Sustainable livelihoods, carbon storage, biodiversity conservation through forest vanilla production


Vanilla is one of the world’s most valuable crop plants by weight, and is used in products ranging from chocolate to perfume. Although native to South America, where these orchids are pollinated by bees and nectivorous bats, vanilla is mostly cultivated in Madagascar. There, only one species is grown, Vanilla planifolia, and it must be pollinated by hand as there are no natural pollinators. There are over 100 species of vanilla orchids native to Ecuador, with different species being adapted to factors including altitude, rainfall and pollinator community composition. 

This project assesses the potential contribution of forest vanilla production to sustainable livelihoods for rural communities, carbon storage and biodiversity conservation in Ecuador and explore UK markets.

Project description

Embedding the production of high-quality products that can be grown within montane forests will counter the release of carbon from the conversion of forest to sugar and maize production. According to the FAO, Ecuador has the highest deforestation rate in South America and 85% of cloud forest is already lost. There are over 100 species of vanilla orchids native to Ecuador, with different species being adapted to factors including altitude (growing to at least 2000m), rainfall and pollinator community composition. There are at least two successful models of vanilla production in the Amazon region, but work is needed to assess how these can be transferred to the ecological conditions found in the Andes. 

Timeline and funding


February 2022-July 2022


HEIF fund co-sponsored by SSRP (£27,506)


  • Review of literature (in English and Spanish), conducted by Ecuadorian botanist Dr Ana Mariscal, with supervision from Prof Fiona Mathews and Dr Maria-Clara Castellanos to assess the ecological suitability of different wild native vanilla species, subspecies, and domestic varieties for production at different elevations and conditions (including pollinator availability) of the target region. The review will include socio-economic aspects of production and compare models based on hand-pollination with natural pollination.
  • Survey of wild pollinators (bees and nectivorous bats) at two localities where trials can take place. This survey will use the expertise of Prof Mathews (bats) and Dr Castellanos and Andrés Romero Bravo (bees).
  • Visit by Ecuadorian botanist and a community representative from the Santa Lucía Cloud Forest Reserve and Buenavista communities to the Kallari Association, a community-led co-operative of more than 300 members that grows the native V. odorata commercially in the Ecuadorian Amazon as a pathway to post-COVID recovery (for further informations, see Pachamama Alliance news item) as well as expert classes within local communities.
  • Liaison with Washu Rainforest Chocolate, which uses use small-scale chocolate production from the Tesoro Escondido Reserve (co-founded by Dr Mika Peck with former Sussex PhD student Citlalli Morelos-Juarez). Washu Chocolate provides a model for income generation based on premium product cultivation and tourism to support tropical forest conservation.
  • Assessments of pathways to UK markets, including desirability of different species (seed yield and flavour), processing requirements, and identification of dealers. Assessment of the premium over cost achievable for ‘natural’ forest production versus greenhouses and hand pollination. 
  • Workshops with local communities to discuss findings, consider how vanilla production could effectively be integrated into existing agricultural practices and the possible barriers to its acceptance. These will include collective walks, mapping exercises and non-hierarchical discussion groups to explore local environmental knowledge and agricultural activities in situ and from a range of perspectives. This work will draw on the whole team and be facilitated by Dr Evan Killick.
  • Production of a printed guide ‘Roadmap for vanilla production in Andean montane forest’ (in Spanish) to be distributed to local communities, also made available online.
  • Acquisition of 1000 vines and 500 tutor trees to enable local community to start field trials at contrasting elevations (1900m Santa Lucía Reserve, 1100-1500m at Buenavista).
  • Investigation of vanilla import requirements into the UK, regulations and tariffs involved for imports.
  • Production of a storyboard of natural vanilla production and collaboration with marketing teams of ethically-focused UK companies including Lush, Leon Foods, and Griffiths Foods to investigate potential markets and also contribution of forest vanilla towards their carbon emission targets.

Expected impacts and outcomes 

The project aims to produce an evidence-based roadmap for vanilla production within montane forest, helping communities assess its socio-economic costs and benefits; support applications for funding (including to NGOs and government); and raise awareness of potential tourism benefits. For UK companies the contributions to carbon storage are summarised; the potential benefits of natural production to conserving biodiversity (including Andean bear) in the Choco Region highlighted; and market pathways explored. 

The work contributes to the preservation of existing forest and, in the long term, to forest restoration if vanilla production is successful. Tropical montane forest has high carbon storage capacity (c. 244 Mg ha-1), mostly in above- and below-ground vegetation, and soil carbon storage is around 24% lower in land converted from forest to sugar production. Pichincha Province, where the project is based, lost 311ha of natural forest, equivalent to 158kt CO2 emissions, in 2020 alone (GlobalForestWatch, 2021). The legacy of the project will contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Life on Land (SDG 15), by supporting both sustainable agricultural production and biodiversity conservation. It also supports climate action (SDG 13) with tropical montane forest playing a key role in net zero carbon goals through carbon uptake and sequestration. Societal benefits include decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) by supporting both farming and ecosystem recovery: the team anticipates not only a premium economic return for naturally-produced forest vanilla, but also vanilla-tourism at the Santa Lucía Reserve, following the model successfully used for rainforest chocolate production at the Tesoro Escondido Reserve. The high market price of vanilla is driven by the labour involved in hand pollination. There is global concern about shifts in vanilla production to countries with exploitative labour markets in order to reduce costs. Using natural processes within the plant’s native habitat could therefore benefit both people and the environment.

Outcomes enabling recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic

Young people have migrated away from rural communities in the target region during the Covid pandemic owing to a lack of employment. Discussion with the community indicates that the main issues are a catastrophic decline in tourism and the inability to travel to the capital to sell market garden crops. This project assesses the feasibility of an alternative livelihood, and produces a roadmap in a format suitable for local communities which guides both trial production and applications for support from external organisations. The project also supports UK companies wanting to build back from Covid in a more ethical and sustainable way. 

The team

Where we worked