Nicaragua / 5 min read

Disappearing before everyone's eyes
Desapareciendo ante los ojos de todos
How an ubiquitous food ingredient can also be a critically endangered species
Photography
Writing
Granada, Nicaragua

At Picholine restaurant in Granada, Nicaragua, Chef Bob stands over the ice cream maker. He watches and waits for precisely the right moment to carefully scrape the multitude of tiny vanilla bean seeds out of their plump, shiny pods into the silky custard swirling below. The chef reverently inhales the intoxicating aroma of the freshly split pods and marvels at the fact that this exquisite vanilla flavor has become the single most commonly used flavoring around the world. There is no cuisine he knows of that does not value vanilla. The seeds tumble down into the custard and become enveloped by their companions: eggs, cream, and sugar. They are tiny specs, so small but mighty. Tonight, his guests will not be disappointed. Freshly baked fruit pies await them, served warm from the oven with a generous scoop of the most common and yet uniquely local, homemade vanilla ice cream. There may be nothing closer to culinary heaven.

Vanilla is one of those dessert flavors that are everywhere. Many perceive it almost as the basic, simplest flavor to build on with others. When you throw fresh vanilla pods into a pot of hot cream the scent that is released stuns you with its sweetness and intensity. It is surprising to think that vanilla is on the list of endangered plants.
Photo credit: Picholine restaurant
At the Picholine restaurant in Granada, Nicaragua, Chef Bob makes amazing recipes using fresh, locally sourced vanilla - just like his fresh ice cream, made with egg yolk and whole milk. Not many chefs in the world have access to this fresh spice, which is often found in liquid or powdered extract form. Photo credit: Picholine restaurant
A Small But Mighty Seed

Today, over 18,000 products worldwide are vanilla-flavored. Millions of people love vanilla. It is common knowledge that naturally-derived or real vanilla is expensive, yet few people know that real vanilla is indigenous to the Central American forests. Even fewer know that only 15% of vanilla flavoring is naturally derived. (85% is synthetically produced in labs that start with a petrochemical called guaiacol.) Fewer still know that the vanilla orchid was listed as an endangered species in its native habitat on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List in 2017.

How did this happen? The answer dates back to the 16th-century. Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez took vanilla beans from the Aztecs of Mexico, delivering them to European royalty. From there, colonialism carried the vanilla bean across wild seas and landscapes until the orchid itself was successfully cultivated in Madagascar, Indonesia, and Tahiti. Today when many people think of real vanilla, they think of these dynamic islands, not the forests of Central America.

Jefferson Shriver is an agricultural social entrepreneur who believes in regenerative agriculture as a vehicle to help rural families achieve prosperity. After working with farmers in Madagascar on sustainable cash crop and vanilla production, he decided to return to Nicaragua and apply agroforestry to the cultivation of local vanilla varieties.
The Vanilla Guy

Jefferson Shriver was sent to Madagascar in 2012 as a Catholic Relief Services technical advisor. Though his mission was to assist smallholder farmers to cultivate maize and rice, he became intrigued by the vanilla orchid. Jefferson enjoyed vanilla but knew little about its history. To explore the potential of this crop and improve smallholder farmers’ livelihoods, he spearheaded a project to assess best practices in vanilla orchid cultivation. His report, Revitalizing Vanilla in Madagascar, was published in 2013 and garnered attention from major media sources like The Economist. In 2014, he joined the Board of Sustainable Food Lab where he was instrumental in partnering with Ben & Jerry’s to develop the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative. In 2015, he launched a CRS project in Uganda to help smallholders cultivate vanilla, diversifying and improving their income potential. Jefferson was becoming the vanilla guy.

Meanwhile, on his farm in Diriamba, Nicaragua, the organic, shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee Jefferson produced was delicious but less and less profitable. Knowing that he had to diversify to survive, he applied his learnings from Africa. In the shade canopy of the forest, he began to cultivate vanilla alongside his coffee plants. He then sought out vanilla experts at the Universidad Nacional in Costa Rica and was quickly introduced to a group of Mexican researchers and botanists. They were famed at the University as the keepers of vanilla’s cultural significance and stewards of the land where vanilla grows wild in its native habitat. Among them was researcher Juan Hernandez. Juan and his colleagues from the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias (INIFAP) wanted to educate, preserve and pass on the genetic material of the vanilla plant from Mexico. Thus, Juan became Jefferson’s mentor.

