A barefoot farmer is making his way through a forest. Quiet drops of rain tumble steadily through the night, picked out in the light from his torch. The rusty machete he holds isn’t for cutting down vines or chopping away stubborn branches – it is a defense against thieves.
Lots of other men – farmers like him – are out in the rain, patrolling the forest. For the past three months, they have left their homes every night and made the long journey into the plantations to protect their crop.
Less than 1% of the world’s vanilla flavour comes from real beansBut this is not an illegal coca plantation, or anything like it. In fact, these farmers are growing a crop whose name is a byword for something boring. The men need weapons to guard against robbers who roam the countryside looking for one thing – Madagascan vanilla.
The robberies are often violent. There have been dozens of murders in Madagascar linked to vanilla. Several communities have tried and failed to get protection from armed police. Some have taken the law into their own hands. Villagers say in a nearby village, a machete-wielding crowd descended on five suspected gangsters – hacking and stabbing them to death.
The killings have yet to be solved by the police. Locals say there is no will or capacity in the police forces to investigate the vanilla thefts – or the mob justice that sometimes follows.