The Missing Bee in Secret Gardens: Cultivating the Vanilla of MadagascarMay 18, 2011
Noah Jackson — the newest voice on the Frog Blog and an auditor and trainer for the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable agriculture and forestry programs – issues his second report from the field. Here, he describes his arrival in a remote Malagasy village, where he’s been sent to conduct a diagnostic audit on a group of vanilla farms. (Using a systematic process of obtaining and evaluating evidence from farms, diagnostic audits help auditors to determine the social, environmental and economic changes a farm needs to make in order to be eligible for Rainforest Alliance certification.)
I’ve heard that before. I’ve heard it in Borneo, where I work on projects with local communities. I heard it in Alaska on a side excursion, when I passed a group of hikers who had already traveled part of my route. Nearly every time I hear it, I wind up ignoring it. Usually there is a good reason: like having an interesting community to visit or spending time in a unique farm or forest. Learning is high on the list. It’s the firsthand learning – hearing directly from farmers – that makes the walking worth it. It’s also practical.
It has always been my philosophy that to understand the challenges of farm and forest management, you need to walk the land. In practice, this can be tedious. Its means I need not only to look at the soil, but to look at the soil in individual valleys and drainages. Understanding the land as a whole helps me to understand its people and the challenges they face.
Called by the Rainforest Alliance to conduct a diagnostic audit — to evaluate a vanilla-producing cooperative’s compliance with the social, environmental and economic standards required for Rainforest Alliance certification– I wasn’t about to let a hard-to-reach location stop me.
While I’m an aficionado of coffee, cocoa and cloves, there is always something missing. Vanilla completes the spectrum of flavors. Together, these crops are the rock stars of a commercial sustainable agriculture harvest.
In addition to being a trainer and auditor for the Rainforest Alliance, I am also a flavor junkie. If I were talking to a child, I might even call myself a flavor explorer.
It’s a nice job title.
Madagascar happens to be one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. It is also home to the greatest number of endemic species in the world — plants and animals that do not exist anywhere else. Vanilla grows in the northern part of the country, where coastal and montane rainforests thrive. In a place as biodiverse as Madagascar, growing and cultivating crops like vanilla in harmony with nature is particularly important – irresponsible farming could threaten the integrity of this incredible landscape.
There is another secret here. Unlike any other food or flavor crop I know, vanilla is sometimes hand pollinated. Vanilla originated in Mexico, where its small flowers were pollinated by tiny, indigenous bees. These bees are only found in Mexico. In other parts of the world, vanilla can also be pollinated by humming birds; that is not the case in Madagascar.
This is skilled, delicate work and requires someone with practiced hands. Each blossom lasts for only one day. While an experienced person with small hands can pollinate as many as 2,000 plants per day, vanilla farms are spread across large distances and flowers can only be pollinated in the morning, when the flowers are wide open. It’s precise, labor-intensive work.
Vanilla is a special crop; the individual beans are so valuable that farmers sometimes scratch their initials onto the beans to identify their origin. Prior to my trip, vanilla was a mystery to me; I was looking forward to learning from the farmers who work with it every day.
Upon my arrival in coastal Madagascar, I learned that farmers use nearby rivers to transport vanilla from forested farms to market. The rivers are nestled along the coast and flow both ways — with the tide and against the tide. If I was to learn anything about the potential and challenges of producing vanilla, I’d have to follow one of these rivers.
Surrounded by mountains, I set out down a nearby river with my group, knowing that this trip would undoubtedly change me. We might get a little lost along the way – in fact, that was a given — but the trip held incredible promise and opportunities for learning. I was entering a new world, forests and farms connected by a vanilla river that flows both ways.
In his next blog, Noah will take us on a walk through the vanilla farms of Madagascar, discuss his work advising farmers about sustainable agriculture and explain how he got a little too close to a group of pollinators.