Rum and Hope in Haiti


Tristram Korten, writing for The Atlantic, looks at how Haiti’s famed Barbancourt rum factory has survived by taking self-sufficiency to an extreme.

Four years ago, Thierry Gardère, the president and director general of Rhum Barbancourt, the renowned rum distillery on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, spent an afternoon showing me around. We toured the offices, then went to a warehouse where truckloads of sugarcane were being unloaded into a large yellow machine that squeezed out the juice and discarded the stalks. We climbed a ladder to view the big metal vats where the juice began to ferment, and walked through the storerooms where the rum aged in oak barrels. Outside, we paused at a veranda lined with paving stones and covered by a wooden trellis blossoming with bougainvillea. “This is the place for the tourists,” Gardère said with a shrug. “But unfortunately, they are not coming anymore. Not since the embargo in 1991.”

No, they weren’t. In their stead came an occupation, an insurrection, a kidnapping epidemic, hurricanes, lethally torrential floods, and finally, on January 12, 2010, an earthquake that inflicted this hemisphere’s worst natural disaster in the past two centuries on its poorest inhabitants, leveling whole cities and killing hundreds of thousands.

In the week after the earthquake, I make my way amid the fragmented buildings of Port-au-Prince’s neighborhoods, past the dead laid out in sheets and tarps, the feral dogs digging through the rubble for body parts, and the survivors wandering or waiting in a glaze of grief and shock. In Petit-Goave, farther west, I see a one-legged man sitting on a pile of white limestone-and-concrete rubble, the ruins of a former hotel, breaking the boulder-size blocks with a sledgehammer. It seems very Haiti: a Sisyphean task performed at an insurmountable disadvantage.

And yet, when the Haitians have buried the dead, cleared away at least some of the wreckage, and grieved enough, they will need to rebuild their economy—not just the subsistence economy that most Haitians live on, but the industries the country will need to grow itself out of a hole. For that, they have a good example in Barbancourt.

Ever since Dupré Barbancourt emigrated from the Cognac region in France in the mid-1800s and applied his countrymen’s famed distillation methods to the island’s sugarcane, the company has consistently made a world-class product in one of the most chaotic and violent countries on Earth. It has built Haiti’s most famous brand and export (excluding Wyclef Jean), producing about 330,000 cases of rum a year, with annual sales of roughly $12 million.

“What we have to do in Haiti to survive is to be completely self-sufficient,” Gardère, a descendant of Barbancourt’s nephew, told me on my earlier visit. “This is due to the fact that there is no state.”

Under Gardère, who has run Barbancourt for 20 years, the company set out to become aggressively independent of any municipal services; it pumped water from its own wells, produced electricity from two cargo-container-size diesel generators, and created a workshop that could rebuild any piece of machinery at the distillery. When I visited, Gardère was planning to build a cogeneration plant that would burn spent sugarcane stalks to boil water and then use the steam to power a turbine and produce electricity.

After my tour, as we sat in a conference room sipping dirty-blond sugarcane juice with ice, I asked Gardère and his chief operating officer, William Eliacin, if they could count on the state for anything. They were quiet. Finally Eliacin said: “Sometimes when you call the police, they come.” Barbancourt couldn’t even rely on phone service; phone lines were routinely stolen for their copper content. “It’s the same with the power lines,” Gardère sighed. As a result, they had no fax, and the office intercom was cellular.

Capitalism in an impoverished nation has its own rules. Gardère has declined to overmechanize. The company hand-labels the bottles and cuts the sugarcane by machete in order to provide jobs. Labor is inexpensive, but jobs with benefits (which Barbancourt provides) are treasured in a country with unemployment above 60 percent. As a result, more than half of the 250 employees have been with the company for more than 20 years. Barbancourt pays 50 percent more than the $5-a-day minimum wage for its full-time labor jobs, runs a scholarship fund, and has built a soccer compound, complete with a community center, for the villages around its sugarcane fields. The goodwill is mutual. In 2004, when a revolt forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to flee, some of his supporters marched on Barbancourt. “They wanted to take the shotguns from the guards,” Gardère told me. There had also been widespread looting. But workers rallied to convince the crowd not to harm the distillery.

“I have been approached by international companies that have offered to buy us,” Gardère said. “I am sure the first thing they would do is move the company. That is one of the reasons why I don’t sell.”

Now, in the earthquake’s dusty aftermath, I head through the ruined city, past acres of tents where tens of thousands of newly homeless now live, to Damien. My driver, Gardy, insists on stopping by a collapsed hillside house where the body of his best friend still lies belly down, fully exposed on an upper story. His wife’s dainty feet, toes up as if she were sleeping on her back, can be seen under a concrete slab next to him. “Can you please tell someone to come get him?” Gardy implores me.

But at Barbancourt the bougainvillea still blooms, literally, by the entrance. Gardère meets me at the gate. His face is badly bruised—the earthquake flung him to the floor of his house—but otherwise he is fine. In the grim calculus of post-earthquake Haiti, he declares how lucky the company is to have lost only two employees, who were home at the time. The company’s buildings were shaken but are still standing; pipes burst, and about 30 percent of the stock spilled from broken barrels. The damage is survivable.

Gardère estimates the distillery will be back in production in about two months. Just before the earthquake, he had started installing his longed-for cogeneration plant. “Finally we will be truly self-sufficient,” he tells me.

I ask if he has changed his mind about moving the company from Haiti. Funny, he says. Only two months earlier, he had an offer for the company, one of six or seven in the past few years. “But I still feel the same way: I would like to rebuild here.”

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