Bitter plight of the vanilla trade children

From The Sunday Times

March 14, 2010

Bitter plight of the vanilla trade children

Dan McDougall in the Vanilla Coast, Madagascar

 The pods used in ice cream made by some of the world’s best-known brands is produced with the help of children working on plantations in remote regions of Madagascar

NOARY’S fingers are stained a thin, luminous yellow by the sweetest spice of all. Close to exhaustion, his tiny body is pouring with tropical sweat.

At eight years old, he has been tending the vanilla orchids since before first light after walking to work, barefoot and in darkness, alongside his brother, Ando, just a year older.

Here, in the remote Sava region of Madagascar, tens of thousands of children are being forced into the trade in black vanilla pods that sell for up to £4 each in British supermarkets.

Such is the dire state of the small farms in northern Madagascar, the vanilla capital of the world, that children are increasingly involved in production of the pods, a key ingredient of some of the world’s most famous ice cream brands.

Vanilla from the island, off the southeast coast of Africa, flavours everything from Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s to Marks & Spencer desserts and numerous items on the shelves of supermarkets.

In an impoverished settlement near Sambava, the district capital on the Vanilla Coast of northeastern Madagascar, small growers sell their pods to the Société Vanille de Sambava, a consortium that supplies big exporters through auctions held twice a year.

“We work for six to seven hours a day from dawn,” Noary said at his tiny family plantation in Anjombalava, 12 miles to the south of the city.

Each morning, seven days a week, the brothers tend a patch of land no larger than a few tennis courts.

“Many of my friends work in the fields around here. We don’t go to school. I work with my family. Close to the harvest time we all have to sleep alongside the plants to protect them. Ants cover our bodies.”

In the nearest plantation, 500 yards away, three more children toil in the heat. Jarro Claude, 12, has been working the vanilla since he was five: “Most of my friends in the villages here work in the fields. As a family, we all have to work. My brothers never went to school and I don’t think I ever will either.”

According to the UN’s International Labour Organisation and the US Department of Labour, nearly 2m children are at work on the island when they should be at school. A Department of Labour report last year said the vanilla children earned on average less than 8p per day.

Unicef, which is working in Madagascar to promote children’s rights, estimates that 28% of children between five and 17 work, mainly in fishing and agriculture.

“Many of these children are being denied their right to an education and are losing their childhoods. This is wrong,” it said.

Madagascar’s government is weak and corrupt. Many foreign governments refuse to recognise the military-backed regime in Antananarivo, the capital. In its coastal areas, the country seems to be in a time warp, the fishermen returning by dugout canoe to huts of mud and reeds, lit by lanterns and without running water.

On the land, vanilla is no longer regarded as a guaranteed source of healthy income. Despite the international demand, prices have fallen from $600 a kilo six years ago to around $20 a kilo today in a flooded market and small growers are seeing their living standards plummet.

Two dozen growers interviewed in Sambava claimed they had been forced to rely on their children for unpaid work in the fields.

“We still haven’t been paid for last year’s crop,” said Dhiarry, the father of Noary and Ando. “My children must work. This is a small plantation, we have to work as a family to put money on the table. Perhaps we can sell 10 kilos at $300 — less than a dollar a day to feed a family of seven.”

Their plight is all the more acute because vanilla cultivation is so labour-intensive.

Vanilla flowers are hand pollinated by fécondeuses, women and children whose task it is to pass between the rows of vines daily, no matter what the weather. Their diligence can make or break a crop. The transformation of these green, scent-free pods into glossy, aromatic beans involves a string of painstaking procedures.

For about five months the pods are alternately baked, sweated, wrapped in woollen blankets and laid out in the sun before being readied for export in metal boxes lined with greaseproof paper.

According to Stephane Ramananarivo, of Foko, a charity that highlights the plight of small farmers, vanilla growers should be reaping the benefits of the West’s hunger for their luxurious product.

“The poor vanilla farmers are suffering more than ever,” he said. “Yet they should be emancipated by the startling popularity of the pods. Their children should be going to school and not going to bed hungry.”

Real vanilla has never been more popular in the West. Marketing by leading UK supermarkets, including Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, has turned Madagascan vanilla into a symbol of quality, distinct from synthetic flavouring in cheaper foods.

But although leading retailers and manufacturers impose strict ethical standards on their suppliers, many in the trade believe they cannot monitor the work of farmers further down the chain who might be resorting to child labour.

Madagascan vanilla can be found in 25 Marks & Spencer products from yoghurts to biscuits. An M&S spokeswoman said the supply chain was highly complex but would be investigated. “M&S is a tiny user of vanilla,” she said. “Nonetheless, we are determined to do everything we can to bring fair sourcing principles to all stages of our supply chain.”

Spokesmen for Waitrose, Sainsbury and Tesco also promised to investigate, insisting that their suppliers guaranteed not to rely on children.

Tesco said: “Child labour is completely unacceptable and we make it clear to all our suppliers that it will not be tolerated in our supply chain.”

A spokeswoman for Unilever, which uses Madagascan vanilla pods for both Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s, two of Britain’s most popular premium ice creams, said it had no direct responsibility for auditing vanilla production on the island but child labour was unacceptable.

She said: “Ben & Jerry’s recent announcement about using all Fairtrade-certified ingredients by the end of 2013 demonstrates Unilever’s commitment to implementing values-led sourcing.”

Sweeping in from the grey-green swell of the Indian Ocean, a violent cloudburst opened up above Sambava. In its wake mothers and daughters in their floral Sunday best skipped through red-earth puddles to church, their straw hats and fancy French parasols flapping hopelessly in gale force winds.

As we walked through their vanilla plantation later, Dhiarry shouted at his sons to hurry up and stop talking. He knows that if his vanilla crop fails, his family will be plunged even deeper into debt.

Next month is the Famadihana — the Malagasy turning of the dead, when the bones of ancestors are removed and wrapped in a fresh shroud before being taken around the village to assure the living that all is well.

According to Dhiarry, this year’s ceremony will be fraught with sadness: “Life is harder for us than our ancestors. There are so many outsiders here now. Our livelihoods are stolen from us by vanilla suppliers who cheat us. We have nothing to celebrate.”