The tropical rainforest of the remote Mananara-Nord Biosphere Reserve in northeast Madagascar is rich in biodiversity, with 13 different lemur species alone. Here, villagers are helping to protect the environment by using traditional, low-impact methods to produce vanilla, growing the orchids at the base of large trees in the forest.

The traditional production process for the fragrant vanilla pods is complex and time-consuming. The blossoms of the Vanilla planifolia vine are pollinated by hand using a thin stick or tweezers. After picking, the fresh green pods are blanched in hot water, then stored somewhere warm for two to three weeks until they turn soft and black. The pods are then wrapped in woollen blankets and kept warm and dry so that they sweat excess moisture. During the five or six weeks of this phase, the village women rub each pod with their fingers every day, cleaning them and keeping them supple and smooth as the pods develop their unmistakable heady scent.

Cheap synthetic vanilla flavourings and the spread of large plantations are threatening the livelihoods of these small-scale producers, who work in harmony with the natural environment. The local marketing system relies on a large number of intermediaries, meaning that the producers usually receive only a tiny percentage of the vanilla’s final price.

In an attempt to change this situation, the Koperativa Mpambolin’Ambanivolo Mananara (KOMAM) was founded in 2009. The cooperative brings together 918 clove- and vanilla-growing members from 36 villages within the reserve. The cooperative aims to improve the living conditions of the farmers, developing their production capacity with technical training, allocating equipment, collecting and marketing the vanilla and cloves and having them certified as organic and fair trade. By simplifying the chain from producer to exporter, the cooperative makes sure producers receive a fairer price for their spices.

The cooperative is also active in development, with the fair-trade premium helping to fund community projects to improve local roads, bridges, schools and wells, as well as environmental programmes to protect the watershed and fight soil erosion. Jobs have been created for young people in Mananara town at the processing and storage units set up by the cooperative’s commercial partner.

KOMAM can get better prices for its products under the organic and fair-trade labels, which are easier to obtain as a cooperative. The Slow Food organization has also established a Mananara Vanilla Presidium, protecting the traditional, environmentally friendly production methods and helping promote the spice to a wider market. Thanks to Slow Food, consumers in Italy can now sample panettone and gelato flavoured with Mananara vanilla.