Madagascar's Vanilla Farmers Fight Off Thieves

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Because farmers need protection too.

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Jao Emile marks his vanilla pods with his initials so he can recognize them if he sees them after they are stolen. But he has to worry about a lot more than just his carefully cultivated beans. Thieves, he says, are willing to kill to get their hands on his lucrative crop.

“We lose everything,” Emile says. “Bang.”

The price of vanilla in Madagascar goes beyond its selling price. As its cost increases, the threats farmers face from thieves looking to get in on the vanilla trade also rise. The dangers push farmers to change their production process, decreasing the quality of their vanilla. But they are also trying to protect themselves in a community that has little faith in the judicial system, and one in which some take legal matters into their own hands.

As the threat of robbery has grown, farmers have started harvesting vanilla more quickly, even before the beans are fully mature. Young vanilla beans have lower levels of vanillin, the main component of vanilla extract, leading to lower-quality vanilla flavor.

If this situation continues in Madagascar, people will continue to die.

Kung Leng, vanilla farmer

To protect the highly valued beans, farmers have teamed with locals to create security teams to stand guard. The teams are able to arrest vanilla thieves and turn them over to local police. The problem? These security teams have been known to kill robbers on the spot, says vanilla farmer Kung Leng. “If this situation continues in Madagascar, people will continue to die,” Leng warns.

Vanilla’s value reflects a high demand for the spice on the global market, but the increase in crime surrounding its production is causing farmers to sacrifice the quality of their product and their own security.

Video by Fellipe Abreu, Henrique G. Hedler, Vitor Pessoa, Thay Prado and Fraser Stephen. Accompanying text by Olivia Miltner.

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