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A look into Haiti's coffee company.

A look into Haiti's coffee economy

By Haitian standards, Emile Meance is a rich farmer.

He is 51. His wife Romaine and he have six children, three boys and three girls, ranging in age from Bertin, 21, to Samuel, 5. He owns and farms four hectares, about 10 acres, in this mountainous area almost 4,000 feet above sea level on Haiti's southern peninsula. Coffee is, or was, one of the chief crops, a money crop that used to bring in $700 to $800 a year.

"I pick it myself," he says, and strides a few yards to show visitors a coffee tree with green, yellow, orange and red beans.

This year Meance's coffee crop will bring him about $300.

By Haitian standards - and those are the standards of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, where the per capita income of more than six million people in the fiscal year which ended Sept. 30 was $370, Meance is doing all right. In addition to coffee, he grows potatoes, carrots, cabbage, yams and beans. Altogether, including his coffee, his gross income this year will be around $1,900.

That's far more than most of his neighbors in this hamlet which can be reached only by jeep over 15 miles of rough dirt-and-rock trail branching off the main road that leads from Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, 42 miles southwest to the town of Petit-Goave. Meance's relative prosperity, and his literacy in an area where he says only 10 percent of the populace knows how to read and write, has made him the elected president of Le Progres Comite Pre-coop des Palmes, French for The Progressive Pre-cooperative Committee of Les Palmes. This is a 202-member local cooperative, which now has a depot in Petit-Goave where coffee is stored awaiting transport to the warehouse outside Port-au-Prince run by Cooperatives Cafeieres d'Haiti (CCH).

CCH was founded in 1986 with funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote Haiti's nascent coop movement so that profits would devolve to the farmer, not just the middleman. USAID put $1.8 million into CCH for its building and machinery, plus $500,000 for working capital, according to Heine Desmangles, its 56-year-old executive director. The first year or so was rocky, at least in part because the Haitians then running CCH helped themselves to some funds "to build very nice houses," according to Desmangles and according to a Peat, Marwick and Mitchell audit. Desmangles took charge on Nov. 18, 1987, when 68 local cooperatives took part in CCH.

"Today we have 120 local coops in CCH with 35,000 farmers," says Desmangles. "The farmers farm anywhere from a quarter-hectare to three hectares of coffee."

CCH last year exported 16,000 60-kilo bags of Haitian Arabica coffee, putting it in eight place among all Haitian coffee exporters. The biggest exporter, Usman, shipped 43,690 bags, followed by George Weiner, 42,650, Madsen 39,410, Ets Novella 39,410, Leon O. Baptiste 28,765, Kersaint 26,250 and Denrees Haiti 25,255. Two companies smaller than CCH were also recorded in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry's report and "all others" reported 18,455 bags, so that the total coffee exoprts last year amounted to 298,300 bags or 17,893 tons of coffee.

On the world scale, this isn't a whole lot of coffee.

But in a Maryland-sized country 750 miles from Miami, coffee is vital. It is Haiti's largest cash crop and largest agricultural export. It represented $39 million in 1988, or about 17.5 percent of all Haiti's exports, according to the U.S. Embassy's latest "economic trends" report. That report shows Haiti's 1988 Gross Domestic Product amounted to $2.43 billion, exports $220 million, two thirds of which were "assembly industry" products - materials shipped from the U.S., assembled and shipped back to the U.S. duty-free.

The U.S. report says "Haitian agriculture is primary small-scale subsistence farming - about 65 percent of the people live on the land. Peasants rely on primitive techniques . . . only about 30 percent of the land is arable but over 40 percent is under cultivation with an estimated 200,000 peasants growing coffee." Desmangles says that estimate may grow coffee, says as many as 500,000 peasants may grow coffee, the main money crop.

That's why the breakdown of the London-based International Coffee Organization's quota system in July is causing such anguish throughout Haiti.

Fifty coffee exporting countries belong to the ICO, which for years regulated the price of coffee to the 24 consuming nations of North America and Europe. The quota system broke down after disagreement about how the quantity and quality of coffee sold through the quotas should be adjusted. Part of the disagreement also stemmed from U.S. demands for controls on cut-rate coffee sales to Soviet Bloc nations not members of the cartel.

The result of the dispute was that big coffee-producing nations, led by Brazil, began dumping their reserves on the newly freed market and coffee prices plunged.

Emile Meance, sitting at the little table that serves as the "restaurant" in his coop's zinc-shack headquarters here, says that last winter he was getting more than $1 a pound for his coffee. Now, he says, he gets about 40 cents a pound.

"In 1980," he recalls. "we got $1 a pound and one year when it snowed in Brazil we got $2."

Now, he says, "the coffee growers are discouraged. Many peasants who have no facility with money will store their coffee, if they can, hoping for better times. But those in debt will be obliged to sell."

Desmangles explains: "Autumn is when the peasant has to have money to send his children to school," though there are some free public schools in Haiti, the majority of schools are church-run and not free. "An exporter's agent will tell the peasant, `sell me your crop and I'll give you $15 or $50.' Sometimes the agent will buy a crop five to eight years in the future at a low price. Formerly, the agents were "Tontons Macoutes" the thugs who upheld the Duvalier regime until Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier fled in February, 1986, now they just work for the exporters. If we have a good coffee crop, it's good for the exporter, not necessarily for the peasant. That's why we organized into cooperatives."