Growing vanilla in agroforestry systems has advantages for both humans and nature over other forms of land use, in term of carbon sequestration and ecosystem services. These systems are often established directly in the forest: farmers remove shrubs and plant the vanilla orchid directly under the remaining trees.
Vanilla Returns

Vanilla is not easy to establish. It is a perennial plant that grows in subtropical and tropical moist lowland forests. After planting it takes three years to flower and fruit. Once established, each flower only blooms for 24 hours. The insects which naturally pollinate it have been disappearing at alarming rates, meaning the vanilla orchid flowers must be hand-pollinated to form their green fingerling pods. The price of real vanilla, beans, and extract reflects all of these factors. Since 2015, the price of vanilla has been extremely volatile and has increased around 10 fold. It now hovers at around $500 per kilo or $15 per ounce.

When baker Kelley Wilson of Bagels and Bake in the popular Nica beach town San Juan del Sur met Jefferson at a farmers market, she was intrigued. Vanilla and its extract are a baker’s stock-in-trade. Kelley had always been passionate about using every bit of the bean in as many ways as possible in all of her creations from pie crust to homemade yogurt. Only she was struggling to find or afford enough premium quality vanilla extract in Nicaragua to make her baking magic happen. She jumped at the chance to buy exceptionally grown vanilla beans from the source and immediately started making vanilla extract to sell alongside her baked goods. From heavenly ice cream to real Nica extract, Jefferson’s gamble on vanilla was paying off, not just for his farm but for the greater mission to return vanilla to its homeland.

Like in all form of agriculture, there’s always a trade off. Converting wild forests in vanilla agroforestry systems can cause disadvantage for wild biodiversity. The alternative, though, can be much more harmful. A common practice in intensive vanilla farming is to burn land, therefore annihilating any other life form that may reside there. Agroforestry systems allow both to keep biodiversity and safeguard the ecosystem services of the forest.
Principle
CONSERVATION OF GENETIC AND NATURAL RESOURCES

Conservation of Genetic and Natural Resources

When farmers protect biodiversity, they conserve and steward their seeds from one season to the next. When communities protect biodiversity, they establish seed banks to help both farmers and scientists. Each seed planted is a contract with nature to secure the genetic heritage of these crops for seasons to come.

Term
CHEF-2_ALEJANDRA_SOTO

Pastry chef

A professional cook who specializes in making pastries, ice-cream, biscuits and sweets.

Learn More
Vanilla, IUCN Red List of threatened species

Avocados and vanilla among dozens of wild crop relatives facing extinction, The Guardian

Revitalizing Vanilla in Madagascar, Report on feasibility study to enhance small farmer participation in the vanilla value chain
Thanks and Credits
Special thanks to Jefferson Shriver, Kelley Wilson and Chef Bob for their time and support.
Elizabeth Von Halem isa sustainability professional and climate leadership coach. She works in service to people and the planet, addressing the growing climate crisis by focusing on developing the critical social justice and equity lens to advance resilient, sustainable, and just development especially in agriculture/food systems in Central America. Prior to returning to her passion for supporting people, planet and principles, I spent 18 years supporting high net-worth individuals where I gained significant business management and philanthropic administration experience.

Join a bold, new online community for anyone who cares about building more resilient, inclusive food systems.

Writer
Elisabeth Von Halem
I am a sustainability professional and climate leadership coach. I work in service to people, planet, and addressing the growing climate crisis by focusing on developing the critical social justice and equity lens to advance resilient, sustainable, and just development especially in agriculture/food systems in Central America. Prior to returning to my passion for supporting people, planet and principles, I spent 18 years supporting high net-worth individuals where I gained significant business management and philanthropic administration experience.

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Eligibility, Submission Terms and Conditions

Sponsor

A Greener Blue Global Storytelling Initiative is sponsored by The Lexicon, a US based 501(c)(3) public charity.

