Dispatch from Madagascar’s Vanilla TrailApril 23, 2012
Noah Jackson – an independent trainer and auditor for the Rainforest Alliance, and a regular blog contributor – contemplates the dilemmas faced by smallholder farmers in Madagascar.
Much as my travels to remote and exotic corners of the Earth make for thrilling adventures, they don’t tend to make for a very glamorous life. Take, for example, my recent fall – camera in hand — through a bamboo bridge and into a river, where I flailed and floundered until a farmer plunged his arm through the water and pulled me to solid ground.
While my camera wouldn’t fully dry out until a couple of days later, this moment set the stage for my trip to Madagascar. The line between a successful crop and a failed one can be defined by a simple mistake or a slight weather shift.
Today, back in the forests of Madagascar’s vanilla coast, a farmer who I’ll call Simon told me: “Noah, it was not that I wanted to clear more forest for rice land. It’s a lot of work. We had a drought last year so I needed to do something to intensify my production. My family would have been without food.”
I understand the tradeoffs farmers face. The investment of community labor required to farm. The loss of soil fertility if the land is not allowed sufficient fallow periods. Farmers need to grow food and they have a right to produce crops – but the land cannot always support these crops. There are times when farmers must purchase rice, or even go without, rather than grow it on their overworked land.
The farmers I’m working with on this trip are interested in learning about socially, environmentally and economically sustainable farming, but they have not yet earned Rainforest Alliance certification. In order for these farmers to meet the standards required for certification, we must first find a way to balance their needs with the land’s needs.
Later in the evening, as I ate my own plate of rice, I puzzled over the dilemma. What is a farmer who is out of fertile land to do? We’ve already identified some solutions; that’s why we are starting farmer and group training sessions in Madagascar. But it’s not going to be easy. As Simon told me before I left his village, “There has been so much uncertainty; we just need to build trust with you.”
I couldn’t agree more. Over the next several days, I’ll be looking at some of the challenges these smallholder farmers are facing, speaking with local experts to see how these problems are currently being solved, and working to identify new solutions.