under a roof, rather than under trees. Versions of the technique are common in more developed parts of the world, but virtually unpracticed in the island nation, which has grown vanilla since the 19th century and is today the world’s biggest producer.

Rabearivelo named the farm Vohitaratra, a combination of the Malagasy word vohitra, meaning village or site, and taratra, meaning model or reference. The name evokes his mission to develop sustainable practices that local communities can emulate. The farm, situated in the rural commune of Manakambahiny Atsinanana in the Alaotra-Mangoro region, abuts the southeastern border of Zahamena National Park, which is home to a rich diversity of endemic fauna and flora.

Residents of this remote area, crisscrossed with rough paths traversable only by foot and occasionally motorbike, are privileged with a quiet landscape. Only the intermittent cries of wild animals like lemurs, the melodious whistles of birds and the rustling of waterfalls that emanate from the tropical forest interrupt the calm from time to time.

The Onibe River divides the rainforest of Zahamena National Park from surrounding agricultural lands. Image by Rivonala Razafison for Mongabay.
Fallow agricultural fields stretch for miles around a scrap of degraded forest outside Zahamena National Park. People convert forest to agricultural fields, farm them for a few years, then abandon them when the fertility declines and move on to a new patch of forest. Image by Rivonala Razafison for Mongabay.

But that natural harmony could soon fall silent without urgent action. People here rely on slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing forest near the park to plant crops for a few years until the soil wears out, and then moving on to a new piece of land. Or they enter the park to illegally harvest precious timber and other trees for the wood and charcoal trades. The area is on the northern end of Madagascar’s widest remaining forest area, which connects the neighboring regions of Alaotra-Mangoro and Atsinanana and includes a suite of protected areas. The largest, the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ), lost 55,700 hectares (138,000 acres) of tree cover between 2001 and 2020, equivalent to a 15% decrease in tree cover since 2000, according to Global Forest Watch, the online forest-tracking platform.

“We are at risk of not seeing palisander trees any more in the future,” Rabearivelo told Mongabay, referring to precious timber species in the genus Dalbergia that are vital for the 15 lemur species living in the CAZ as well as endangered amphibians endemic to it.

Already dire socioeconomic conditions here have only worsened under the COVID-19 pandemic. Unofficial figures indicate that more than 300 children between the ages of 5 and 12 living to the south of Zahamena National Park, around 12% of the area’s total population, do not attend school. It’s not uncommon for girls to begin having babies at age 14. Local people face seasonal food insecurity, and the four villages surrounding Vohitaratra have no school or access to basic services like health care, electricity and safe drinking water.

“Poverty is not a choice. These people don’t have a choice” but to rely on the forest to survive, said Rabearivelo. He noted that it’s common to see people shouldering heavy precious timber on their way by foot to the nearest market in the regional capital of Ambatondrazaka, nearly 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. That’s a hard way to earn a living and no one would willingly choose it, he said.

“The current situation is still totally reversible,” he added. “Voicing our concern is not enough. We have to do something.”

A man carries a heavy timber, most likely harvested illegally inside Zahamena National Park and destined for the regional capital of Ambatondrazaka, a journey of at least 70 kilometers (44 miles). Image by Rivonala Razafison for Mongabay.
Satellite data from the University of Maryland show the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor protected area in eastern Madagascar (bright green) lost 55,700 hectares (138,000 acres) of tree cover between 2001 and 2020, equivalent to a 15% decrease in tree cover since 2000. Zahamena National Park lies directly to the north. Deforestation surrounding the protected areas is extreme.

Custom cultivation

Rabearivelo has long worked to conserve Madagascar’s forests and wildlife. In 1998, he founded the NGO ACCE (Arongampanihy, Culture, Communication and Environment), which worked to protect fruit bats in the Mangoro region of eastern Madagascar, some 200 km (124 mi) southwest of Manakambahiny Atsinanana. In 2008, he received a Disney Conservation Hero Award for this work. He later lived in the SAVA region in the northeastern part of the country, Madagascar’s main vanilla-growing area.

