Vanilla planifolia

Photo of vanilla

General Description / Cultural Significance

Off the southeastern coast of Africa, the island of Madagascar is considered a biodiversity hotspot. The country is home to indigenous primates, birds, reptiles, insectivores, and 800 species of butterflies, all of which have evolved to the unique conditions of Madagascar’s isolation. Across the country’s ancient lakes, volcanic masses, seaside cliffs, and coral reefs, stretches of vast tree forests used to flourish. Due to erosion, agriculture, and extraction, these evergreen and deciduous forests have been replaced by grasslands, bamboo fields, and the most treasured and valuable land in Madagascar: the farms which produce Madagascar’s prized Vanilla, Vanilla planifolia.

During the colonial period, Vanilla took the world by storm for its powerful aromatic and culinary use. When Edmond Albius, a young man enslaved to a prominent botanist of the 1800’s, discovered how to initiate propagation in Vanilla planifolia, the plant was introduced to Madagascar where it proved to flourish unlike it had anywhere else in the world. Ever since then, the Malagasy people have cultivated the fragrant trumpet flowers of the Vanilla Orchid by hand as there are no natural pollinators to do the job. Vanilla is an orchid vine that is grown on tree trunks. After it is planted, it takes three years to fruit, and is a highly labor-intensive crop to maintain. The herbaceous perennial produces a bean that contains a particularly high concentration of vanillin, the compound responsible for Vanilla’s characteristic sweet, warm, and creamy flavor and scent. This sets Madagascar’s uniquely rich Vanilla apart, a recognition which has earned Madagascar extensive commercial success. Today, Vanilla exports form a critical part of the island’s commerce. In fact, the northeastern regions of Madagascar produce almost eighty percent of the global Vanilla supply. Due to the plant’s high demand, cultivating Vanilla is one of the only ways Malagasy can make a living in Madagascar.

Though Vanilla arrived in Madagascar relatively recently in an exchange linked to colonialism, slavery, and capitalism, the plant has a long history of culinary and medicinal use that predates its modern industry. The only edible fruit of the orchid family, Vanilla planifolia is native solely to Mexico where the Olmeca people once tasted its sweetness in their beverages, fragranced their temples with it, and crafted it into the hearts of amulets to ward off evil. The Totonaca people were the first to cultivate it and considered it a gift from the gods. A recent archaeological discovery found traces of the vanillin compound within small jugs inside a 3,600-year-old burial tomb in Israel. The history of Vanilla’s widespread significance continues to be rewritten as discoveries of the ancient world reveal more about when and where this incredible plant influenced the lives of humans.  

Today, the scent of Vanilla fragrances perfumes, flavors medicines, and is included in products to mask the strong smell of industrial items such as rubber tires and paint. Scientists have recently revealed Vanilla extract’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antimicrobial properties, shedding light on the plants currently under-researched human health benefits.   

Climate Change / Conservation Status

Madagascar has changed dramatically over the last five decades due to population growth, which has caused profound environmental damage. Satellite images reveal the impact of increased slash-and-burn farming. Today, only ten percent of Madagascar’s original forests have survived deforestation. Researchers project that this remaining vestige of nature might not survive a decade. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has designated Vanilla planifolia as an endangered species because of the extreme fragmentation on the fragile plant’s habitat. 

As climate change escalates the frequency and ferocity of extreme weather events, Madagascar has found itself in the path of more and more harmful tropical cyclones. Vanilla crops from the Mananara region of Madagascar, considered the best origin for Vanilla, are continually destroyed by these storms. Even though this area is protected as a UNESCO National Park, the country continues to suffer the consequences of global climate change ironically perpetrated by those who enjoy their sweet Vanilla extract abroad. 

Climate change is bringing more enduring and destructive droughts, which impact more than just the Vanilla Orchids. The country’s food security is under threat as most of the people in Madagascar are reliant on small-scale farming and fishing for their daily subsistence. In the past few years, droughts have been so severe that nothing is able to grow. Eighty percent of Madagascar’s rural poor live primarily on dried cassava and cactus fruit. Once a secure source of protein, the island’s fisheries have collapsed due to overfishing. Resourceful Malagasy fishermen primarily farm seaweed today. Varying weather patterns and storms have also brought about extreme 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. As of 2021, a four-year drought placed tens of thousands of people into extreme food insecurity.

In 2017, Storm Enawo not only killed nearly one hundred people and displaced around thousands, but it also destroyed some of Madagascar’s most important Vanilla plantations. The devastation reduced the country’s Vanilla output by nearly thirty percent. As a result, worldwide Vanilla prices skyrocketed, placing unmanageable pressure onto local farmers who must now protect their crops from robbery and trespassing. Since then, the country has experienced an average of three cyclones a year. With each storm, more of Madagascar’s precious Vanilla is decimated and more locals are left hungry, without shelter, and vulnerable. 

This brings into question the human rights issues at hand: Malagasy farmers endure the brunt of climate change while painstakingly cultivating the world’s best Vanilla, considered the most labor-intensive crop in the world. The farmers of Madagascar make a scarce daily profit incomparable to the global value of Vanilla, which has surpassed that of silver. When Vanilla’s prices fluctuate, it is the people of Madagascar who suffer first, unable to afford their cost of living and to stay safe in the face of increased crime. Foreign flavor and fragrance companies have begun to support “Vanilla Villages,” working with local cooperatives to increase stability in Malagasy communities through improved schooling and healthcare. These efforts hope to improve Malagasy quality of life, making it less necessary for growers to go through middle men to sell their product and ensuring a higher quality source of Vanilla. 

Ultimately, the survival of Madagascar’s Vanilla planifolia in the face of climate change means much more than the stability of the world spice trade: it means the survival of the entire Malagasy people who are the reason Vanilla is enjoyed by the world, and who understand that this aromatic plant embodies biological, historical, and cultural significance which is priceless.

Alternate Names
Bourbon Vanilla
Madagascar Vanilla

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