Opportunity

Storytellers will join A Greener Blue Storytelling Collective to create stories for the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture with the FAO and its partner organizations. Members of the Collective will take part in a private online “Total Storytelling Lab” led by The Lexicon’s Douglas Gayeton. Upon completion of this online certificate program, members of the Collective will join seafood experts from around the globe in creating A Greener Blue Storytelling initiative.

Terms

Who can enter and how selections are made.

A Greener Blue is a global call to action that is open to individuals and teams from all over the world. Below is a non-exhaustive list of subjects the initiative targets.

  • Creatives and storytellers with a passion for food and the willingness to support small-scale fisherpeople and experts worldwide. This category includes, but is not exhausted in photographers, videomakers, illustrators, podcasters, and writers.
  • Food Activists working to change open sea fishing and aquaculture; 
  • Members of fishing and indigenous communities that support their communities, share their stories and protect their way of life;
  • Local and International NGOs work every day with actors across the whole value chain to create more sustainable seafood models.

To apply, prospective participants will need to fill out the form on the website, by filling out each part of it. Applications left incomplete or containing information that is not complete enough will receive a low score and have less chance of being admitted to the storytelling lab.

Nonprofit organizations, communities of fishers and fish farmers and companies that are seeking a closer partnership or special support can also apply by contacting hello@thelexicon.org and interacting with the members of our team.

Special attention will be given to the section of the form regarding the stories that the applicants want to tell and the reasons for participating. All proposals for stories regarding small-scale or artisanal fishers or aquaculturists, communities of artisanal fishers or aquaculturists, and workers in different steps of the seafood value chain will be considered.

Stories should show the important role that these figures play in building a more sustainable seafood system. To help with this narrative, the initiative has identified 10 principles that define a more sustainable seafood system. These can be viewed on the initiative’s website and they state:
Seafood is sustainable when:

  • it helps address climate change
  • it supports global ecosystems
  • it optimizes impact on resources and nutrient cycles.
  • it promotes a safe growing environment for safe food sources.
  • it advances animal welfare.
  • it enhances flavor and nutrition.
  • it builds resilience and self-sufficiency in local communities.
  • it prioritizes inclusion, equality, and fair treatment of workers.
  • it preserves legality and the quality and the story of the product throughout the value chain.
  • it creates opportunities along the whole value chain.

Proposed stories should show one or more of these principles in practice.

Applications are open from the 28th of June to the 15th of August 2022. There will be 50 selected applicants who will be granted access to The Lexicon’s Total Storytelling Lab. These 50 applicants will be asked to accept and sign a learning agreement and acceptance of participation document with which they agree to respect The Lexicon’s code of conduct.

The first part of the lab will take place online between August the 22nd and August the 26th and focus on training participants on the foundation of storytelling, supporting them to create a production plan, and aligning all of them around a shared vision.

Based on their motivation, quality of the story, geography, and participation in the online Lab, a selected group of participants will be gifted a GoPro camera offered to the program by GoPro For A Change. Participants who are selected to receive the GoPro camera will need to sign an acceptance and usage agreement.

The second part of the Storytelling Lab will consist of a production period in which each participant will be supported in the production of their own story. This period goes from August 26th to October 13th. Each participant will have the opportunity to access special mentorship from an international network of storytellers and seafood experts who will help them build their story. The Lexicon also provides editors, animators, and graphic designers to support participants with more technical skills.

The final deadline to submit the stories is the 14th of October. Participants will be able to both submit complete edited stories, or footage accompanied by a storyboard to be assembled by The Lexicon’s team.

All applicants who will exhibit conduct and behavior that is contrary to The Lexicon’s code of conduct will be automatically disqualified. This includes applicants proposing stories that openly discriminate against a social or ethnic group, advocate for a political group, incite violence against any group, or incite to commit crimes of any kind.

All submissions must be the entrant’s original work. Submissions must not infringe upon the trademark, copyright, moral rights, intellectual rights, or rights of privacy of any entity or person.

Participants will retain the copyrights to their work while also granting access to The Lexicon and the other partners of the initiative to share their contributions as part of A Greener Blue Global Storytelling Initiative.

