Rombo Ramasitera is among hundreds of small-scale farmers near Madagascar's northeast coast, all trying to make ends meet as vanilla prices plummet.
The price of vanilla, the Indian Ocean's chief export, has fallen from about US $180 per kg in 2004 to just $50 per kg in early 2005.
"We will not starve, as everyone grows rice and vegetables in their plot - so we know we will have food to eat and feed our children," said Ramasitera. But there will have to be other cuts in spending by his family of six, particularly on clothing and school stationery for the children.
Ramasitera grows his crops on a well-irrigated plot in a village 25 km from Andapa, the closest town. But for farmers like Leva Francois, who has rice paddies further inland on the edge of the hilly Betaolana forest, producing enough food to feed his family is problematic. The rains - their only source of water - have come and gone.
"If we had access to water we could have grown rice twice a year," he pointed out. His village, by virtue of its location, was among the fortunate few left unaffected by the cyclones that ravaged the northeastern coast a few years ago.
Almost all the farmers grow vanilla as a cash crop - like an investment, noted Jocelyn Tovoarison, another farmer. If their land is big enough they also plant coffee, bananas and beans, but vanilla can bring in a useful additional income of $300 to $400 a year.
The heady perfume of vanilla wafts through the alleyways lined with wooden huts in the village. Women sit outside watching over the treated vanilla pods, coffee beans and bean pods drying on mats in the sun. The men are out in the fields.
Vanilla, the only fruit-producing orchid, is one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world, taking as long as five years from planting the vine to producing aged extract. Production involves the entire family, who pollinate the vanilla by hand when it flowers after two years, and then collect, cure and dry the pods.
Vanilla pods are cured to produce vanillin, which gives vanilla its distinctive flavour. Curing involves boiling the pods and then slowly drying them for three to four months until they become pliable and deep brown. Most small-scale farmers in Madagascar, where the crop was introduced during the nineteenth century, sell the dried pods to local buyers rather than extract the essence themselves.
"This year's [output of] vanilla is not ready yet. If farmers have any left over from last season they are holding on to it. Many of the farmers are expecting the prices to go up," commented Ramasitera, in a voice that lacked conviction.
Vanilla farmers have benefited from "artificially high prices" in the past four years, according to the World Bank's (WB) principal economist in Madagascar, Dieudonne Randriamanampisoa.
Analysts have attributed the record high prices to cyclones and political problems in Madagascar, the largest producer of vanilla in the world in terms of value.
"Because of the good prices, we know countries like Papua New Guinea, Uganda, India, Costa Rica and Colombia are now also growing vanilla, and they say prices will go down because there is too much vanilla in the market", Ramasitera said.
Prices were expected to come down by 90 percent from the peak in 2003 to more realistic levels, Randriamanapisoa noted.
Commercial vanilla plantation owners like Leon Chanchone, who produces 700 kg of vanilla a year as well as 400 kg of coffee, adopted a more philosophical attitude to the drop in prices.
"The price was very high in the past; we have benefited," he observed. Chanchone, who runs his plantation with his two daughters and employs 28 to 30 people, is uncertain about whether he will have to let some of his workers go.
Low vanilla prices have also triggered another set of alarm bells, particularly among conservation NGOs like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Disillusioned small-scale vanilla farmers have joined the hordes of illegal gemstone miners digging in the mountainside, perilously close to the Anjanaharibe-Sud national park.
Didier Rabeviavy of the WWF said, "We have complained to the authorities, but we cannot take action against them [miners] as they have not reached the park yet."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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