Malcolm Manners, CC BY-SA 2.0



Hibiscus syriacus

Malcolm Manners, CC BY-SA 2.0

General Description / Cultural Significance

The current inhabitants of Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of Southeast Africa, are mainly of Indonesian descent. However, in a highly unusual finding, it was discovered that 30% of the population has the same mitochondrial DNA. This suggests that the population descended from the same small founding group, which has speculative roots as seafaring merchants or refugees dating back to around 830 CE. From that initial population, the colony has grown, and the land is now home to around 22 million people.

Madagascar is world famous for its high-quality vanilla beans. The cultivation of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) began in earnest in the mid-19th century when the orchids were brought to the island by the French from Réunion shortly after an enslaved worker, Edmond Albies, discovered how to hand-pollinate the flowers. Madagascar’s beans are called “bourbon vanilla” because of their rum-like taste and aroma. The country’s vanilla is said to smell subtle, sweet, and spicy, with a woodier smell than other vanillas.“Vanilla is a very labor-intensive crop. It takes 600 hand-pollinated blossoms to produce 1 kg of cured beans. Beans are picked while still green and sold to fermentation plants where workers sort, blanch, steam, and dry the beans in the sun. They are then sorted again, dried in the shade, and fermented while workers continually evaluate their aroma and inspect each bean for quality.” 

Researchers have found that the chemical compounds in vanilla oil have antioxidant, antibacterial, antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer qualities. Additionally, “researchers in a 2007 study published in the ‘Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry’ found that vanilla extract contains 26 to 90 percent of the antioxidants of unprocessed vanilla, depending on the type of antioxidant and the concentration of the extract. They concluded that vanilla showed great potential as a health supplement and as a food preservative.”

Climate Change / Conservation Status

Madagascar is classified by Conservation International as a biodiversity hotspot, with 90% of its plant and animal life endemic only to this island, the fourth largest on the planet. However, those who have known Madagascar over the past 60 years are astounded by the environmental devastation that has taken place in step with the country’s rapidly growing population. Satellite images of vegetation maps compared to earlier aerial photographs tell the story of severe deforestation, which began long ago with the unsustainable practice of slash-and-burn farming. Projections based on analysis of these images suggest that the remaining 10% of forests may not survive even another ten years. 

As the strength and ferocity of storms escalate due to climate change, Madagascar has found itself in the path of tropical cyclones much worse than the one it saw thirteen years earlier. In 2017, such a storm hit the island. Tropical Storm Enawo killed over 78 people and displaced around 5,000, also taking a grave toll on the vanilla bean industry. The devastation may have reduced the country’s vanilla output by 30%. As the world’s biggest producer of the flavoring, this is driving up vanilla prices in the global market. High vanilla prices are also causing an increase in crime, “with armed robbers ripping vines out of the ground. Farmers forced to sleep in their fields to guard their produce make only a fraction of the spice’s export price…”

Climate change is bringing more frequent and destructive droughts, which are having far more than just a perilous effect on vanilla orchids. The country’s food security is under threat, as most people of Madagascar are reliant on small-scale farming and fishing for their daily needs. In the past few years, droughts have been so severe that nothing can grow. Eighty percent of Madagascar’s rural poor have been living primarily off of dried cassava and cactus fruit. Once in a while, there is food from the sea; however, for the most part, the fisheries, coral reefs, and fishing areas around the island have collapsed. Seafood which was the main source of protein for the country’s coastal population is almost nonexistent. Madagascar’s resourceful fishermen are now farming seaweed. 

Climate change is compounding dire situations across the country, from the failing sea to failing harvests, families are starving. In 2016, the U.N reported that nearly 850 thousand people were food insecure in the country, and the situation would certainly persist into 2017. Assistance has provided farmers with quick-maturing, drought-tolerant seeds, such as cassava and sweet potatoes. However, without additional humanitarian response, large numbers of people will starve to death. The varying weather patterns and storm severities are also bringing about water insecurity. Over half the population currently does not have access to clean water, and funding has not been available to install flood-proof points of water access in at-risk areas.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has designated Vanilla plantifolia as an endangered species because of the extreme fragmentation of the species’ habitat. Despite all, Madagascar continues to be a leading exporter of Vanilla. 


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Madagascar | Animals, People, And Threats | WWF”. 2017. World Wildlife Fund. Accessed July 14 2017.

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