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May 17, 2007

Madagascar orchid growers strike deal with perfume industry

A slender delicately-perfumed white orchid unique to Madagascar is the pick of the French cosmetics industry to symbolise its new commitment to biodiversity and sustainable development.

Angraecum eburneum longicalcar had all but disappeared from its natural habitat when much of its forest home was destroyed, but for this project will be grown commercially in partnership with Madagascar farmers, and then exported to France. "These orchids can be grown for use as either cut flowers or for their cosmetic value," said Alban Muller, president of both Alban Muller, a producer of fragrances and flavours, and the Cosmetic Valley grouping of France's top perfumers and fragrance specialists. "Orchids have hydrating and softening properties. They also have a very powerful image, which is important for our industry," Muller said. Companies like Guerlain, Yves Rocher and Clarins have been using orchid extracts for a long time, he said.

The island of Madagascar was separated from the African and Indian landmasses 160 million years ago, becoming a sanctuary for rare plant species. It is now home to the world's greatest number of orchids species, with 1,200 different types. Starting in the 1930s, celebrated collector Marcel Lecoufle roamed the island in search of orchids, building up a collection that today includes 105 species native to Madagascar.

Fran├žoise Lenoble-Predine, vice-president of the conservatory of specialised plant collections, says she has found three laboratories in Madagascar that are sufficiently well equipped to handle the delicate operation of reproducing the orchid. "This will enable us to begin reproducing other plants with high added value," she said, kicking off a process of sustainable development in a country ranked as one of the poorest in the world.

Madagascar is already a major producer of plants for the perfume industry, including ylang ylang, vetiver and vanilla, another member of the orchid family. "It is a country rich in natural resources, but very much under the control of middlemen who buy the crops while they are still growing," said Lenoble-Predine. Crops are bartered against rice, with merchants pushing up prices of the food staple, leaving farmers with debts of up to one and a half harvests and families short of food.

The French cosmetics industry is therefore considering ways and means to form partnerships with Madagascar farmers, although it is too early to talk of quantities or prices, said Muller. "What is impossible nowadays is to ignore environmental issues," Muller said. "To secure access to resources in projects like these, we need to work fairly and intelligently with local farmers."

Angraecum eburneum could be cultivated in the very heart of the Madagascar capital, Antananarivo, where there are 3 200 hectares of polluted and deteriorating rice paddies.

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