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Revival of Haiti’s withered coffee industry would boost rural livelihoods

Haiti’s storied coffee industry collapsed in the 1980s amid political instability and low prices. Now, it is once again seen as a promising avenue for development — but local farmers need to get reacquainted with the bean.

Third of three parts

Revival of Haiti’s withered coffee industry would boost rural livelihoods

Haiti’s storied coffee industry collapsed in the 1980s amid political instability and low prices. Now, it is once again seen as a promising avenue for development — but local farmers need to get reacquainted with the bean.

Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

Ogisna Journal, president of a coffee cooperative in Haiti, participates in Catholic Relief Services’ Mountains to Markets project. Journal was recently at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual meeting in Seattle.

Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times

Sources: Esri, DeLorme, IPC

Click to enlarge

Seattle Times business reporter

Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

Click to enlarge | Hans Fly, from Catholic Relief Services, meets with coffee farmers at a cooperative in Tozia, Haiti. Fly accompanied the farmers to the Seattle meeting.

Funding for international reporting by The Seattle Times is provided by a grant from the Seattle International Foundation.

— Enoch Télémaque, 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 Télémaque, 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 Télémaque 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 (CRS), 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 Télémaque 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, roughly the same as King County.

“There’s only so much land to go around,” says 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.”

Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

The city of Beaumont, about 1,800 feet up a mountain above the city of Les Cayes, is headquarters to several coffee-growing cooperatives. With help from the international community, Haiti is trying to resurrect its coffee heritage, almost lost after the country dissolved into political instability in the 1990s.

Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

Click to enlarge | Ornema Nazaire picks coffee cherries from several old coffee trees, planted in 1976 outside his home in Tozia, Haiti. Nazaire will need to plant new trees to boost yields.

Coffee heritage

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 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.

Garland Potts / The Seattle Times

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

Click to enlarge | Coffee beans in various stages of production are displayed at a cooperative in Tozia, Haiti. Haitian farmers are planting new trees and learning modern farming techniques to revive the nation’s coffee heritage.

Lost knowledge

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 café, 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.

Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

Coffee farmer Ornema Nazaire’s family plays dominoes while taking shelter from a heavy rainstorm in Tozia, a coffee-producing area in western Haiti.

This player was created in September 2012 to update the design of the embed player with chromeless buttons. It is used in all embedded video on The Seattle Times as well as outside sites.

Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times

Catholic Relief Services must traverse harsh terrain to the reach the coffee cooperative in Tonzia, a small town in Haiti 1,800 feet above sea level.


Reporter: Ángel González
Photographer / videographer: Mike Siegel
Project editor: Rami Grunbaum
Producer / Web designer: Gina Cole
Print designer: Bob Warcup
Copy editor: Karl Neice
Graphic artists: Mark Nowlin, Garland Potts
Photo editor: Fred Nelson
Video editor: Lauren Frohne

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. A few miles from where he stood, on the mountain, there are still government-built coffee processing warehouses that were abandoned two decades ago.

“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.

Quality remains an issue. The popularity of Starbucks, Nespresso and other high-end coffee retailers has meant good prices for farmers worldwide who can produce premium beans of the arabica variety, the same type that is grown in Haiti.

But in Haiti most coffee is processed by drying the cherries out in the sun, a traditional method that results in lots of broken beans and uneven quality. Most of the coffee, called naturel, is sold locally and roasted with sugar, or exported to the Dominican Republic.

Haitian growers have made some strides in recent years, however. La Colombe, the U.S. company that is working with the Clinton Foundation in southeastern Haiti, sells its coffee in some high-end stores such as West Elm. The coffee is also served at Four Seasons hotels in New York and Toronto.

Just Haiti, the nonprofit, also says that there’s plenty of demand for its fair-trade Haitian coffee. “We don’t have any trouble selling it; hardly anyone has it,” Lamberty said.

In Beaumont, the once-booming coffee town in southwest Haiti, there are signs of a renaissance.

“For the last 20 years nobody planted new trees. Now we’re interested in planting new trees,” said Gerard Dorestant, a 56-year-old coffee buyer, sitting on a porch in Beaumont.

The times of opportunity are coming back, he declared.

“I have 100 bags of coffee stacked in my house right now,” Dorestant said. “I’m waiting until the price goes up.”

Ángel González: 206-464-2250 or On Twitter: @gonzalezseattle.


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