As the price of pods has soared so has violence — and forest defenders are increasingly risking their lives to protect precious wildlife habitat from being felled for profit
Anjahana: The vanilla thieves of Anjahana were so confident of their power to intimidate farmers they provided advance warning of raids. “We are coming tonight,” they would write in a note pushed under doors in this remote coastal village in Madagascar. “Prepare what we want.”
But they either undervalued their target commodity or overestimated the meekness of their victims. After one assault too many at the turn of the year, a crowd rounded up five alleged gangsters, dragged them into the village square and then set about the bloody task of mob justice.
“They hacked and stabbed them to death with machetes and harpoons,” said a vanilla farmer, who was among the crowd of onlookers. “I think it’s good. The police did nothing. Now the gangsters will be afraid of stealing from us. We have our own guard now. The young men of the community make patrols at night.”
These extrajudicial killings — confirmed to the Guardian by a local priest — have gone unsolved and under-reported internationally until now. But environmental defenders say they highlight how the surging price of vanilla on global markets is connected to village crime and forest destruction.
Madagascar is the world’s primary supplier of pods used to flavour ice cream, cakes and chocolate. Despite its notoriously bland reputation, a more-than-tenfold surge in the value of the spice over the past five years has aroused dangerous passions.
Crop thefts have been reported in most of the key growing regions and there have been dozens of murders. Some communities have called for protection from armed police. Others — as in Anjahana — have taken matters into their own hands.
From the capital Antananarivo, it takes a plane, a ferry, a gondola and two motorbike rides to reach this picturesque village. On the way, forest defender Clovis Razafimalala explains how the vanilla violence is a product of poorly regulated global markets, corrupt local politicians and a flood of cash from illegal rosewood trades to China.
Clovis, as he is known, has risked life and liberty to expose these connections. A co-founder of the environmental watchdog group Coalition Lampogno, he revealed how rosewood is trafficked through Maroantsetra port with the connivance of local businessmen supported by powerful national politicians. None of them were punished, but Clovis was accused of instigating public unrest and spent the next 10 months in prison. Thanks to an international outcry by Amnesty and other human rights groups, he was released last September, but his five-year sentence has only been suspended. He has reported threats and an arson attack on his home — a sign of the powerful forces he faces.
Rosewood has become the world’s most trafficked wildlife commodity, with sales from Madagascar alone worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Almost all of it is illegal and destined for China, where the hard wood is prized for furniture. In 2014, a single shipment of 30,000 logs was intercepted in Singapore en route from the island.
Authorisation for the contraband shipment — one of the biggest seizures in the history of Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) — had come from senior government officials, according to documents presented to court.
Since then, the trade has slowed. But Clovis says the gangs that previously felled and sold rosewood are now using their networks to sell endangered wildlife and laundering money through the vanilla industry. “It’s all the same people who profit,” he says.
Many share his views.
“It’s a fact that vanilla is being used to launder money made illegally from rosewood sales,” said Harisoa Ravaomanalina, a specialist in wood anatomy at the University of Antananarivo. “A big mafia is behind this and they’re close to our government.”
Vanilla prices have been rising due to increasing demand for natural flavouring in wealthy nations, cyclones that disrupted production, and crime.
But industry expert Serge Rajaobelina believes 5-10% of the price rise may be due to speculation by rosewood traders. “They had cash in their pockets and they saw the value of vanilla going up so they bought up stocks. This created a shortage, and so the price went higher.”
Rajaobelina runs Fanamby, an NGO that works with thousands of grass roots farmers to produce sustainable, traceable vanilla. He urged international buyers not to punish farmers, many of whom are from poor communities, but to look more closely at where products are sourced.
In the near future, he expects crime will drive up the price. “Farmers are afraid so they are harvesting early. That means the vanilla bubble is going to get bigger because there is high demand, low quality and low production.”
Vanilla is adding to deforestation pressures. At Masoala national park — which is one of Madagascar’s best protected forests and home to many endangered species of lemur — visitors can hear the sound of chainsaws and see recently felled trees. In one area just inside the park boundary sign, a small clearing has been opened for the cultivation of vanilla.
Locals say they can sell a kilogram for 1,500,000 ariary (£360, Dh1,857), more than 10 times the price of a few years ago. With the extra income, they are building more and bigger homes using timber from the forest.
The change is evident at Marafototra, a village on the edge of the park. One local, who gives only his first names Jean Victor, said he has doubled the area under cultivation, although he insists his fields are all outside the boundaries of the protected area. “Everyone in the village is doing it. We’re all building new homes,” he says.
Forest defenders say the tree cutting is done stealthily to avoid detection by satellites. But the degradation is worsening as a steady influx of people arrives into the periphery of the protected area. Former park ranger Armand Marozafy, who now works with Lampogno, blames the authorities.
“Vanilla is now driving deforestation because the price is so high,” he says. “People have seen how the government ignored the law and destroyed the forest to sell rosewood. So they now feel they can do the same for vanilla. It’s a new problem with roots in the old problem.”
Marozafy spent five months in prison in 2015 — ostensibly for defamation — after he denounced illegal logging. Human rights groups say such criminalisation of critics is more common than in the past. Journalist Fernando Cello was charged with defamation after he reported on an illegal sapphire mine. Raymond Mandiny came under similar legal pressure after he challenged a rare earth project in the north-western town of Ambanja. Last October, an environmental campaigner called Raleva was given a two-year sentence after he questioned the permits for a gold mine.
The problem is not just high demand for commodities such as vanilla, rosewood, and minerals, but a lack of will to tackle corruption and promote accountability, according to Ndranto Razakamanarina, the president of the Alliance Voahary Gasy, a conservation group that aims to build a network of environmental defenders.
“In Madagascar today, there is no democracy. It is the critics not the culprits who are prosecuted,” he said. Similar sentiments explain why some feel driven to take justice into their own hands.