The Vanilla of French Polynesia

Cookies, cakes, ice cream, pastries and deserts around the world could not be the same as we know them today without the delicate touch of vanilla. Vanilla, a genus of the Orchidacea family, is a tropical tree-climbing vine with yellow-greenish flowers (Correll, 292). Vanilla extract is produced by fermenting and curing the plants’ bean pods (Correll, 292). From the cured and dried bean pods, the chemical compound C8H8O3, known as vanillin, produces the vanilla aroma that is extracted and blended with water and alcohol to create the second most expensive spice in the world (Correll 292, Evans, 91).

While originally endemic to South America, vanilla’s fate as an internationally demanded cash crop is in a large part the result of European exploration and subsequent expansion beginning in the early sixteenth century. Through European agency, a variety of vanilla species are now cultivated in the tropics around the world (Correll, 296). Tahitian vanilla, found primarily in the Society Island Archipelago of French Polynesia, is one such example. Originally introduced to Polynesia for the benefit of an outside market, the cultivation of Tahitian vanilla has played a notable role in shaping the development of the economy. Furthermore, Tahitian vanilla has in recent years become part of the island’s culture, holding a specialized niche in the international market.

Before we can understand the cultivation of vanilla in Tahiti, we must trace its historical voyage to French Polynesia. Endemic to South America, the first historical records of vanilla come from the Aztecs who used vanilla extract to flavor a chocolate drink (Correll, 295). When the Spanish conquistadors entered Mexico in the early sixteenth century, they were introduced to the exotic extract (Correll, 295). Taking a liking to the flavor, Cortez collected a sample of vanilla pods to carry to Europe so that they could continue to enjoy this new spice and cultivate it for their own use. For two centuries following its introduction to Spain, vanilla vines grew in European hothouses, but the plants did not produce the pods from which the vanilla could be extracted (Evans, 92). In 1836, Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist, discovered the reason for the missing pods; he noticed that a bee native to Mexico pollinated the flowers, and thus in order to produce the desired pods in Europe, he needed to develop a way to pollinate the flowers by hand (Evans, 92). Five years later on Reunion Island, Edmond Albius, developed an improved pollinating technique that is still used to artificially pollinate vanilla flowers grown outside Mexico (Correll, 300).

Arriving Hakaui

Vanilla planifolia,found in Madagascar and often referred to as Bourbon vanilla, is the most common and widely produced vanilla species, supplying the demand for most of the world market (Correll, 291). In 1848, Admiral Hamelin, a French commander in the Pacific, delivered the vanilla plant to Tahiti (Ecott, 168). Most likely crossbred between a native South American and Indian Ocean variety, the newly developed vanilla brought to Tahiti became recognized as Vanilla tahitensis (Ecott, 168) Along with this new name, came unique characteristics that set it apart from all other vanilla grown in the world. For starters it is generally shorter and plumper than the most commonly produced V. planifolia. Second, it has a unique taste and fragrance, unlike that commonly found in Bourbon vanilla (Ecott, 166). As Ecott explains, it can go well with savory dishes and tastes especially good with fruity desserts. While the French and Polynesians may not have originally realized these benefits, its uniqueness has caused a demand in the global market that cannot be filled in any other region of the world.

Stepping back and looking at the historical context in which vanilla was introduced to Polynesia, one can see how outsiders played a role in its development as a cash crop. Before the Europeans arrived, much of the Polynesian economy relied on subsistence agriculture (Duane, 2). Following the arrival of Europeans, crops were grown to sell to an outside market rather than to sustain the farmer.  Beginning in 1842, France began to exhibit increasing control over Polynesia through a series of protectorates (Maamaatuaiahutapu). In 1847, to end the five-year long Polynesian French War, Queen Pomare IV signed a treaty that essentially gave up her power to the French, just a year before vanilla was introduced to Tahiti (Maamaatuaiahutapu). In 1892, less than forty years after this initial introduction, a historical report documented increasing exports to the United States, France, and Britain (“Cultivation of Vanilla in Tahiti,” 1894). 

