Haitian Coffee, After the Quake

Our colleague Jonathan Rosenthal collaborates with Just Us! on co-operative and ethical international trade development. He was in Haiti earlier this year to analyze the current state and opportunities for the nation’s coffee industry. While there, he connected us with COOPACVOD, a small farmers co-operative, and we soon after imported their coffee directly into Halifax. You can currently find this fine Haitian coffee blended into several of our lines: Caribbean Roots, Holiday Blend and Jungle Blend. The beans are quite distinctive, displaying cocoa, peanut and a variety of baking spice flavours, bringing a unique and interesting accent to these blends. Here are a series of excerpts that Jonathan Rosenthal of Just Works Consulting wrote about his trip, from an article published by Roast Magazine in their January / February 2011 edition: On January 12, 2010, a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck near the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, leaving more than 300,000 dead and legions more homeless. Because I had worked with small coffee farmers for more than 20 years, Oxfam America asked me to design a small farmer coffee project in Haiti as part of the organization’s post earthquake rebuilding response. I found that Haitians make the best of very difficult circumstances and often find joy and celebration despite hardship. Bev Bell, who has worked with Haitian social movements for almost 30 years, relates a quote by her friend Ronal Toussaint: “We do so much with so little. People here can take anything and make it work. Just give us a little bit and we’ll fix this country.” My trip started with inspiration. I was deeply moved when I read about the Haitian revolution, a successful slave revolt against powerful colonial armies. The former slaves formed their own country in 1804 and transformed a slave plantation economy into smallholder farms. Haiti once produced 50 percent of the world’s coffee exports and used coffee earnings to pay reparations extracted by France, from shortly after liberation in 1804 until 1922. From the 1950s to the mid 1980s, government support of coffee diminished as did production. This was due to low farm gate prices, as well as wide spread violence and oppression. In 1989, the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement led to historic low prices worldwide. This combined with political upheaval to accelerate the decline of the Haitian coffee industry. Many farmers turned their coffee and shade trees into charcoal for cooking and switched to food crops with more stable prices. Further unrest and an international trade embargo in the ‘90s further undermined the industry and the decline accelerated. What I know of the history of the small country – punished for 200 years by many of the world’s most powerful countries because of its successful slave revolution – quickly became real when I connected what I read in books to daily life in Haiti. Haitian farmers are masters of risk management. Political instability, lack of access to credit, infrequent land titles, low levels of literacy, little agronomic support, coffee borer epidemics, little access to world price information and lack of market access create a web of risk factors. Farmers manage the risk by raising a diverse number of crops and investing minimal labour or resources into coffee production. Not surprisingly, Haitian coffee yields are low and resistance to change is high. All the farmers that we visited had small parcels, usually under 1 carreau (3.2 acres) with mixed crops that included bananas, peppers, coffee, corn, beans, sugarcane, mangoes, citrus, avocados, cacao, yams and more. While these small plots are rich examples of biodiversity, they are not organized and coffee is often a passive, almost wild element. Most farmers sell the majority of their coffee production locally to market women, know as Madame Saras, for local consumption or to merchants from the Dominican Republic for informal export across the border. Co-operatives and associations range from weak and dispirited to stable and lean. Overall most organizations reported or appeared to be in need of management support and training. There is tremendous potential for a more robust coffee sector if these organizations can be successfully strengthened to support better farm management, harvesting and production, as well as marketing. The key challenge is increasing and improving production – not the marketing that has often been the focus of past efforts – and in having well-run organizations with access to credit. A new vision is emerging for a people-centered Haiti with a strong emphasis on sustainable agriculture. Coffee work can be integrated into this vision while taking advantage of the best successes from Haitian Bleu, Rwanda, fair trade and other small farmer experiences. To move in this direction, the Haitian coffee industry must first build a new forum for the sector to share experiences and build trust. At the same time, the industry could introduce support for grassroots organizations and innovative ideas. Funding from outside Haiti can help develop ideas such as farmer schools, supporting massive reforestation, funding the training of new agronomists, introducing widespread cupping training; and building a new, national, high quality coffee brand. Foreign visitors need to find ways to integrate their global experience and ideas with the cultural reality of Haitians, while returning ultimate power and decisions to the Haitian people. This will require patience, careful listening and humility.