Vanilla farmers in Tonga fight back against climate challenges

Vanilla farmers the world over have been forced to adapt to changing weather patterns that are severely impacting their ability to grow the crop.

Vanilla, in essence, is part and parcel of many of the decadent treats we enjoy during birthdays, celebrations or even the occasional cheat day. But like many sought after spices, part of the reason why vanilla is such a precious commodity is because it is so scarce. That scarcity has grown even more extreme in the last few years, as vanilla farmers the world over have been forced to adapt to changing weather patterns that are severely impacting their ability to grow the crop.

Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand has been supporting vanilla farmers in Tonga since 2013. To date, the Vanilla Growers Association of Vava’u (VGA) is the only Fairtrade certified producer organisation in Tonga and is located on the picturesque islands of Vava’u. The producer organisation is made up of 302 vanilla growing households who have chosen to work together to secure committed market access and business and community development opportunities through the Fairtrade Premium.

Vanilla was first introduced to the small and remote islands of Vava’u in the 1970s when it was discovered that the climatic conditions and proximity to the equator would be ideal for vanilla production. Vanilla has since played a turbulent role in the lives of those who farm it. In recent years, price shocks and natural disasters have had significant effects on vanilla production, and in turn, farmers’ motivation to stay committed to growing the popular spice.

Today it is the prolonged El Niño season with its fierce storms and extended dry periods that is threatening the future of vanilla production in Tonga.

“Drought and cyclones are the main issues for VGA. For the last four years it has been the El Niño that has slowed down the vanilla production. Water is vital for vanilla to grow but when there was the hurricane it came and destroyed the vanilla. Those are the only two things that us vanilla growers are really scared of.” Amanaki Funaki, Environmental & Organics Officer, VGA.

Amanaki estimated that during cyclone season in 2016, 40% of the crop was destroyed. Cyclones are often followed by long periods without rain, which for a plant that consumes a substantial amount of water can be devastating as the vine is unable to produce vanilla beans. During the last two years, vanilla volumes have been only 10% of their normal production representing a massive income loss for farmers. The reality is that climate change may only exacerbate these weather conditions, further threatening the future of the sweet little vanilla pod.

Challenges aside, the Fairtrade team is happy to report that this year’s crop is blooming. The delicate white orchids are now appearing all over the islands of Vava’u and in October VGA farmers began the labour intensive task of hand pollinating the buds. As the summer months begin, this is good news for lovers of vanilla and vanilla farmers alike.

Fairtrade ANZ’s Producer Support team have been working with farmers in the Pacific since 2011. The primary role of the Producer Support team is to support Pacific producer organisations to access the Fairtrade market and develop into strong, sustainable businesses and communities. As of 2018, there were sixteen Fairtrade certified producer organisations located across Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea.
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