While widely described in literature as a plantation crop, looking closer at the defining features of a plantation, Tahitian vanilla does not quite fit the mold. According to Philipp Curtin, plantations are implemented by a foreign power for an outside market, include single crops, large scale cultivation, and a labor force that is in bondage and not self-sustaining (Curtin, 11-12). Tahitian vanilla is not cultivated as a single crop on a large scale nor does it depend on forced or outside labor. While vanilla was originally introduced and owned by French overseers, the local people learned from them how to cultivate it, expropriated it, and then started to cultivate it on their own—thus taking advantage of the system and putting it to their own use. Today three main demographic groups grow vanilla in French Polynesia, the majority of growers being Polynesians (Correll, 315). Whole families are involved in growing vanilla, from seed to pod (Correll, 315). In order to supply labor for cotton and sugar plantations at the beginning of the twentieth century, a large wave of Chinese immigrated to Tahiti (Tung). As demand for plantation labor declined, the Chinese became involved in the Tahitian vanilla market (Rain). While many Tahitians still grow the plants, they often sell it to the Chinese who are in charge of processing it and selling it on the international market (Correll, 315). Finally, some Tahitian vanilla farms are owned and operated by people of French descent (Rain).

Vanilla

Tahitian vanilla is seldom grown as a single crop on a large scale. In fact, cultivation is often carried out on small unevenly shaped plots of land and sometimes among other plants (Grijp, 94). Most vanilla is planted on the windward side of the island because the plants require a lot of rain (Rain). The seeds are usually planted at the base of small "support trees," which the vanilla vine uses to climb (Grijp, 94). As they reach the maximum height at which the farmers can reach and pollinate the plants, they are loosened from the tree and wrapped down towards the ground to create many layers of vines (Grijp, 94). Once planted, the vine takes three years before it begins to produce bean pods (Grijp, 95). During flowering season, which usually takes place from July to August, workers pollinate between 1,000 and 2,000 flowers a day (Correll, 316, 328). Time is of the essence as the flowers stay in bloom for just a day (Grijp, 95). After the flowers are successfully pollinated, thin green pods less than one centimeter in diameter and between twelve and fourteen centimeters in length, grow from the vine (Correll, 293). About nine months after pollination, after the pods turn brownish red but before they are completely ripened, they are handpicked and then dried in the sun during the day and put in sweatboxes at night. This happens for about three months until they are cured and fermented (Correll 316). During this period, the beans lose up to sixty percent of their water weight and become “supple and oily” (Grijp, 93). Finally the pods are ready for exportation where they can be further processed into vanilla extract by mixing the vanillin from the fermented pod with water and alcohol, or they can be ready for use by slicing open the pod and scraping out the seeds (Correll, 315). Because of the intricate curing process and because vanilla needs to be pollinated by hand, its cultivation is very time and labor intensive (Rain).

Vanilla

Since the beginning of Tahitian vanilla cultivation, its success as a cash crop has followed an unstable boom and bust cycle of production (Ecott, 169). For example, while the foreign demand led exports of Tahitian vanilla to exceed 200 tons in 1939, the Tahitian vanilla industry was almost completely diminished by 1985, when just four tons were exported (Ecott, 169; Doumenge 148). The success of the Tahitian vanilla market depends greatly on international market prices (Correll, 315). When the market price for vanilla is good, more land is set aside for production, and the growers produce more. On the other hand, when prices are bad, less emphasis is put on the production of vanilla (Correll 315). Because of the large amount of time that it takes to plant, grow, harvest, and cure vanilla, this method of changing the amount of vanilla produced with price fluctuations is often ineffective in increasing profit margins. Also, exportation of vanilla is hampered by the fact most of the region's vanilla is grown northwest of Tahiti on the leeward islands of the Society Archipelago—with two thirds of the region's total coming from the small island of Taha‘a (Ecott, 166). This further increases the cost of Tahitian vanilla compared to vanilla grown in other regions of the world by requiring another link in the passage to the international market. This is because after the vanilla is finally processed, it must travel a very costly path from Taha‘a to Raiatea then to Tahiti in order to reach the global market (Huata). 

