Vanilla Project

If development work is focused exclusively on keystone activities, more good can be achieved in less time with fewer resources. Funneling the MMRF mission statement through the keystone activities filter led us to our Vanilla Project.


The goal of our Vanilla Project is to establish an organic vanilla industry here in Toledo District. In so doing we aim to empower women, strengthen food security, maintain the viability of a village lifestyle, and promote a form of agriculture that provides ecological services, all while increasing the income level of small farmers in Toledo.


Activities to Date

–In September of 2005 MMRF established an ex situ wild vanilla gene bank of 250 vines and began keeping growth records on them. This, along with literature review, and site visits to a vanilla plantation in Mexico and a vanilla co-operative in Guatemala propelled us to the next stage.


–In August of 2007, MMRF launched an on-the-ground feasibility/pilot project for vanilla cultivation with area farmers. In order to have the most broad reaching effect and pool from which to draw inferences, MMRF’s feasibility/pilot project targeted a group of Toledo farmers with high diversity in regards to age, gender, ethnicity and geographic distribution.


–In September of 2010, we started harvesting our first crop of vanilla beans!


–In 2012, we distributed more vanilla to area farmers.


–The success of this project, and the enthusiasm it generated were so high, that in December of 2007, the farmers involved in the project decided to form and register the Organic Vanilla Association (OVA).


Background Information

Vanilla is a rare endemic found in the under-story of Toledo forests and throughout the humid lowland forests of Central America. Although it was wild-harvested by the ancient Maya, there is no commercial vanilla available today in Belize. Vanilla is the cured, fermented fruit of the perennial hemi-epiphytic orchid Vanilla planifolia.


The production of vanilla fruits (called beans) entails the hand-pollination of each vanilla flower. The resulting bean must remain 9 months on the vine to reach full maturity. At the time of harvest, vanillin, vanilla’s primary flavor component, is not yet present but develops in the beans during the curing process which is comprised of scalding, sunning/sweating, drying, and conditioning. This curing process can take up to 9 months to complete, and in most countries is done in a centralized curing facility. The majority of the world’s vanilla is produced in Madagascar, Indonesia, Uganda, Mexico and Papua New Guinea and consumed by the U.S., France and other European countries. The world market price for vanilla fluctuates, and is currently at a low point of US$40 per kilo for top grade cured vanilla beans, which is still higher than any other legal exportable agricultural commodity currently produced in Belize. In 2003 vanilla prices skyrocketed to US$500 per kilo. There are approximately 175-275 beans in a kilo.

Cultivation and production of vanilla is a non-gender specific activity that can create alternative livelihoods in two ways:


Primary Producers: Farmers will benefit from growing and selling vanilla,

Secondary Producers: Many different niche products can be developed from vanilla; the ensuing vanilla-based industry will also generate jobs.


Community Based Agriculture

Worldwide, most vanilla is grown by farmers who own less than 2 hectares. Because of the careful attention and specific horticultural technique required, vanilla produces best when cultivated by a person who is personally acquainted with each specific plant, not in a plantation. Toledo, with a population of 27,000, is the least developed and most agrarian district in Belize. Toledo farmers are typical of the farmers worldwide who have benefited most from the introduction of commercial vanilla cultivation. By growing vanilla, farmers will be able to stay with their families, in their communities, yet have access to the money that previously seemed accessible only by getting a job in town, or by giving up farming and leaving their families to go live and work in one of Belize’s big tourism destinations.


Women’s Empowerment

Currently, in the western half of Toledo, handicrafts sales to tourists form the bulk of women’s incomes. Competition is stiff. Vanilla is a small plant that can be cultivated right in the yards of women, allowing them to retain their traditional roles as wives and mothers, while simultaneously having direct access to money.


Food Security

A diverse agroforestry system supports food security by providing a wide variety of nutrients throughout the year, and a food bank for seasons of exigency. By creating a market for a high-value crop – such as vanilla – that can be integrated into an agroforestry system, this form of traditional agriculture becomes economically attractive. This, in turn, will make the practice more widespread, and thereby strengthen local food security.


Ecological Services

Agroforestry is a tree-based agricultural system that mimics the structure, complexity and interconnectivity of a natural eco-system. This type of farming conserves natural resources, and supports the surrounding ecosystem in providing ecological services such as erosion control, air purification, soil and water retention, and the creation of wildlife habitat.



Around the world, wild vanilla stands have been decimated. With the low population density, and current unawareness of vanilla’s economic potential, Toledo District still has abundant wild stands of vanilla. A consciousness of and enthusiasm for wild vanilla and its protection must be born within the ordinary people of Belize if we are to retain this natural heritage. Research is necessary to establish a framework for managing this resource.


As a cultivatable NTFP, vanilla prefers to be embedded in an environmental matrix similar to primary rainforest. This agricultural model – which is accessible to small farmers and women – strengthens food security, while providing ecological services, making vanilla cultivation an economic incentive for environmental conservation.