The following post is a response to this article. You should probably read it for my commentary to make sense.
A few months ago I was trapped in the capital because a cyclone had shut down all the flights to my region. While there I met a couple journalists who were also looking to go to SAVA to write a story about how climate change and cyclones impact the vanilla industry. They spent about three days in the region and for one of those days I translated for them. We went to a small town about 50 km north of Sambava and then to my town where they spent the night. When the article came out I was disappointed by what they wrote. Below I give my thoughts on what they got wrong, what they got right and some lingering questions I still have. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this situation, but I have been here for over a year and I would like to think I know the people in my town more than someone who spent an hour with them.
What they got right:
- Madagascar does produce most of the world’s vanilla
- Prices have increased over the last few years.
- Most people in Madagascar are very poor. You can see the wealth in SAVA in the price of food, electronics, everything. People in my town still buy meat on a regular basis though, which most of Madagascar cannot.
- Vanilla is an extremely labor intensive crop. It’s also a very picky crop, even in it’s home in Mexico it’s rare for the plant to produce beans in the wild.
- Theft has increased with the increase in price.
- It’s true that turning people over to the police is unlikely to bring about anything
- It’s true that vanilla shouldn’t ever be stored in plastic. It doesn’t let the vanilla breath properly
What they got wrong:
- Sambava doesn’t smell like trash or money (though I can’t figure out what money smells like). It would be terrible if the town smelled like vanilla all year. It’s bad enough during the middle of the season when everywhere smells so sickly sweet you want to barf. I’m also surprised they toured a warehouse and didn’t talk about the smell. The amount in the picture alone is enough to give off a good odor.
- If Dominique is a vanilla trader then he’s making good money, probably more than his brother. I also don’t think his brother is a simple farmer. I did the math and to become a billionaire over the last three years his brother would have to pollinate 2.5 flowers a minute for 12 hours a day over a three month period for three years to produce that much vanilla. I have a feeling the brother is employing a large number of people or he’s both a farmer and trader.
- A lot of vanilla is only dried for a few weeks, but really, really good bourbon vanilla takes months to cure.
- The prices of vanilla had been increasing sharply over the last three years. Even if there wasn’t a cyclone the price of vanilla would still have only followed the trend that it did. In a lot of places the impact of the cyclone did more damage for this year’s crop than last year. A lot of farmers have said their crop didn’t flower as well this year because of the stress of last year’s cyclone.
- Emmanuel lives on the road to Vohemar, about 50 km north of Sambava, not on the road to Andapa, which lies 110 km to the southwest of Sambava. Not that you would know where any of these things are on the map they give
- Vanilla murder typically refers to when a thief is killed instead of turned over to the police, farmers can be killed by thieves as well, but it’s not called a vanilla murder.
- The journalists often have embellished the quotes given by the farmers. I know this because I translated for Emmanuel and he never talked about the police being under one roof with the thieves. He actually didn’t talk about corruption at all. That was done by a man in my town who was also talking about the watch system that they have. They both gave similar answers so I can’t remember exactly who said what other than this quote isn’t really a quote but a summary of those two stories made to sound more polished that it was.
- There isn’t a set market day to prevent early picking due to fear of theft. The date is in place even when the price and risk of theft is low. It’s done because if it doesn’t exist people would start picking their vanilla in March, before it’s finished so they can get their money sooner. Vanilla reaches it’s final length and weight a few months before optimal harvest time, so it’s almost impossible to tell the quality from the green beans.
- The journalists were getting ripped off by being offered 1.5 million for a kilo of vanilla. Food companies may have been tricked into paying $600, but I’ve been asking throughout the season and people agree the price topped at 1.4 million and spent most of the season at 800 k -1 million. I had asked about the price right after the journalist came and I was told 1.1 million. Maybe I get the friends and family discount?
