Revival of withered coffee industry in Haiti could boost rural livelihoods


This article by Angel González appeared in The Seattle Times,

Enoch Telemaque, a 47-year-old farmer, remembers when the misty mountains at Haiti’s southwestern tip were among the richest pillars of a booming coffee industry.

“Everything was covered with coffee,” he said, pointing to the hills surrounding the shack where the town’s tiny coffee cooperative shelters from the rain. When he was a child, said Telemaque, raindrops meant “everybody put on their gear to go out and plant coffee.”

Haiti was once the world’s largest coffee producer, though deforestation and neglect erased that wealth decades ago.

Now Telemaque and others, with help from the international community, are trying to resurrect its coffee heritage.

It’s an initiative with high stakes — the ruined country badly needs valuable cash and food crops, as well as inducements for its many rural inhabitants to stay out of the crowded capital, Port-au-Prince.

In Tozia, a rural village of small shacks interspersed with old coffee trees at about 1,800 feet above sea level, the reclamation effort has been run since 2011 by Catholic Relief Services, a humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic Church.

About 100 local farmers in Tozia, and others in nearby towns around the former coffee center of Beaumont, have been organized into cooperatives. CRS is teaching them how to improve the yield of their land and the quality of the beans by replacing aging coffee trees with new seedlings.

“We are hoping that people will be able to gain more income out of local production and also create jobs in their communities,” said Ludger Jean-Simon, an agronomist who heads the CRS agricultural project here.

Those goals became more important after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, which devastated the capital and sent many refugees back to their provincial hometowns. CRS expects to start seeing the fruit of its efforts in a couple of years, as the 265,000 new coffee trees it has planted begin to blossom.

CRS also seeks to connect the farmers with local and foreign coffee buyers, and to give the Haitians a broader view of a global coffee market that has blossomed in recent years thanks to the spread of specialty coffee.

Cooperative chief Telemaque and several other Tozia farmers traveled with CRS to Seattle in March to attend the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual gathering. There they listened to discussions about the coffee value chain and about how to deal with roya, a fungus that ravages coffee trees.

“For them it was an experience to see even espresso machines,” said Hans Fly, the CRS official who traveled with them.

“They were pretty amazed at how much money was made from what they produce.”

There are similar efforts in other parts of the country. The Clinton Foundation put $150,000 into creating a Haiti Coffee Academy, a project that also involves a U.S. roaster, La Colombe Torrefaction.

The academy, set up at an abandoned coffee farm, is near the southeastern border with the Dominican Republic, which buys a lot of Haiti’s production. Former President Clinton visited the academy last February.

The international community is promoting the renaissance of other agricultural products as well. In the north of Haiti, USAID is assisting farmers in harvesting high-quality cacao. And CRS is also focusing on mango production.

Small farmers must be enabled to grow a diversity of crops, from coffee to yams and bananas, to have a “much better life” than “somebody selling water in Port-au-Prince,” Jean-Simon said.

There may be limits to this model, though. Haiti is fairly small and densely populated — about 963 people per square mile.

“There’s only so much land to go around,” said Philippe Girard, a Haiti expert at McNeese State University in Louisiana. “I don’t tend to think of agriculture as the cure-all for Haiti’s problems.”

A history tied to coffee

Coffee is a major component of Haiti’s DNA as a nation, and its fortunes mirror those of the country.

In the late 1700s, when it was an opulent French colony built upon slavery, the land that is now Haiti produced half of the world’s coffee, although the crop played second fiddle to more profitable sugar cane.

In 1787, when a young Frenchman named Alexandre de Laujon arrived in the colony then known as Saint Domingue, he saw “towns brimming with wealth; the riches of the land being transported there from mountains and plains, arriving in abundance, warehouses barely able to contain them.”

Laujon also described how European settlers and their slaves carved out plantations in the island’s mountains by felling the towering native trees. “Thousands of coffee trees rose in their place,” he wrote in a memoir published in 1835.

But the slaves rebelled and in 1804 expelled the French. Sugar-cane production, a large-scale, capital-intensive industry, plummeted in the early years of independence, as the former slaves chose to farm small plots of land for themselves rather than working at the hated plantations.

For the better part of 200 years, coffee grown in small and midsize lots proved a good companion to subsistence farming and generated badly needed hard currency for Haiti. It made a few local exporters rich, but it also enabled villagers to accumulate some money, or at least have collateral to borrow against to pay for necessities such as farm supplies or school fees.

Even today, for those who have them, coffee trees still serve “like a savings account,” said CRS’ Fly.

Coffee remained a major export into the 1980s but then dried up as Haiti dived into two decades of chaos capped by the 2010 earthquake.

In the 1990-91 harvest, the country exported just 190,000 bags of green coffee, roughly one-third of what it had exported two centuries earlier, and 12 times less than Costa Rica’s exports at that time.

And by 2013, after the quake, it only shipped abroad 10,000 bags, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Changing crops

The reasons for the downfall are many. One is centuries of soil degradation due to deforestation — first by the French, who cleared forests to make way for sugar cane, and then by Haitian loggers and small farmers in the densely populated countryside. That was compounded by natural disasters, from storms to pests.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a long stretch of low prices for the bean pushed many farmers to replace coffee trees with food crops such as beans or yams; many pieds de cafe, as coffee trees are called in French, ended up as charcoal in urban kitchens.

Also in the 1990s, political instability hit its apex as Jean Bertrand Aristide, a firebrand priest who was elected president, was toppled by an army junta. The U.S. imposed a trade embargo to weaken the coup regime, which helped further dislocate an already feeble rural economy.

The result was that, even as many Central American countries were in a position to benefit from surging coffee prices in the last decade, Haitians had dropped off the global map for coffee.

“They lost the ability to do it,” said Kim Lamberty, president of Just Haiti, a nonprofit that trains coffee farmers in Haiti and markets their coffee in the U.S. “It’s knowledge that has been lost in a generation.”

Right now most Haitian coffee farms are like survivors of an apocalypse.

In a rainy morning in Tozia last November, Ornema Nazaire picked a few coffee cherries from a vestige of better times and dropped them into the bottom of a basket.

“This was planted in 1976,” the 70-year-old said, pointing to the tree a few feet away from his house.

Experts say that productivity rapidly declines after a coffee tree’s first 15 or 20 years, so it’s no wonder that Nazaire was only able to sell 35 baskets of cherries from his aging trees to the local cooperative, collecting about $240.

“Yields are very low; this is the critical issue,” says CRS’ Jean-Simon, noting that yields in Haiti are half or a quarter of yields in other coffee-growing countries.

If yields doubled, the average Haitian small farmer could get $1,200 per year from the coffee itself when the price is good, and about $600 more from other crops on the land. That would compare favorably with the $1,400 to $1,500 a worker could earn in a factory in Port-au-Prince, especially considering that the cost of living is lower in the country, Jean-Simon says.

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