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Rosewood, the one Dark Secret Behind the Booming Madagascar Vanilla Trade

Curing Uganda Vanilla Beans- Sun drying Phase

Curing Uganda Vanilla Beans- Sun drying Phase

‘It is big business,” says Dominique Rakotoson, a vanilla trader from Sambava, the sprawling “vanilla capital” of Madagascar’s northeast. Heavy traffic is whirling up dust and thin plastic bags: flashy, brand-new SUVs are rushing by, loud Malagasy pop music booming from the speakers. No whiff of vanilla in this tropical town, however — instead it smells of trash and money.

“These ‘quatre-quatre’ (four-wheel drives) are all paid for by the great miracle called vanilla,” Dominique says with a half-smile.

Many people in town have made their fortune in vanilla in recent years: “My brother, the farmer who has not even finished elementary school, has become a billionaire in Malagasy ariary in no time. I’ve wasted years studying in the capital whilst others got rich here.”

Thanks to rapidly growing Chinese demand, and snobby Western consumers shunning artificial flavourings, the world seems to have developed an insatiable appetite for the fragrant spice grown in this corner of the world. Every year, Madagascar exports up to 2 000 tonnes of vanilla, which is used in baking, ice cream and perfumes. It is even said to be one of the secret ingredients in Coca-Cola.

Prices have skyrocketed: the pods of last year’s harvest were sold to international food companies for $600 dollars a kilogram — a ten-fold increase on the $60 a kilo price in 2013. With more than 80% of the Malagasy population living in poverty, this “vanilla fever” is a blessing for those cultivating the sweet-scented crop. Or is it?

Click here to buy Uganda Vanilla Beans from Africa

Where the vanilla grows
“This is my husband.” Moira, a 70-year-old widow from Anjiamangotroka village, rams her machete into the soil where she recently started cultivating vanilla.

She hopes that by her first harvest — it takes three to four years until a freshly planted vine bears fruit — she will “get enough money to build a proper house”.

She does not believe that it will be easy money: “Growing vanilla needs a lot of work.”


Vanilla growing is all about handcraft. The fragile orchid flowers only bloom for a single day in a year and need to be pollinated by hand. The plant is from the central America region and is pollinated by a species of the Melipona bee, which does not occur in Madagascar.

After pollination, it takes nine months until the green vanilla beans have fully matured. The pods will then be fermented and processed into cured black vanilla. It takes weeks of drying them in the sun before they develop their full aroma and value.

Sun-drenched and humid, with abundant rain, Sava has the perfect climate for the fragile and valuable orchid. So much so that around three-quarters of global vanilla production comes from the region, mostly from small family-owned farms much like Moira’s.


But over the past 10 years or so farming has become more risky.

“It rains less and the crops don’t grow as good anymore,” Moira explains. But even worse are the cyclones that rage over the island during the summer months.

Click here to buy Uganda Vanilla Beans from Africa


Storms and scarcity
Last year the most deadly storm in more than a decade hit the Sava region. Cyclone Enawo triggered landslides and floods, left 81 people dead and demolished 250 000 homes. The cyclone destroyed a fifth of all food crops and wiped out a third of the vanilla harvest, making the spice more scarce.

Charles Rambolarson, executive secretary of the National Bureau of Risk and Disaster Management, says: “Enawo made vanilla extremely expensive. And everything else too: food prices are crazy up there. Many already vulnerable people had to go hungry.”

It is not the first time this has happened; in 2004 another cyclone drove the prices up from $25 a kilogram to more than $500. After the initial hike, the prices fell back to about $50.

It won’t be the last time that a cyclone will destroy the land either, Rambolarson explains. Changing weather patterns have made “the power of the tropical storms much, much stronger”.

Flowering crime
As the price of vanilla has skyrocketed, so has vanilla theft.

Emmanuel Zafihavama, a 55-year-old farmer who manages a small vanilla plantation on the road to Andapa, explains: “It happens to all of us here. The higher the price of vanilla, the earlier in the year the robbers come to tear the pods off the vine.” Farmers, he says, are terrified of losing their hard work in robberies and fear being killed in a “vanilla murder”.

