TENA, Ecuador – Dayanara Ashanga uses her nimble fingers to manipulate the brown vanilla pods she keeps inside drawers in a locked room. She caresses them, curls them around her finger to test their elasticity and then returns them to their drawers wrapped in a blanket.
“It’s so they don’t get cold. If they get dry, they’re useless!” the 24-year-old member of the Kichwa indigenous tribe said of the tender, meticulous daily care she provides the pods over a period of three months.
Ashanga has been growing vanilla – fruit of a thick green orchid vine – since 2018 as a member of the Kallari Association, a cooperative of small indigenous farmers in Ecuador’s Amazon that initially dedicated themselves exclusively to farming cacao and guayusa.
Now having expanded to 326 members, the cooperative was created two decades ago to boost the productive capacity of that region’s “chacras” (horticultural plots) and has been the first to exploit the market potential of the vanilla orchids that grow wild in that vast rainforest region.
“It’s an orchid endemic to the area. There are 110 varieties, but only one is being commercially developed,” Pablo Balarezo, coordinator of the Pachamama Foundation’s Resilient Economies program, told EFE.
The program promotes different means of economic sustenance for the indigenous population, which has been increasingly migrating to the cities due to a lack of opportunities but would prefer to maintain their ancestral customs and way of life if the right conditions were in place.
“We can’t talk about preserving the rainforest without offering the communities an economic alternative,” he said of a type of farming that does not cause deforestation or pollution.
The curiosity and interest in vanilla dates back about a decade, when Bladimir Dahua, Kallari’s manager, attended a cacao fair and was asked by some German customers whether the cooperative also sold that orchid-derived spice, a key ingredient in chocolate processing.
“We had been buying it from Madagascar, but we discovered that it existed in our chacras so we started doing research on that plant,” he recalled.
Although native to Mesoamerica and first cultivated by the Aztecs, vanilla now is grown in tropical and subtropical regions across the Americas, Asia and Africa. The world’s top producer, Madagascar, exports more than 2,500 tons of that spice annually, while Mexico has traditionally led the Americas in vanilla output.
While the majority of the world’s vanilla comes from the V. planifolia (flat-leaved vanilla) species, Ecuador is now looking to cultivate the spice – the world’s second-most expensive after saffron – by making use of the V. odorata species that grows wild in tropical South America.
The chief objective is to create a “value chain” that benefits local farmers and indigenous communities without harming the environment.
The high value of dried vanilla pods – black whole-bean Madagascar vanilla soared to $635 per kilo in August 2017 after a devastating cyclone in that Indian Ocean island country – is a product of high demand and limited supply.
But it also stems from the plant’s complex pollination.
“A bee is unable to break the flower’s membrane to pollinate it. So it has to be done with a thin stick,” Balarezo said, noting that women are particularly skilled in this process.
In its most wild state, the orchid vine V. odorata grows in the shade of trees and climbs to heights of dozens of meters.
But to make the task of harvesting the plants more practical, they are domesticated and grown in semi-wild spaces or greenhouses.
Felipe Grefa, an Ecuadorian vanilla farmer who has cultivated that crop since 2014, says it is an ancestral plant that can be planted in the shade in any type of soil.
He currently cultivates 2,300 orchids at his greenhouse in the Amazon city of Tena and produces around 306 kilograms (674 pounds) of vanilla beans per year from two or three harvests.
Grefa started growing the crop with an initial investment of $8,000 from his retirement as a public employee, and since then has earned between $10,000 and $11,000 annually, a large sum of money in that impoverished area of Ecuador.
Dahua acknowledges that vanilla farming is in its infancy and that his association still depends on cacao for 90 percent of its revenues.
But the success enjoyed by Grefa and other growers shows the potential of a plant that is an endemic, non-invasive species and one whose high price, growing demand and traditional association with native peoples of that region could transform it into the Ecuadorian Amazon’s new “green gold.”