Vanilla Landscapes: Meaning, Memory and the Cultivation of Place in Madagascar

Vanilla Landscapes: Meaning, Memory and the Cultivation of Place in Madagascar
Sarah Osterhoudt
Publication Date
New York Botanical Garden Press

When in 2005 Sarah Osterhoudt served as an environmental volunteer for the Peace Corps in Imorona, a rural village along the northeastern coast of Madagascar, she was visited by the program director, who asked "Why are there so many trees here?" His question stayed with her and later became the catalyst for this volume.

The primary ethnic group in Imorona, and the surrounding region, is the Betsimisaraka, which is the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar. For generations the Betsimisaraka have cultivated farms in marshy lowland areas suitable for paddy rice cultivation and near hillside areas where farmers grow market crops such as vanilla, coffee, and cloves.

Valued in the world market as a luxury good, the vanilla bean from Madagascar is originally from Mesoamerica. In choosing to cultivate vanilla, the farmers of Imorona respond to the basic requirements of maintaining agroforestry fields that include hand-pollinating each vanilla flower. Successful pollination requires skill and knowledge that is taught by parents and grandparents to children who go out together to work their farm.

Through everyday acts of farming, individuals infuse their local landscapes with political histories, personal memories, effective associations, and moral ideas. In observing the daily activities of farmers and the decisions they make, Osterhoudt was struck by the slow and steady work of cultivation: of land, meaning, history, and the self.