When Rabearivelo arrived in Manakambahiny Atsinanana in 2019, he said, he was struck by the area’s extreme poverty. But nobody was growing vanilla, though it is a cash crop widely grown in the region that had reached record-high prices the previous year, even eclipsing silver in price per kilogram on global markets. He said he thought growing vanilla could be a practical, quick and sustainable income source that could help local people improve their lives and rely less on the forest to survive. To work here, growing techniques would need to be simple, cheap and suitable for small farm plots with few trees.

Vanilla needs shade and protection from strong rain to survive. In SAVA and other parts of Madagascar, farmers usually cultivate the orchids under trees that serve as stakes for the vines, either in forests or on fallow lands. But those methods seemed far too slow. On fallow land, plentiful around Manakambahiny Atsinanana, farmers must first plant fast-growing shade trees, then wait two to three years before planting the vanilla. Then it takes another two to three years before the orchids flower and produce vanilla beans. The method requires wide spaces to accommodate the trees. Abroad, in places like nearby La Réunion, farmers often grow vanilla on stakes under shade-cloth canopies, but people lack money to bring outside supplies into a place like Manakambahiny Atsinanana. Moreover, vanilla often brings trouble. The impossibility of securing the fields invites organized and violent theft.

A view of the village of Manakambahiny Atsinanana. Image by Rivonala Razafison for Mongabay.

So, Rabearivelo invented his own way of growing the spice at Vohitaratra. For shade and support, he designed an open-sided shelter of 90 square meters (970 square feet) on a previously deforested area. He built it with local materials: a few wood posts harvested from Vohitaratra’s farmland to build the timber structure, dried grasses to thatch the roof, and bamboo to stake the vanilla vines. The ability to site a shelter near the house or village not only reduces the risk of theft, but ensures access for workers to pollinate and otherwise tend the labor-intensive plants.

For help at Vohitaratra, Rabearivelo recruited girls and boys in their teens and early twenties from area villages, the nearest one about an eight-hour walk away. He gives them a stipend, housing, food and training. The young workers are an essential part of his mission. He said his intention is that they’ll take the skills and farming techniques they learn at Vohitaratra back home, to help their villages improve economically and protect their local forests.

“It’s sure these children will become environment destroyers” without training and opportunities, he said. “However, young people and children represent a tool to be used for environmental protection. We need to pay attention to them urgently.”

Fitia Elisia Rafaramalala, a 16-year-old from the village of Antokazo about 60 km (37 mi) west of Vohitaratra, was the youngest farm recruit when Mongabay visited in August. “I learned lots of agricultural techniques here,” she said, expressing enthusiasm to help Vohitaratra develop and local farmers replicate its techniques. In September, she left the farm to start her senior year of high school.

Andriamanana Rabearivelo with his vanilla plants at Vohitaratra. Image by Rivonala Razafison for Mongabay.
The storehouse, left, and the vanilla-growing shed, right, at Vohitaratra. Image by Rivonala Razafison for Mongabay.

Fast first flowers

Rabearivelo began growing vanilla in the shelter by the end of 2020. Surprisingly, some of the vanilla orchids flowered and bore good beans just six months later. In August, the plants looked robust, with vines up to 2 m (6 ft) long. Some bore as many as 10 vines, a good sign according to Rabearivelo. “The more vines the plants have, the more flowers they give,” he said.

Maro, 38, a Protestant religious instructor serving in the neighboring village of Ambodihazomamy who used to grow vanilla in the forest, said Rabearivelo’s results were surprisingly fast. “Farmers usually collect the first fruits from vanilla three or four years after planting,” he said, and the yield is meager for some time. “The technique being tested in Vohitaratra sounds powerful. I’ve never seen vanilla orchids bearing beans just a few months after planting.”

Iaribo Ibrahim, head of the vanilla council for the neighboring Atsinanana region, said he has been producing and trading vanilla since 2001. He told Mongabay that after that speedy first flowering, the Vohitaratra plants would likely take two-and-a-half to three years before the second flowering. “The vines’ growth becomes slow afterward,” he said, expressing skepticism that the plants would grow well without trees for support or that Rabearivelo’s methods would help Madagascar’s vanilla farmers in the long run.

Rabearivelo brushed off those concerns, saying the traditional methods don’t appear to work well locally at all, as vanilla orchids he’d planted experimentally under trees, both at Vohitaratra and in a village some distance away, were stunted with no vines after two years. He has closely monitored his growing plants with an eye toward improving his methods. “There is still more to learn,” he said.

