When I came back in 2014 to visit my childhood friends, the village had changed, and so had I. Subsisting off the land no longer provided for the needs of a family. The world of 2014 required motors for the canoes and school fees for the children. Most villages are far removed from cities, leaving the people to cope with a lack of adequate education, difficult access to potable water, and little or no medical services.
To meet these new financial needs, villagers had begun to grow cash crops like vanilla. But due to their lack of familiarity with the newly-introduced plant, the farmers were not able to make the vanilla orchid produce at its potential. And even after cultivation, the farmers were faced with numerous obstacles preventing them from receiving a fair price for their labor. Local buyers were unreliable, visiting sporadically, or sometimes not coming far enough up the river to reach our village. It was an expensive undertaking for farmers to transport their vanilla to buyers in the cities, where there was no guarantee of receiving a fair price. In short, the promises of the globalized economy had already reached further than the benefits.
Shortly after I arrived in 2014, my village brother took me into his house and showed me his 5 giant bags of vanilla pods leaning against the wall. He wanted to know how much his vanilla would sell for. I had no way of answering – I told him I didn’t know what vanilla was worth. He then asked me the weight of one bag, and again I had no idea. He pressed me again for a guess, and I hefted one bag, but had to be honest – I simply didn’t know. I could see his disappointment. He shook his head and said that the buyers never gave a good price, and it always changed. And how can we trust their scales? But we take his price because we can’t eat the vanilla, he concluded.