- Vola Mafana means hot money, not fast money
- I’m not sure why you would think a company has to sell its entire stock at once. Like I said really good quality vanilla takes more than a few weeks to process so many that what they were seeing in the warehouse. Or maybe they just got a new order put it. Cured vanilla stores well for a long time
- If it were stolen green vanilla you wouldn’t store it in plastic bags. Green vanilla doesn’t keep, you have to start drying it right away and putting in plastic bags would actually speed up the process. (it can be used as an alternative to the hot water baths that are the best method to start the curing process)
- The guy is probably afraid because he’s not supposed to be showing you the warehouse, not because he cares if something shady is happening there
- The scale on the map they give is off. Antalaha is 90 km from Sambava
- Antalaha isn’t a dangerous place. Two volunteers live there and we vacation there all the time. It does have illegal rosewood, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get murdered for going to the beach
- My host dad’s name is SOLOFO, and yes they know that because I wrote it down for them. He’s 35 so you can decide how young that is and he is the President of my town, Ambohimanarina.
- Solofo actually answered the question then went outside to tell the person who was calling him to wait and bit longer. Then he came back again and continued to talk about rosewood. Yes he was uncomfortable, but not unfriendly. He has not control over the national park where the rosewood still exists and is logged. The journalists later talk about how people who oppose rosewood get jailed or death threats. My host dad doesn’t want trouble with a corrupt police force, or powerful smugglers, but he doesn’t benefit from it
- I’m the “secret villager”. Except that’s not exactly what I said, and I’m not a villager. I said I have some sketchy neighbors who might be involved. They also might be involved in other sketchy things, but I don’t see how the entire community benefits. I also don’t know who we’re supposed to turn people into?
- This photo of my town is very misleading. To the right you can see sand and gravel being used in the construction of a new house. On the right there is an outhouse. One of those buildings is a kitchen, and you can see freshly woven bamboo and poles to fix up an old structure. The nice cement house is of the town doctor and his wife who owns a store. It wasn’t built on vanilla money. It’s also who housed the journalists and one of the many families that offered to feed them.
- Emmanuel’s children were already in school, it didn’t have to deal with his vanilla profits.
- I would like to have better climate data for the rainfall in my region. 10 years isn’t a very long period to talk about trends and studies have shown that human’s memory on weather and climate isn’t reliable. Microclimates are hard to predict, but most show that the tropics will trend towards more rain not less. Perhaps the timing is different and the vanilla doesn’t like that? I also question why someone who says that crops aren’t growing well, who has seen the cyclical nature of the vanilla prices, would stake their livelihood to the crop? Why is she growing vanilla if is won’t grow well?
- Again, just because we had the worst cyclone in over a decade last year doesn’t mean that the frequency is increasing. I would like some hard data please. (Actually I plan to look into some of these trends when I’m back in the states and have better access to the data.)
- I’m confused who these “kingpins” are selling their vanilla to. Are they really dressed like that for a meeting with Nestle? Why are they walking around with 100 g pouches of vanilla? A kilo is the size of a small backpack so it’s not like they are selling large quantities in their bags. Either selling to tourists is their side gig to their real job or buying up vanilla or they aren’t as influential as they thought.
- Is my town having secret rosewood meetings where they all diving up the profits? How rude that I’ve never been invited.
- This is in response to the caption of the photo of my town. I’m confused, is my town full of rosewood money or starving? How is unemployment high? 99% of my town farms and 90% farm vanilla. They also grow rice, coffee, cloves, and cacao. Perhaps farming is no longer considered a profession?
- Worse than cocaine how? Is it worse for the environment? Are more people getting murdered? Is vanilla now addictive? Is it more corrupt? It’s a nice sound bite, but I need more please.
Biodiversity is a big part of Madagascar and it’s true that doing anything in a rainforest distorts that rainforest, but I get a little upset when a region that has huge amount of land in nationals parks, as well as smaller reserves not shown are the map are told by foreigners that they shouldn’t try to better themselves. No one was looking over Europe’s shoulder during the industrial revolution saying they shouldn’t cut down that nice boreal forest. I think that you have to find a balance.
The journalists seemed to know little about Malagasy people before coming here and haven’t seemed to learn much while here. They had me ask multiple questions about if people worshiped spirits in the forest or if they had sacred animals. They tried to get people alone as if everyone had a secret they wouldn’t share in front of others, but were just waiting to tell these white people they don’t know. They never offered to keep people anonymous though.
I know that I haven’t lived here my entire life and I’m not an expert either, but I wanted to give some clarifications about what really happened while they were here and what really happens when they aren’t.