Earlier generations of Colombia’s indigenous people made necklaces of vanilla to bring happiness and love. Today, not only traditions but also a wealth of knowledge about this valuable plant have been lost. Now the indigenous people on the Pacific coast are reviving their heritage – and hoping it will help them find a way out of poverty at last.
Indigenous women and men in the department Chocó depend on the resources of their environment to generate income – and to survive. The small amount of land available is made more productive through the cultivation of vanilla. People are supported in business ventures and encouraged to be innovative, women are actively involved and gender equality is promoted.
Cancer-inhabiting, helpful in treating depression and addictions: not only is the vanilla orchid the source of one of the most popular flavourings, but it is also said to have many health-promoting qualities. For the people of Bahía Solano, vanilla may even mean the difference between life and death.
The indigenous people in the Pacific region of Colombia do not have an easy lot – the territory of the department Chocó is top of the list in the national poverty index. 30 percent of people live below the poverty line. Their income depends very much on what nature provides – rice, a little fruit and fish – and dries up outside the harvest season.
Now a wild plant is giving them hope – the “vainilla” (Spanish for “pod”) that clings to trees like a lily, zigzagging from the ground to the crown: Vanilla has a lot of untapped potential: it is easy to conserve, it has a high market value and is good for the environment – because growing it does not destroy the forest, but actually protects it.
Knowledge and support - also from the motherland of vanilla
With its many advantages, why has so little use been made of vanilla? Paulo Hurtado Rentería, representative of the Rio Valle community, explains, “Our ancestors, who knew a lot, used vanilla mainly to perfume clothes.” Rosario Tejeda Lemos adds, “Besides perfume, they used to make ‘chaquira’ (bead) necklaces out of vanilla, to bring happiness and love.” But this tradition died with the older generations. Innovations such as deodorants and body lotions seemed to make vanilla superfluous, and people concentrated on growing rice and corn. “Our generation no longer knows how to use vanilla,” says Paulo Hurtado Renteria.
This is about to change now. A group of scientists from Mexico – the motherland of vanilla – recently came to visit. The indigenous people are gradually rediscovering the old knowledge, hoping very much that the sweet plant may finally help find a way out of poverty.
The first 28 farmers sowed a vanilla crop in June 2016.