Appeared on Corbett e-mail list Sat, 18 Nov 2000
From: Perdue and Persinos

Bob Perdue vtandwi@erols.com

This April 1942 memorandum, signed by Andre de Coppet, President of La Plantation Dauphin, S.A., explains why a significant increase in sisal production in Haiti to meet war-time needs should be plantation based rather than produced by small farmers. Early in the war, the Japanese occupied the Philippines, source of Manila hemp (abaca), and cut off supplies of sisal from Java and Sumatra. Supply of sisal from British East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) would be threatened by submarines. There was an urgent need for expansion of sisal production to meet war-time requirements for this fiber, especially to manufacture rope for the U.S. Navy.
The following is a copy of Document 225-12, Special Collection on Fiber Plants, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD.



Our attention has been called to the fact that consideration is being given to the production of sisal in small plots in Haiti. We assume that the proposal anticipates that the native farmer will plant sisal on small plots; cut the leaves at maturity; transport these leaves to a receiving station; and that these leaves will then be transported by railway or truck to a central location where they will be decorticated by a Government or privately owned plant.

We wish first to stress the fact that we desire in every way to cooperate with the Haitian Government in any project it may care to undertake. During the fifteen years we have been operating, our relations with that Government have been very friendly, and we have always received most helpful assistance whenever we have requested anything. We appreciate this fully, and we wish to state that any doubts which we may submit on the suggested proposition are based entirely on our fifteen years experience in operating what is generally considered an exceptionally well run plantation.

We shall divide our observations under two broad headings.

  1. Economic or sociological considerations.
  2. Maximum production at the earliest moment, due to the war emergency.
    1. A factor which is frequently overlooked is that Haitian sisal is produced under the high wage levels of Haiti, as compared with the rates paid on the East Indies and East Africa. As labor is by far the largest item of cost, and as the product is sold in the world's market without any protective tariff, it is obvious that efficiency in operation is essential. We early decided that our only chance to compete in normal times was by obtaining a price premium for our product based on highest quality and uniform grading. To accomplish this we made large investments in equipment, and have exerted every effort from the time of planting until the finished bales were placed on the ship. We have been rewarded by having our product recognized as the best grade and therefore getting a considerable price premium. It is well that we did so, or we could not have survived the long years of low prices.

      It is our judgment that this highest quality and uniform grading can only be obtained if the entire production is under one management. The suckers must be planted in a prescribed way; the plants must be cultivated at least twice a year during the three years before they are ready for harvesting and at least every nine months during the three years that the leaves are being cut; the cutting should only take place when leaves have fallen to a 45 degree angle and should be before they have touched the ground; inferior leaves should be thrown out and the balance graded as to length at the time of cutting; and most important of all, it is absolutely imperative that the leaves be decorticated as quickly as possible after cutting and in any event not later than 48 hours. To accomplish this requires constant and careful supervision during long years while the plant is reaching maturity, and the most exact timing between cutting and decorticating. This we do not believe is possible except where all operations are under one head. If they are not followed, then a costly and inferior product will be produced, which will certainly result in a loss when the price of sisal returns to normal levels. This can only mean that either the project would be abandoned with the resulting loss to the Haitian farmers or sustained by Government subsidies to these farmers or the decorticators. That, of course, is a matter of sociological policy which we would feel it impertinent for us to discuss.

    2. Here, we assume that a policy has been determined that it is imperative, due to the war emergency to produce the maximum amount of sisal at the earliest moment. Since the policy has been determined, our comments are based on what we, with our fifteen years of experience, believe is the best way to achieve this objective.

      Each plant throws out suckers which, if the greatest yield is desired, should be cut to not more than two. Failure to do this will result in a reduced yield from the plant which, as it affects immediate production, is certainly not desirable. At least 60% of these suckers are used in replanting the existing fields, leaving possibly 40% which could be used for new fields.

      With this limit to expansion, it is obvious that every effort should be made to insure that all suckers be used to produce plants which will receive the best care from the time that they are planted until the final harvesting is completed.

      Exhaustive tests which we have made demonstrate clearly that a carefully cultivated plant will yield far more fibre during its life than one which is left to grow without such cultivation, so that, if maximum yield from the limited supply of suckers is the main objective, then these suckers should only be used by those who will unquestionable give careful attention to the plants. This will be done by plantations that have shown over many years that they understand the utmost importance of careful planting, frequent cultivation, cutting leaves only when the proper time arrives, and rapid decortication once the leaves are cut. We frankly do not believe that the native farmers would do this in small holdings during the three years they are waiting for the plant to mature. To the extent that they did not do so, production would be delayed and reduced.

      Planting may also be made from bulbils or seeds thrown out when the plant pollens just before dying. These must be grown in a nursery, are difficult to raise, and take perhaps a year to reach the size of suckers. If the sociological objectives under heading, A, justify the proposed experiment, we recommend that the new planting be confined to plants raised from the bulbils, and that the planting from existing suckers be limited to established plantations which will insure the largest and quickest returns.

      In conclusion we call attention to the fact that sisal has always been considered essentially a plantation crop. Nowhere in the world has it been successfully operated in small units. The Mexicans attempted it recently with disastrous results. Experience showed that the plants were not properly cared for; that leaves were cut too soon resulting in the early death of the plant, and that replanting was not effectively done. We ourselves have always urged our labor to plant sisal in fields adjoining our plantation and bring us the leaves to decorticate. They have never done so, much preferring to receive their cash wages each week, to waiting three years for a problematical project.

La Plantation Dauphin S.A.
Signed Andre de Coppet
Signed: April 2, 1942


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