Haitian Coffee Project Stirs Reforestation Hopes

Published Saturday, August 16, 1997, in the Miami Herald

Herald Staff Writer

FOND JEAN-NOEL, Haiti -- From the air, Haiti's hills are the back of a starved hound -- sharp, brown and bare with a thousand miseries scratched into its skin.

Without trees to capture the scant rainwater, its rivers run brown. The main dam that supplies electricity chokes on silt.

The devastation of this once lush land is not new. Nor is the brutal math of deforestation: Each year U.S. relief workers plant six million saplings; each year, Haitians desperate for firewood, farmland or timber chop down 30 million trees.

``You're not looking at a tropical country. You're looking at a Nevada desert,'' said Ed Scott, an American contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. ``It's not ignorance. It's not voluntary destruction. People had no choice.''

But now, some Haitians have found a choice.

A solution has come to these highlands in the form of plump, reddish beans: coffee. With U.S. technical help and marketing wizardry, the gourmet bean -- Haitian Bleu -- is hopping off the shelves of American stores at premium prices.

And because coffee requires the shade of larger trees to thrive, growers for the first time have a compelling economic reason to keep the land forested, thus protecting some of Haiti's last viable watersheds.

Project Serves as Model

After seven years in this southern mountain village, the $7.3 million coffee project sponsored by AID is being viewed as a model for other parts of Haiti. Said an impressed President Rene Preval: ``If we put in a project for the revitalization of coffee, the farmer himself will do the reforestation.''

The project started in 1990, when U.S. workers introduced superior Costa Rican plants to replace strains that had long since peaked in quality. The growers set up nurseries, improved facilities to shuck and dry the beans, and united into a federation representing 18,000 farmers in 25 cooperative groups.

American marketing expertise helped the Haitian growers cut out the middleman -- Haitian speculators and brokers who normally keep the lion's share -- and capture a niche U.S. market just as Americans were waking up to pleasures of gourmet coffee.

Although Jamaican Blue Mountain still reigns supreme, commanding nearly $50 a pound, Haitian Bleu has quickly established itself as a smooth contender -- hailing from a similar climate -- for $40 less a pound.

At South Florida coffee stores, managers say Haitian Bleu is in demand.

``It's very popular,'' said Cathy Dodd of Barnie's Coffee & Tea Company at The Falls. ``I push it a lot because I like it. It's very mellow, smooth and non-acidic.''

Incomes Rising

In Fond Jean-Noel, growers who used to earn 80 cents a pound now receive at least $2, guaranteed under contract with roasters and distributors in Florida.

For Yssonne Douce, a coffee grower and schoolteacher, such an income is enough to brace for the lean times. Times like a decade ago, when coffee prices plummeted. Or a half-dozen years ago, when the world community clamped Haiti in a trade embargo, trying to force out military rulers.

Back then, Douce said, hunger reduced options. It was either carve a subsistence garden out of his coffee plot or try his luck in teeming Port-au-Prince. The final option was to pile into a precarious boat bound for Florida.

``The population was migrating either to the cities or overseas. Those who stayed, cut down trees,'' recalled Douce, who stayed. ``It happened to me. I was obliged to cut the coffee trees to plant beans and corn.''

Now Douce is vigorously planting coffee. He shades his precious crop beneath citrus trees and banana plants; the canopy retains moisture and nourishes the beans.

Needs Fuel Deforestation

The lesson of Fond Jean-Noel, specialists say, is that in a hand-to-mouth society, conservation must yield immediate rewards. Giant mango trees have survived along the hardscrabble streets of Port-au-Prince because of their lucrative fruit.

Less generous trees get the ax. Curbing their relentless destruction is critical to any plan for reforestation.

But How?

As many as 160,000 Haitians make their living producing and selling charcoal, which is used as fuel for everything from kitchen stoves to bakeries and dry cleaners.

A fruitless brainstorming session with Haitian and U.S. officials last week left some arguing for converting the energy-starved country to butane gas. Others said Haiti should import raw wood to allow the rural charcoal makers to continue their work.

Most experts agree that Haiti will not stop consuming its trees until its government takes a more aggressive stance on land reform. The peasant who feels ownership of land will protect it, they say.

Conflicting Claims

But, as everywhere, the subject is explosive. Haiti's Parliament -- deadlocked by political squabbles -- hardly seems likely to offer much help. In a land where squatters are rampant and political tumult has blurred so many boundaries, there are many competing claims on arable land.

In the still-fertile central Artibonite region, for example, there are so many conflicting claims of ownership that they amount to a land area ``twice the size of the country,'' Preval said. ``All of [the claimants] have valid land titles,'' he said.

For the time being, the government is granting permits for peasants to till idle and state-owned plots, the president said.

The Clinton administration, for its part, has promised to help provide credit to small farmers. And U.S. officials voice hopes of replicating the Haitian Bleu project around the country.

But relief strategists like Scott are skeptical that the U.S. government will stick around long enough for Haiti to heal. ``Washington wants results that are fast,'' he said. ``Mother Nature doesn't always agree.''


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