In 2005, Sarah Osterhoudt served as an environmental volunteer for the Peace Corps in Imorona, a rural village along the northeastern coast of Madagascar. In her introduction, Osterhoudt states she was visited by the program director who asked, "Why are there so many trees here?" His question stayed with Osterhoudt and later became the catalyst for Vanilla Landscapes.
The primary ethnic group in Imorona, and the surrounding region, is the Betsimisaraka, which is the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar. For generations, the Betsimisaraka have cultivated farms in marshy lowland areas suitable for paddy rice cultivation and near hillside areas where farmers grow market crops such as vanilla, coffee, and cloves.
Valued in the world market as a luxury good, the vanilla bean from Madagascar is originally from Mesoamerica. In choosing to cultivate vanilla, the farmers of Imorona respond to the basic requirements of maintaining agroforestry fields that include hand-pollinating each vanilla flower. Successful pollination requires skill and knowledge that is taught by parents and grandparents to children who go out together to work their farm. Through the everyday acts of farming, individuals infuse their local landscapes with political histories, personal memories, effective associations, and moral ideas. For Osterhoudt, observing the everyday activities of farmers and the decisions they make, highlight the slow and steady work of cultivation: the cultivation of land, the cultivation of meaning, the cultivation of history, and the cultivation of self.
"A very valuable piece of work about a distinctive crop, and merits the close attention of ethnobotanists and scholars of agriculture. That is an anthropologically interesting part of the world; we need more studies like this."
– Dr Harold C. Conklin † (1926-2016) Franklin Muzzy Crosby Professor Emeritus Department of Anthropology Yale University
"Sarah Osterhoudt's book brilliantly succeeds in literally, grounding the claim that an indigenous, agrarian society narrates its genealogy, its collective history, and its value and meaning through its agro-forestry landscape. She has 'realized' to a rare extent a cultural reading of landscape so celebrated by Marc Bloch and Keith Basso. The result is something of a model that other ethnographers of landscape and environment will learn from."
– Dr James C. Scott Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies Director of the Agrarian Studies Program Yale University
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Sarah R. Osterhoudt is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. She received her doctoral degree from Yale University through the combined program in Anthropology and Forestry & Environmental Studies, as well as a joint doctoral degree from The New York Botanical Garden.
Osterhoudt began working with smallholder farmers in Madagascar in 2005 as a Peace Corps volunteer. She returned to Madagascar to conduct research in anthropology and economic botany, examining the cultural and historical dimensions of agro-ecological landscapes. She has been active in development and conservation programs for over fifteen years, including co-founding an organization that partners with Malagasy spice producers.
Her work has been supported by organizations including the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Fulbright-Hays Program, the Lewis B. Cullman Foundation, the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the Thomas J. Watson Foundation.