Fighting The Vannila Thieves of Madagascar

Aug 29, 2018, 01:00 PM


A barefoot farmer is making his way through a forest.

Quiet drops of rain tumble steadily through the night, picked out in the light from his torch.

The rusty machete he holds isn’t for cutting down vines or chopping away stubborn branches - it is a defence against thieves.

Lots of other men - farmers like him - are out in the rain, patrolling the forest. For the past three months, they have left their homes every night and made the long journey into the plantations to protect their crop.

But this is not an illegal coca plantation, or anything like it. In fact, these farmers are growing a crop whose name is a byword for something boring.

The men need weapons to guard against robbers who roam the countryside looking for one thing - Madagascan vanilla.

They show that these vanilla vines belong to Leon Charles.

Leon is with his wife, Oristin, in their garden, where they grow coffee and vanilla in the village of Ambanizana, at the edge of the Masoala National Park, in the north-east corner of Madagascar.

It’s a hard place to get to - there are no roads to speak of. From the island’s capital, Antananarivo, it takes two flights, two hours on a speedboat and another 30 minutes in a canoe to reach Ambanizana

The village is full of music. Upbeat dance melodies blare through the sheer, pink curtain covering the doorway of Leon’s home - a rectangular, wooden structure with a peaked roof.

Here, the forest meets the sea and the high humidity, shade, and moderate temperatures make it perfect for growing vanilla.

Each vine that Leon prunes holds pods - also known as beans - that will eventually retail for more than $150 (£120), once they are dried.

To deter theft, all the farmers in the surrounding area are stamping their names, or sometimes serial numbers, on to individual pods while they’re still on the vine. Even when the pods are dried, the markings can be made out.

Leon was robbed before last year’s harvest - and it was devastating for his family. “I was working in my [nearby] rice field when they quickly took advantage in order to steal,” he says. “I was so sad, I even cried, because we lost everything. I didn’t have money to send the children to school. Our household has been experiencing hardship for a whole year.”

But it could have been even worse.

The robberies are often violent. There have been dozens of murders in Madagascar linked to vanilla. Several communities have tried and failed to get protection from armed police.

Some have taken the law into their own hands. Villagers say in a nearby village, a machete-wielding crowd descended on five suspected gangsters - hacking and stabbing them to death.

The killings have yet to be solved by the police. Locals say there is no will or capacity in the police forces to investigate the vanilla thefts - or the mob justice that sometimes follows.

The chief of Leon’s village fears the same thing could happen there. A youngish-looking man, Chief Oreis is wearing shorts and sandals with a bright purple shirt when he stops by Leon’s house to say hello. His expression grows stern when he talks about the vanilla thefts.

“We have to do our best to make sure thieves are not able to steal from us here,” he says. “Because if someone’s livelihood is taken away, they can do anything, even kill.”

Thousands of miles away in London, Oddono’s ice cream shop is tucked between a pizza parlour and a cafe on a busy street in South Kensington.

There’s a plethora of awards on one wall. The owners boast of the finest natural ingredients in their authentic Italian gelato: Valrhona chocolate from France, pistachios from Sicily, hazelnuts from Piedmont.

But last year, one variety of ice cream was missing.

“When I told customers that we didn’t have any vanilla ice cream, many of them were shocked,” says Christian Oddono, who manages the shop.

“I had to explain that we didn’t want to give them bad quality products but also we were never going to use chemicals. Then, they understood.”