Interview: Why vanilla may be key to protecting our forests

Maureen Lee Maloney is the co-director and co-producer of Voice of Vanilla, a feature-length documentary exploring the challenges that vanilla farmers in Madagascar face and the potential role that this sweet ingredient can play in preserving the forests. Environment Journal got in touch with Maureen to find out more.

Maureen is a biologist and has spent many years studying the way that chemicals in the environment can impact our hormones, but when Maureen was volunteering in Madagascar her outlook suddenly changed.

‘When I was in Madagascar I saw first hand that the people here are already struggling with the effects of climate change on a day to day basis.

‘In the village I was volunteering in the majority of the population have historically been fishermen because that part of the country has a huge coral reef. But in recent years there has been an extreme decline in fish populations due to coral bleaching events and overfishing – the people were losing their livelihoods and their sources of food right before my eyes.

‘It was at this point that my focus started to change, as a biologist I was very much data-focused, but I soon started to realise that when you tell a human story it connects people a lot more and with something like climate change it’s not like we don’t have the solutions, we just don’t have the motivation to change our behaviours and I think that telling stories about how people are already being affected will help to boost that motivation – that’s my theory.

‘At this time, a friend of mine started working for a sustainable vanilla company and I soon began to realise the potential benefits that this spice could have in bringing people out of poverty, protecting the forests and recreating livelihoods.’

In 2018 the price of vanilla reached dizzying heights, with one kilo costing around $600 – more than the price of silver.

The vast majority of vanilla is grown in Madagascar and one of the reasons for its high cost is because it is very difficult to grow. The vanilla vines take two to four years to fully mature and their flowers only bloom for one day of the year and must be pollinated on that day.

Climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation are making this crop extremely scarce, however, due to the increase in demand, vanilla plantations offer a potential solution for protecting the forests, while also reducing carbon dioxide emissions and helping to bring people out of poverty.

‘When I first saw the vanilla plants the farmers would cut off a lot of the upper branches of the trees and I thought well, doesn’t that reduce the carbon sequestering? But after I spoke to biologists, I found out that because they trim the trees and then give them a chance to grow back it actually increases the amount of carbon sequestering that these trees can do.

‘The particular village I was volunteering in has had a lot of NGOs come in and try to impose their solutions to protect the natural landscape, but in actual fact, the local people are doing a great job of preserving the forest themselves. It is part of their culture to preserve the land because they believe that their ancestors still live there, the farmers have created this identity with the vanilla plantations, they are connected to the forests.’

Maureen and the rest of the team hope to complete the documentary later this year and plan to examine in detail the factors that determine whether vanilla is a blessing or a curse for the local populations.

The Voice of Vanilla crowdfunding campaign ends later this week, click here to find out more.

Photo Credit – supplied

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