A model for other growers?

Despite the difficulties it imposes, Vohitaratra’s remoteness presents some advantages, to the farmer’s mind. An important one is that visiting bureaucrats witness the difficulties community members face in their daily lives. “I am particularly conscious that we are led to address the wrong issues as long as we don’t understand real life in remote areas,” Rabearivelo said. “Here, we are aware of the real problems, so we can develop adequate solutions.”

Officials have shown an interest in Vohitaratra’s work. Technicians from the former agriculture, livestock and fishing ministry (now split into three separate ministries) as well as the mayor of Manakambahiny Atsinanana have visited to learn about the farm’s projects, which include not just the vanilla plantation but also experimental fish-farming and cassava-growing projects. In September, the regional branch of the environment ministry invited Vohitaratra to join the REDD+ committee for Alaotra-Mangoro. The region is one of five in Madagascar slated to receive up to $50 million over five years from the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), commonly known as REDD+, in exchange for keeping an estimated 12 million tons of carbon locked up in the forest and soils, largely through income-generating activities aimed at stopping runaway deforestation and degradation.

Rabearivelo routinely invites local people in to see Vohitaratra’s work, and offers trainings as well as technical assistance to anyone looking to try his methods for themselves. He envisions Vohitaratra blossoming into a theoretical and practical training center for the community.

“It is crucial for us to teach people that what we are doing in Vohitaratra is a model they should replicate,” he said. “Then they will spend more time on their vanilla plantation instead of clamping down on nature.” And if people can make a living farming the same plot continuously, he said, then hopefully the forest can regenerate on land that’s been degraded by years of slash-and-burn crop rotation.

Andriamanana Rabearivelo catches a carp from an experimental fish pond he set up at Vohitaratra. Image by Rivonala Razafison for Mongabay.
Young trainees tend the fish pond at Vohitaratra. Image by Rivonala Razafison for Mongabay.

The conservation community appears to share this vision. Twenty kilometers (12 mi) west of Vohitaratra, the Ramsar site of Lake Alaotra and its surrounding marshes have faced soaring challenges, including migrations spurred by the discovery of rich mineral deposits around the lake basin. For example, a beryl deposit found last year brought thousands of miners into the rural commune of Andilana Avaratra on the lake’s western shore, where they are digging up the land in a chaotic rush.

“Surely, the newcomers will not go home and will contribute to the marshes’ destruction, too,” said Hortensia Joeline Raheliarivelo, secretary-general for Alaotra Rano Soa, a group that facilitates communities’ management of the lake and its marshes. After launching a number of income-generating initiatives with variable success over the years, Raheliarivelo said the group is looking for new environmentally friendly solutions. Vanilla farming, potentially with the Vohitaratra method, looks promising, she said. Interest in vanilla is palpable across the Alaotra-Mangoro region. “Dozens of hectares of land were transformed into vanilla plantation fields over the last five years,” local reporter Haingo Rakotomaharo told Mongabay.

Despite the momentum, many hurdles stand between Rabearivelo and his goals. Madagascar’s vanilla sector as a whole is hardly a sure bet; prices are extremely volatile and theft is rampant amid tenuous law-enforcement capacity. Most important, locals have yet to adopt his new growing method, and it remains to be seen whether it is reliable enough to transform people’s lives so they can give the forest a break.

Meanwhile, deforestation in the region continues. Day after day crowds of people, including women and children, spend hours transporting heavy precious timber logs dozens of kilometers from the natural forests to Ambatondrazaka. There, timber dealers enjoy impunity, selling the wood freely on to buyers in the big cities of Antananarivo or Toamasina. This goes on despite Madagascar’s official ban on logging, transporting and exporting precious timber and the government’s zero-tolerance campaign against environmental crime. The timber dealers even dare to publicly hawk their wares on social media, a lucrative industry fueled by the illegal service of a remote community with few options.

Iaribo Ibrahim, head of the vanilla council for the region of Atsinanana, shows off vanilla beans at his farm outside the coastal city of Mahanoro in eastern Madagascar. Image by Rivonala Razafison for Mongabay.

Banner image: Maro, a Protestant religious instructor who used to grow vanilla, visits Vohitaratra. Image by Rivonala Razafison for Mongabay.

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