In Haiti, a project to help farmers inspires a sustainable cotton movement


The Guardian’s Larissa Zimberoff reports on Timberland’s work to reverse deforestation and to reintroduce of cotton crops in Haiti:

In 2010, just prior to the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti, American shoe and apparel company Timberland announced it would plant 5m trees on the widely deforested and impoverished island. After the earthquake hit, Timberland’s then CEO, Jeff Swartz, visited the country and was faced with two options: pivot to support the massive earthquake recovery, or keep the focus on planting trees.

The company considered its goal to improve the lives of family farmers who lacked the necessary tools, farming techniques and marketing and sales expertise to grow their businesses. Timberland decided to stick with the trees, and spent $1m to help local farmers turn barren land into orchards and forests. Timberland wrapped up the enterprise last year and funded a 45-minute documentary film, Kombit: The Cooperative, to chronicle its project. The film, which provides a glimpse into the challenges and success of the program, is now screening across the country.

Timberland’s reforestation project reflects the pressure on apparel companies to show they run an ethical business. The $2.5tn fashion industry has been heavily criticized over the years for causing a wide range of social and environmental problems, from using slave labor and toxic chemicals to buying raw materials that require an abundance of water and energy. [. . .]

While Timberland’s tree-planting project doesn’t directly benefit the business, it’s helped pave the way for newer initiatives that the New Hampshire company hopes will create new sources of raw materials and improve its bottom line. For example, Timberland has kicked off a feasibility study for the reintroduction of cotton crops in Haiti. Timberland, whose parent company VF Corporation buys 1% of the world’s global cotton supply for its brands – which include The North Face and 7 For All Mankind – hopes Haiti can become a reliable supplier of organic cotton, according to Margaret Morey-Reuner, director of strategic partnerships at Timberland.


Sowing a new livelihood

Haiti presents a great challenge for organizations that want to help improve the lives of its more than 10 million people. The country has lost as much as 98% of its forests, due in large part to Haitians’ reliance on charcoal for fuel. [. . .] More than a third of Haitians make a living from agriculture, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Yet the country is entering its third year of drought, causing declining harvests.

The reforestation project in Haiti wouldn’t be Timberland’s first. Back to 2001, it began a tree-planting program in China’s Inner Mongolia. In partnership with Green Network, a Japanese nonprofit, Timberland has planted 2m trees in the region’s Horqin Desert to date. With Haiti, Timberland believed it could accomplish something similar closer to home. “In re-establishing an agroforestry model, trees play a big role in the restoration of Haiti’s biodiversity,” says Morey-Reuner. “The idea is that it would be productive for the land, and farmers aren’t relying on one crop.”

Timberland ran into trouble early on in the Haiti project, when it was revealed one of its partnering charities, Yele Haiti, was mismanaging funds. The charity, founded by the singer Wycled Jean [sic], split from Timberland and eventually shut down in 2012. Morey-Reuner says Timberland kept track of its Haiti program’s spending, and the controversy didn’t involve the company’s money.

Timberland later joined forces with a farmers’ cooperative called Smallholder Farmers’ Alliance (SFA), co-founded by Timote Georges and Hugh Locke, who also co-founded Yele Haiti, though he said he wasn’t responsible for the fund mismanagement. SFA, which also receives funding from the Clinton Foundation, provides small, mostly family-run farms with the tools and training to help them boost their production and incomes. [. . .]

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