The whims of foreign demand, along with other historical and economic factors have caused major fluctuations in the exports of Tahitian vanilla. For example, international instability during World War II likely caused the decline in Tahitian vanilla exports in the early 1940s (Ecott, 160). Beginning in the early 1960s and lasting until 1995, French nuclear testing in French Polynesia constituted the most important historical influence as we see its consequences still rippling through the economy today (Poirine, 24). Following the implementation of Centre d’Experimentation du Pacifique (CEP) in 1962, the economy of French Polynesia underwent drastic changes that greatly effected the cultivation of vanilla (Doumenge, 148). CEP created a large number of new, well-paying, stable jobs in construction and service that attracted many people with unstable agricultural incomes (Doumenge, 148). This led to increasing urbanization and less emphasis on agriculture (Doumenge, 148). An increase in French investment in Polynesia began to account for a large part of the GDP and thus vanilla wasn’t needed to keep the economy strong (Doumenge, 149). Furthermore the opening of Faa’a Airport in Tahiti opened up greater potential for economic stability in the tourism industry (Doumenge, 148). Attesting to its near disappearance in 1985, all of these factors negatively influenced agriculture, and thus the vanilla sector of the Polynesian economy.

Vanilla

Although production has increased since the aftermath of CEP, vanilla today makes up only a small part of the economy of French Polynesia. The negative effects of overvalued currency, protectionist policies, plant disease, fluctuating world prices, and competition from cheaper alternatives face the French Polynesian vanilla industry (Poirine, Rain). Trying to overcome some of these factors, cultivation has begun to switch from traditional planting (outside) to shade house cultivation (Rain). Shade houses, similar to green houses, allow the horticulturist to have better control over the growing environment. Controlling the environment minimizes the possibility for disease, and concentrating the vanilla in a small area minimizes the labor intensity (Rain). This results in higher, more cost efficient yields (Rain). Probably in part a response to this new system, vanilla exports reached almost twelve tons in 2010 (ISPF). So far, this new shade house system has worked on a small scale.

Vanilla

Today, a large portion of the harvest remains in the local market and Tahitian vanilla has become a symbol of cultural identity and pride in Polynesia (Ecott, 169). From before you depart the plane, dessert infused with distinct “Tahitian vanilla” is offered as part of your on-board meal. Once on the ground in Papeete, the prevalence of vanilla from the tourist center to the market and local shops is hard to miss. Next to pearls and pareos, vanilla helps to shape the material culture of Tahiti. Its presence throughout the society has created a unique product that the culture can identify with. In recent years, the government has encouraged resurgence in vanilla production to bring it back into the economy (Rain). Also, through technical high schools found throughout French Polynesia such as in Raiatea and Nuku Hiva, vanilla is being introduced to a new generation of students who are learning to cultivate the plants of the islands (Rain). Its prevalence in these schools is further testimony to the importance of vanilla in the culture. Most importantly, it is not marketed as just ordinary vanilla, but as Tahitian vanilla that you cannot get anywhere else in the world, exotic and mysterious like the island itself.

Through its history of cultivation, vanilla has evolved from an introduced plant species, to a part of the economy, to a part of the culture. Even though vanilla was not originally set up for the benefit of the Tahitian community, by acquiring the complex skills necessary for cultivation, taking production into their own hands in order to create a truly local product, and maintaining production through the good and the bad economic times, Polynesians exhibit something very telling about their ability to be successful on their own. Perhaps unknown to even the farmers themselves, the story of Tahitian vanilla represents on a very small scale, a model for the possibility of achieving self-sufficiency or ultimate sustainability in the future.

Jackie Conese, Boston University
2011

 

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