The coffee industry as one possible path to sustainable development in Haiti.
There is no doubt that rebuilding the manufacturing sector is crucial to Haiti’s long-term recovery. However, a revitalization of certain segments of Haiti’s agricultural sector is also vital as Haiti has always been primarily an agriculturally based society. Renewal in pride of growing organic, consistently high-quality exportable products not only increases Haiti’s image internationally, but also reduces population burdens on the cites, engages Haitians in caring for the land and can bring economic rewards in fostering tourism. Coffee could be one of the pillars of Haiti’s agricultural exports.
Coffee has always been important in Haiti’s history. During French Colonization, coffee was a valuable export. Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was known as then, cultivated the original arabica typica variety of coffee bean. By the mid 18th Century, Haiti produced about 60 percent of the world's coffee. After Haiti declared it's independence in 1804, the coffee industry rapidly declined. Land fragmentation, loss of expertise, political instability and natural disasters took their toll on production. However, coffee would remain an important agricultural commodity until the 1980s, representing nearly $100 million in Haitian exports.
Many factors likely contributed to the subsequent decimation of the coffee industry. Coffee rust (Hemileia vastatrix), a fungal disease attacked the coffee bean plant in the 90’s. World coffee prices declined and natural disasters continued to ravage the island. Countries such as Brazil were producing large quantities of commercial coffee using the less desirable Robusta bean, further reducing coffee prices. The military coup that ousted President Aristide in the 1990’s resulted in a trade embargo imposed by the OAS. Though the bulk of Haitian coffee has always been exported to France and Italy, the U.S. boycott and it’s resulting economic hardship caused some Haitian farmers to burn their coffee trees for charcoal revenue.
There was, however, a brief bright spot in Haiti’s coffee story. In the 1990s, a USAID program (Fédération des Associations Cafétières Natives) helped organize small farmers to master wet processing of coffee as well as cupping techniques. Haitian coffee is typically natural, or “dry” processed. However, most international gourmet coffees are “washed” coffees. The result was Haitian Bleu, a shade grown, fair trade-certified bean. Haitian Bleu enjoyed strong initial success, however subsequent disorganization, corruption and loss of crop to hurricanes have greatly reduced the output. Last year, the tiny yield of Haitian Bleu was entirely exported to France.
Today, Haiti’s coffee industry consists mostly of small, family-run farms called pèti plantè In spite of the difficulties the coffee-making industry has faced, a resurgence in the coffee market, particularly the desire to high quality organic coffees, may pave the way for a revival. We can look to Rwanda for an example of success in this regard.
After years of genocide and political unrest, by 2006, a sense of stability had returned in the Rwandan government. That year, USAID, in conjunction with Texas A&M University, the National University of Rwanda, and active engagement of the Rwandan government funded the S.P.R.E.A.D. project--Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development. SPREAD director Dr.Tim Shilling commented:
“Consumers worldwide are demanding higher quality products and are willing to pay more for them,” Schilling says. “They also want traceability – that is, they want to know where their food and beverages are grown and the socially and environmentally beneficial practices used in their production. More and more consumers are advocates of ‘farmers first’, meaning they’re interested in food products that are bought at fair prices to the rural small holders producing them. Finally, never before has Africa been in the hearts and minds of the global population with consumers wanting to support African products, and Rwanda’s special story of crisis and rebuilding is particularly compelling.”
The coffee industry in Rwanda has gone from nonexistent 10 years ago to being a sustainable industry that is improving the lives of many rural farmers in Rwanda.
A resurgence in Haitian coffee would require patience and rigorous training to assist the Haitians in creating a consistent product. Haiti cannot continue to rely on foreigners purchasing inferior quality products to support a cause. Eventually, their products have to be competitive on their own merits. But Haiti has the potential to become a high-quality coffee producer. We can help them achieve this.