If a potential selected applicant cannot be reached by the team of the Initiative within three (3) working days, using the contact information provided at the time of entry, or if the communication is returned as undeliverable, that potential participant shall forfeit.

Offering

Selected applicants will be granted access to an advanced Storytelling Lab taught and facilitated by Douglas Gayeton, award-winning storyteller and information architect, co-founder of The Lexicon. In this course, participants will learn new techniques that will improve their storytelling skills and be able to better communicate their work with a global audience. This skill includes (but is not limited to) how to build a production plan for a documentary, how to find and interact with subjects, and how to shoot a short documentary.

Twenty of the participants will receive a GoPro Hero 11 Digital Video and Audio Cameras by September 15, 2022. Additional participants may receive GoPro Digital Video and Audio Cameras to be announced at a later date. The recipients will be selected by advisors to the program and will be based on selection criteria (see below) on proposals by Storytelling Lab participants. The selections will keep in accordance with Lab criteria concerning geography, active participation in the Storytelling Lab and commitment to the creation of a story for the Initiative, a GoPro Camera to use to complete the storytelling lab and document their story. These recipients will be asked to sign an acceptance letter with terms of use and condition to receive the camera. 

The Lexicon provides video editors, graphic designers, and animators to support the participants to complete their stories.

The submitted stories will be showcased during international and local events, starting from the closing event of the International Year of Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 in Rome, in January 2023. The authors of the stories will be credited and may be invited to join.

All selection criteria

Storytelling lab participation:

Applicants that will be granted access to the storytelling Lab will be evaluated based on the entries they provided in the online form, and in particular:

  • The completeness of their form
  • The relevance of their story (coherence with the main goal of the initiative and 10 principles)
  • Written motivation explained
  • Geography (the initiative aims at showcasing stories from all over the world so the mix of locations will be a factor that the selection committee will take into account)
 

Applications will be evaluated by a team of 4 judges from The Lexicon, GSSI and the team of IYAFA (Selection committee).

When selecting applications, the call promoters may request additional documentation or interviews both for the purpose of verifying compliance with eligibility requirements and to facilitate proposal evaluation.

Camera recipients:

Participants to the Storytelling Lab who will be given a GoPro camera will be selected based on:

  • Quality of the story (coherence with the initiative and the 10 principles)
  • Motivation demonstrated during the interaction in the online class
  • Participation in the online class (participants that will attend less than 4 classes will be automatically excluded)
 

The evaluation will be carried out by a team of 4 judges from The Lexicon, GSSI and the team of IYAFA (Selection committee).

Incidental expenses and all other costs and expenses which are not specifically listed in these Official Rules but which may be associated with the acceptance, receipt and use of the Storytelling Lab and the camera are solely the responsibility of the respective participants and are not covered by The Lexicon or any of the A Greener Blue partners.

All participants who receive a Camera are required to sign an agreement allowing GoPro for a Cause, The Lexicon and GSSI to utilize the films for A Greener Blue and their promotional purposes. All participants will be required to an agreement to upload their footage into the shared drive of The Lexicon and make the stories, films and images available for The Lexicon and the promoting partners of A Greener Blue.

Additional Limitations

Selection and distribution of the camera is non-transferable. No substitution or cash equivalent of the cameras is granted. The Lexicon and its respective partners and representatives are not responsible for any typographical or other errors in the offer or administration of the Initiative, including, but not limited to, errors in any printing or posting or the Official Rules, the selection and announcement of any selected participant, or the distribution of any equipment. Any attempt to damage the content or operation of this Initiative is unlawful and subject to possible legal action by The Lexicon. The Lexicon reserves the right to terminate, suspend or amend the Initiative, without notice, and for any reason, including, without limitation, if The Lexicon determines that the Lab cannot be conducted as planned or should a virus, bug, tampering or unauthorized intervention, technical failure or other cause beyond The Lexicon’s control corrupt the administration, security, fairness, integrity or proper play of the Contest. In the event any tampering or unauthorized intervention may have occurred, The Lexicon reserves the right to void suspect entries at issue.