In his shaded garden, where hundreds of bright green vanilla vines grow, Zafihavama explains how the farmers in his village have organised themselves.

“We’ve formed a vigilante group to guard our fields day and night for the four months until harvest. We patrol, we sleep with our vanilla at night. It is dangerous, and it is very tiring,” he says. “Going to the police to report a theft is of no use. They are all under one roof.”

Farmers complain that, even when they catch the thieves and hand them over to police, they will be released for a bribe. In recent years, unripe, stolen vanilla has flooded the market, so that, although prices have skyrocketed, the overall quality of Malagasy vanilla has deteriorated.

To prevent farmers from picking their crop early out of fear of theft, the government has imposed a fixed harvest date for each village that grows vanilla. Those who do not follow the rules risk having their precious beans seized or even burned.

Click here to buy Uganda Vanilla Beans from Africa

Hustling the back roads
But for many the gain is worth the risk. On the notorious Rue Ambudimanga loiter the “vanilla hustlers” — young men with mirrored sunglasses, gold chains and colourful T-shirts. The little kingpins of this grubby backstreet seem to enjoy the fame and money they earn in the trade.


One of them, a man in his late 20s called Prisco à l’Appareil (on the phone), jumps up and conjures a bunch of sweet-smelling vanilla out of his jeans pocket. “First quality, only 1.5-million ariary per kilo about $460.”

Other vanilla “dealers” have professionally sealed pouches in their saddlebags or openly carry small quantities in plastic bags.

Selling vanilla is not as laidback as the boys make it seem, says Julio, a father of four: “You have to watch out for thieves when you sell … the boss weighs your bag with pods when you come back from the day. If you lose some, you pay.”

But in Sambava, where unemployment is high, the price explosion presents an interesting opportunity. If they were not selling vanilla, Prisco says, “it would be hard. There is no work for men.” The only other jobs available are in construction and paid so low it doesn’t earn the gold watches they wear to impress.

“You have to be fit for the trade,” said a group of vanilla hustlers.

Click here to buy Uganda Vanilla Beans from Africa

Vacuum cleaners, stolen spice
Dominique Rakotoson, the passionate old-school trader, speaks with anger about the “vanilla speculators” who hoard large amounts of unripe, often stolen, beans in vacuum-packs to preserve the spice.

“They put the beans into Chinese plastic bags and then just suck the air with a household vacuum cleaner,” Dominique says, raising his voice. “Then these guys wait for prices to rise.”

The “vacuuming” and speculation with unripe vanilla is harmful for the Sava region’s reputation as producer of the world’s highest- quality “bourbon” vanilla — praised for its sweetness and intense taste. The practice of vacuum-packaging green beans delivers a product with a lower vanillin content or even a mouldy flavour.

With limited government control and high levels of corruption, Dominique finds “the climate here just perfect for speculators”. And, he says, it is not only the little criminals in Sava who earn “vola mafana fast money” in trade. There is a much bigger crime behind the speculation. “Just go to Antalaha,” he says, “and you’ll see for yourself.”


White city, dark secret
With its palm-lined avenues, white beaches and grand houses overlooking the Indian Ocean, Antalaha — the second “vanilla city” in the Sava region — has a colonial feel to it. Big vanilla business giants like Henri Fraise and Ramandriabe have been here seemingly forever. The long-established exporters are fighting for market share with the influx of new competition, especially from China, India and Pakistan.

The city is clean, posh and very quiet. Yet we have been strongly cautioned not to stay here overnight. The beautiful and sunny facade of the city is hiding a dark secret: it is known to be the “heart of the rosewood trade”.

Three-quarters of Madagascar’s remaining rainforests are located in this region, in three national parks: Marojejy, Macolline and Masoala. These forests are being plundered for threatened “bola bola” hardwoods: palisander, ebony and rosewood.

The trees are illegally exported to China and made into traditional “hongmu” furniture, an age-old style that is becoming increasingly popular with the growing Chinese middle class.

Read the Full article
By Ingrid Gercama & Nathalie Bertrams in Sava region, Madagascar

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