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  • Writer's picturePerri Grace

China’s Madagascar: Vanilla Wars and the Fight for Indian Ocean Influence

Africa has become a key pillar of China’s superpower strategy, with CCP-backed construction companies sweeping across the continent in search of developing economies and untapped markets. Madagascar’s key position between the African continent and the Indian Ocean presents strong opportunities for China both financially and geopolitically, and Beijing’s overtures to Antananarivo reflect this. For Madagascar’s Malagasy people however, the game is rigged. Due to poor regulation and widespread corruption, they are unlikely to enjoy the benefits of China’s growing role. And with the government battling for control with powerful vanilla mafias and a highly profitable illegal rosewood trade, they will have little ability to negotiate fair terms with China. Just how did this small African nation find itself here? And what are the geopolitical consequences of becoming a potential battleground for global influence?

The strength of organised crime has driven the growth of illegal industries in Madagascar, including the exotic animal trade and rosewood logging. Once again though, illegality is no barrier for the powerful crime groups in Madagascar, who export hundreds of thousands of logs each year particularly to China. The Sava Region yet again is at the heart of it this issue, with local government officials like customs officials and police as well as regional politicians receiving bribes to look the other way. Similarly, the Chinese importers of Rosewood trade make extensive campaign contributions to politicians in Madagascar in order to protect their trade. Once again it is the Malagasy people suffering, with these trades destroying critical ecology and threatening the environmental stability of their region. Additionally, Rosewood logging is almost as deadly an industry as vanilla, with comparably dangerous labour conditions and the aforementioned involvement of organised crime and because the industry is illegal, local producers have no protection and families of dead workers receive no compensation.

In the 19th century the French introduced vanilla to Madagascar, and the combination of cheap labour and favourable environmental conditions would turn the Madagascan region of Sava into the vanilla capital of the world. At its peak it produced 80% of the world’s supply of the spice, and although today their control has decreased, they are still at 40%. In the same century vanilla was introduced, Chinese migration to the island began, and today Madagascar is home to Africa’s third-largest Chinese population. The intensive labour required to cultivate vanilla has made it the world’s second most expensive spice, and combined with the presence of a large Chinese diaspora has resulted in significant involvement of investors and entrepreneurs from China, as well as the CCP itself.

Vanilla is a product in demand around the world, being a key ingredient in products from ice cream to perfumes to medicine. But the demand for this crop has not been reflected in the fortunes of the Malagasy people. Madagascar is the world’s eleventh poorest country according to the World Bank, and the corruption rife in its politics and economy has strangled its economic growth and development. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of Madagascar’s systemic issues, with police roadblocks and public health restrictions dividing the country economically due to corrupt authorities exploiting the situation for bribes. With only organised crime groups able to regularly pay these bribes and continue operating at full economic capacity, these divisions have also paved the way for the vanilla mafia to grow in power and influence, cementing their role at the forefront of the island’s resource extraction industries.

Although the market has attracted legitimate Chinese entrepreneurs, in practice it is heavily controlled by mafia organisations, bringing crime and violence to the lives of vanilla farmers. Due to the risk of armed theft of their yield, farmers have been harvesting earlier to avoid the risk of violence, creating a poor quality of the spice, and decreasing the price. The typical vanilla pod takes at least three years to grow, and so in order protect their crops farmers have taken to arming themselves to patrol and defend their fields, with many dying in the attempt. The combination of violent organised crime groups and a lack of government protection due to widespread corruption means that vanilla farmers must play their trade alongside systemic violence to preserve their livelihood.

Photograph: Greg Nelson

Off the coast of Madagascar, smaller boats sneak out to meet with bigger boats, mixing their illegal Rosewood containers with the legitimate vanilla ones, circumventing port authorities. With China’s influence in the region growing the stability of this illegal trade may be threatened as they seek to formalise trade links. They are not the only rising power interested in the island however as India’s strategic concerns make Madagascar an important part of their Indian Ocean strategy. The Indian navy has operated a Coastal Surveillance Radar in the north of Madagascar since 2007, keeping an eye on shipping and naval movements in the Indian Ocean. For its part, China has the aforementioned diaspora in the country – the third largest in Africa - and is actively developing ports, roads, energy infrastructure, and well-drilling operations throughout Madagascar, securing ties and stabilising trade. And while an interest in formalising trade may endanger organised crime’s stranglehold on Madagascar’s industries, the growth of vanilla farming in states like Angola and Uganda, threatens one of Madagascar’s few successful industries.

The regional geopolitical competition for influence, the future of systemic organised crime, and the government’s ability to pay back its debts to China are all key questions for the future of this island state. Tackling Madagascar’s widespread poverty and crime is a herculean task, and while the interest of China and India presents some economic opportunities for the state, deeply entrenched corruption and unstable economic exports threaten to steal away any possibility of economic development.


Written by Perri Grace

Edited by Owen Swift


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