Vanilla. It’s one of the world’s great flavors and scents, coveted for centuries for use in everything from baked goods to soaps. And it is also helping expand tree cover in Indonesia.
Indonesia’s islands have been inhabited for millennia. Dramatic increases in population over the last few decades and more recent expansions of unsustainable industrial agriculture have shifted what had been a system in balance. They contributed to a loss of 23.5 million hectares of forest—an area nearly as big in area as the entire state of Michigan—between 2000 and 2017. As a result, some areas, especially in Papua Province in Indonesia’s far east, are quite degraded, with considerable topsoil erosion and no remaining forest.
Vanilla needs trees. The extract is made from the seedpod of an epiphytic orchid species, meaning the plant grows on trees, using them for support. While the orchid doesn’t need the complete shade of a dense tree canopy to thrive, it does need more than 50 percent shade, so it can’t exist without a healthy forest.
Farmers in Papua have tried growing the agroforestry crop before, with the encouragement of development partners in the 1980s. But when they couldn’t find buyers for this extremely labor-intensive plant––vanilla blossoms must be pollinated by hand to produce seedpods––they abandoned those farms.
This is the gap the Sustainable Cooperative Agribusiness Alliance (SCAA) project has bridged. This USAID Global Development Alliance project is a partnership with the National Cooperative Business Association/CLUSA International and CBI Global, a U.S.-based firm that connects spice farmers with buyers from more than 160 companies in 40 countries. Together with local Indonesian spice traders, CBI Global has invested in the infrastructure to process spices grown in Papua and South Sulawesi Provinces. They spent more than $1 million building nursery facilities for seedlings of spice crops and shade trees, processing plants, and buying stations where farmers can bring their harvests to sell and to be processed.
This level of investment is what convinced skeptical farmers that this project was worth their time and effort. “They realized that this project was serious because there is no way the project would run away with this much investment,” explains Dr. Donald Tambunan. “They know that our project will give them lasting skills that they can rely on in the long term.”
McCormick & Company, one of the United States’ largest spice companies, is an important buyer of vanilla grown through the SCAA project. So when McCormick said it wanted to source vanilla from farms that were Rainforest Alliance Certified, farmers paid attention. In order to earn this certification from the non-profit Rainforest Alliance, farmers must show that they meet stringent environmental, social, and economic standards, including practices that encourage biodiversity and natural resource conservation, improved livelihoods, and effective farm management systems. Tambunan adds, “McCormick and many other buyers nowadays want to purchase vanilla from sustainable farms.” Responding to the buyer’s needs, more than 2,000 farmers in Papua have earned certification for their vanilla farms with USAID and McCormick assistance.
Environmental pressures have also demonstrated the effectiveness of the SCAA project. In March 2019, days of downpours in Papua’s Cyclops Mountains resulted in flooding, landslides, and over 100 deaths. The local government realized that deforestation played a role in the destruction and began looking for solutions. “They see our project as being one that could contribute to the rehabilitation of the Cyclops Mountains,” says Tambunan. In response, the SCAA project intensified and expanded its work with farmers and the local government in the buffer zones around existing forests in the area, distributing seedlings for clove trees and other species that can host or shade vanilla orchids.
The government didn’t ask SCAA to do all the work on its own though. Officials set aside funds to complement SCAA’s efforts by supporting independent tree and spice seedlings nurseries and distributing seedlings for free. “Our project provided technical assistance, but all the necessary funding came from the government,” says Tambunan. “This shows the government’s commitment.”
This level of buy-in from both local government and the private sector, a hallmark of sustainability, was the missing piece. When farmers see a project creating sustainable systems that will support long-term gains—systems like access to buyers for crops—then they know their efforts will be worthwhile. This has proven true; many participating farmers have doubled their income within just two years.
“Farmers believe that their livelihoods could be strengthened through the project, because that’s in fact what they have experienced,” explains Tambunan. “They are now confident in relying on vanilla and other spice farming activities.” And their communities can also rely on all the environmental benefits that increased tree cover from vanilla farms can bring.
Christine Chumbler is a communications professional with more than 20 years experience in writing, editing, and publications design. She has expertise in every stage of publication production, from concept and writing to editing, design, and printing. In the mid-1990s, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. This experience led to a career using her writing and editorial skills with international development and foreign policy organizations, many of which worked to directly support USAID’s efforts. She has worked in a freelance capacity full-time since May 2016. Chumbler has a Master’s in journalism from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor’s in environmental studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.