By Jean H Charles
For 300 years before Haitian independence, coffee and sugar has been for that island country one of the most successful recorded business ventures, except it was shamelessly manned by slave labour. I was invited from November 27 to November 29, to take part in a forum in Thiotte, the high temple of coffee in Haiti, featuring an international tasting leading to the characterization of Haitian coffee, labeled by many one of the best in the world.
I am allergic to coffee, albeit I need the smell and the aroma for my morning stimulation. Yet I could not pass on the invitation to attend the forum, because I am a strong believer to the hypothesis that, if coffee could make colonial France as rich as Croesus, it could again transform independent Haiti into the Pearl of the Caribbean.
To get to Thiotte, one must travel on a road where a riverbed functions as the highway. If the rain is on the way, you must stay put and wait for the more clement weather. Yet crossing the pine forest on the way to the mountain leading to Thiotte is the sweet feeling of redemption after the pain of the cross.
Agronomists and Veterinarians Without Borders are credited, with partners Kore/Café, with assembling a whole array of coffee growers, tasters, shippers and wholesalers from around the world in immersing in the whole experience of visiting, evaluating and projecting the future of the Haitian coffee industry. This evaluation is 500 years overdue.
The result is that Haitian coffee stands its ground among the best in the world, such as the Arabica from Ethiopia, or the coffee from Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala. Haiti, meaning “the land of mountain” in the Indian language (behind mountain there are more mountains), has the advantage of the runners from Kenya. Coffee loves high altitude to provide the texture, the strength and the taste requested by the aficionados, who demand the “wow” factor every time they experience the taste of a cup of coffee.
A violent and turbulent past
To gain its independence, Haiti had to burn its entire coffee plantation. It was mostly situated in the northern part of the country, where the epic battle at Vertieres took place on November 18, 1803. Two hundred and ten years later, Haiti is still on its knees. It suffered an international embargo after its daring act of putting an end to the world order of slavery. On the national front, the emphasis was on building forts and fortifications to defend the newly acquired independence. Internal strife, often fueled by conflicting international interests, has kept investment in coffee production to a minimum.
Yet by 1850, coffee was a major staple in the Haitian production chain. In Europe, Haiti’s St Marc coffee was mixed regularly in the course of business to give a better taste to coffee from the rest of the world. By 1949, Haiti ranked third in world coffee production. The dictatorial regimes of the Duvaliers from 1957 to 1986 occasioned a precipitous downfall of the coffee industry in Haiti.
The Americans, through the embargo against Duvalier, and the United Nations and the OAS, through the embargo against Raoul Cedras for the return of Jean Bertrand Aristide to power, contributed to the decimation of the trees that protect the coffee plants. From a vegetable cover of 49 percent in 1949, Haiti has sunk in 2013 to a vegetable cover of 2 percent.
A divided society and a predatory government!
If France used St Domingue
/aka Haiti as its cash cow without taking care of the cow, the subsequent Haitian governments were as predatory as colonial France. The Haitian budget relied on an 85 percent tax on coffee for its sustenance. A cursory visit to Thiotte today will reveal the lack of caring of past governments. The road to Thiotte is like a moonscape. Precipitation from the mountains has produced immense rock debris that the driver must negotiate to find a path through. Thiotte has no electricity or running water. Yet Thiotte produces 65 percent of the best coffee that is shipped from Haiti.
The coffee business has relied for generations on a handful of export agents: Novella in the North; Reinbold/Dufort, now Rebo, in the South East; Weiner, with the brand Selecto, in the South and Grand’Anse. The relationship between the farmer and the shipper was inhospitable at best, suspicious and hostile at worst.
Enter today a new boy on the block in the form of a farmer’s cooperative association, designed to regroup the planters to obtain a better price for their coffee while working to improve the quality of the product. At the forum on the characterization of Haitian coffee, while the old-boy network was present, farmers associations in the north and north east with focal points such as Carice, Mont Organise and Dondon as epicenters of coffee production proudly displayed their beans. They came also from the center in Baptiste, the south east, Thiotte, the Grand’Anse, Beaumont and the south.
A team of international experts from Italy, Peru, the Dominican Republic, the United States and Japan sipped, hummed, smelled and washed their mouths with the Haitian coffee from different parts of the island. In the end, as the magicians/chemists who know what they are doing, they met to give a score to the Haitian coffee. It is in the range of 88-90 on a scale of 100.
Yurea Tibed, an expert in coffee quality from Peru, acted like a tyrant schoolmaster in collecting the coffee from different altitudes, cataloguing the samples and leading the tasting sessions with an iron hand, so that the result would be without question of superior viability.
The Haitian coffee can now go unto the world free of the charitable-cause dressing with which it has been enrobing itself to have a foot in the world market. To do so, according to Jean Chenel Jean, the agronomist in charge of organization the forum, Haiti will need $100 million to revamp its 70,000 hectares of land suitable to coffee production.
The Haitian National Coffee Institute, led by the agronomist Jobert Angrand, told me it is ready to do the job if only it can find the sourcing for that pot of money. I told him that Haiti can kill three birds at the same time by engaging in a scheme of debt-swapping for nature, carbon exchange and vegetable renaissance. By planting precious wood trees such as ebony, mahogany and cedar into its scorched mountains, while cultivating coffee under those trees, Haiti would contribute to slowing global warming. It would pay its PetroCaribe debt and enrich itself with the revenue from its fine, exquisite coffee, well-appreciated by the connoisseurs.
Bringing the best coffee to the mouths of the aficionados demands sacrifice. In the end, the consumer is ready and willing to pay a stiff price for that early jolt in the morning only if all the actors use due diligence in all the processes of planting the best seed in the best altitude, collecting the fruit and submitting it to the right degree of sun, so that when it is brewed, the “wow” feeling is magical, enchanting and continuous.
Agronomes sans Frontières
must continue helping in the business of enriching Haiti and its citizens. It must also help to organize the mango industry, where the best mangoes in the world came from (mango Francis with permit for export and mango Baptist not yet granted permit for export). It must also help in organizing the vetiver industry and the coco industry, with Haiti as the leading variety in texture and quality.
May this association with Agronomes sans Frontières
become stronger with Haiti as the last rural frontier in the Western Hemisphere, with a majority of its population engaged in the business of agriculture. The prospect of seeing Haiti standing on its feet, with its citizens well-fed and plenty of dough in their pockets, all lead to Mr Frederic Appolon the president of the association who flew from Paris for the event and his associate in Haiti, David Muller. With an excellent command of the Creole language, he did set up the challenges.
In this basket of richness I must not fail to mention the art produced from recycled material such as from old barracks, which is a specialty of Haiti.
One institution, the Singing Rooster (did it smell the coffee?), has been engaging in promoting all this richness of Haiti. We need many more, as long as some of the benefit is going back to the farmer or to the creative artist.
The year 2014 will be declared the year of the small rural famer; may the Haitian government and the Haitian people seize that olive branch to make up a forest of olive trees filled with olives for the next vintage and for future generations. Indeed, Haiti remains the golden El Dorado, where milk and honey for its own citizens can flow, as well as for the adventurous who want to become as rich as a Creole.
Pictures credit: see www.Facebook.com/singingrooster.org for a wonderful sideshow of the tasting event in Thiotte Haiti.