The private exporters don't buy directly from the peasants. They buy from the agents, though they may supply financing to the agents to make loans to peasants.

The top exporter, for example, is the largest shareholder in a Haitian bank.

Desmangles says "the profit margin stays about the same for the exporter. It's the peasant who suffers when the world price drops."

One result of this price pressure is that Haitian peasants who can afford to, have turned away from growing coffee. In 1789, the year of the French Revolution when Haiti was still a French colony, Haiti exported 38,500 tons of coffee, representing 33.6 percent of the value of all Haitian exports. After the revolution of 1804, when Haiti became the second independent nation (after the U.S.) in the Western Hemisphere, coffee production fell, averaging 25,560 tons a year from 1941 through 1960, according to Jacques Barros, whose "Haiti de 804 a Nos Jours" is a kind of bible of Haitian history. Barros' book, published by Harmattan at Paris in 1984, says the average annual coffee production slipped to 21,600 tons from 1960 through 1971, reached an all-time low of 15,889 tons in 1977 and then rose slightly.

Barros also reports the land under cultivation for coffee has declined. In 1957, his book says, 200,000 hectares in Haiti were cultivated for coffee. Sixteen years later there were only 132,880 hectares under cultivation for coffee. That year production was 251 kilos per hectare, which Desmangles says is very low.

"For example," says Desmangles, "Costa Rica produces three times as much coffee as Haiti on the same amount of land and Puerto Rico produces 1,500 kilos of coffee per hectare."

The current figures are little different from the early 70's, Desmangles adds, and he ascribes some of the plight of the Haitian coffee grower to the fact that "more than half of the coffee plantations are more than 20 years old. The trees are too dense, too shaded, too badly kept."

Added to these problems, he says, is a disease, known as "houille" in French. This is a coffee rust which lately has invaded Haiti. Desmangles says 60 percent of the coffee trees in the country's northeast have been affected. The disease doesn't necessarily kill the trees, but it stunts their productivity.

"We're now begging the U.S. to help us fight it," says Desmangles. "We have no intervention from (Gen. Prosper Avril's) government. On the contrary, the government is trying to keep it secret. Some USAID technicians have told us to kill all the coffee trees now and import trees able to resist disease."

That was the USAID solution to a disease that invaded Haiti from neighboring Dominican Republic in the late 70's and began decimating Haitian pigs. Hundreds of thousands of Haitian pigs were slaughtered and USAID replaced them with pigs from Iowa and other Midwestern states. The trouble with that was that Midwestern pigs needed the care and feeding Midwestern farmers gave them, and couldn't survive as hardily as the Haitian breed had done rooting around in garbage. The Haitian pig population has not replaced itself.

Desmangles is fearful the same thing could happen to Haitian coffee. He says "Haiti is the last country selling natural coffee - no chemicals. Our main problem is productivity, our peasants don't learn how to cut branches at the right time." He points out that it takes three to five years for a new coffee tree to grow sufficiently to produce, and poor peasants can't afford the luxury of that time.

Desmangles, a former union leader who was in exile in Europe for 13 years until he returned to Port-au-Prince as an executive in a French bank in 1975, says he's hopeful that CCH can make a $100,00 profit this year, which would be pro-rated to the local cooperatives and then to their members. He knows he's got a hard road ahead, but notes that in Costa Rica 40 percent of the coffee output is handled by cooperatives.

USAID officials say Haitian coffee, which one points out has "a special aroma and flavor," had an ICO quota of 423,000 bags for many years, a quota that was reduced last year to 363,000 bags. About 60 percent of the total coffee crop was exported, they say, with the rest used in Haiti.

Italy was the single largest buyer of Haitian coffee, taking more than a quarter of the amount exported. Belgium was second, taking almost a quarter, followed by France and then the U.S. Altogether, the four nations accounted for 83 percent of Haitian coffee exports.

Many years during the Duvalier regime, Desmangles and USAID officials agree, Haiti didn't produce enough coffee to meet its export quota and the Duvalier regime "sold" a part of the quota to the Dominican Republic's producers and sometimes, even, to Colombian producers. The Dominican producers, who exceeded the Dominican quota often, would bring their bagged coffee to a Haitian port, pay the 24 percent Haitian export tax now abolished and have quota stamps sent from Haiti's Central Bank affixed to their coffee, making it appear to be Haitian.

Much of that high-level maneuvering is beyond farmer Emile Meance in Les Palmes, where the Catholic Church, its new clinic, a few shacks and the coop's headquarters comprise the entire village. Meance says CCH has taught him accounting and "we now have five account books whereas at the start we had only one." His wife runs the restaurant at the local coop and charges two or three gourdes (a gourde equals 20 cents) for lunch, "though we may charge a poor man only one gourde." The coop makes a little money on the restaurant, its bakery, its butcher shop and the goods painfully carried into the mountains by donkey or on men's backs and heads. Indeed, some men are paid four or five gourdes to carry a bag of coffee 15 miles to Petit-Goave to the coop's depot, after which a CCH truck picks up the coffee as part of its arrangement with the local cooperative.

William Steif is a freelance writer based in St. Croix and currently Columbia, S. Carolina, where he is awaiting the rebuilding of his St. Croix house after Hurricane Hugo hit the islands.

PHOTO : Rear courtyard of Les Palmes cooperative where coffee beans are sorted and extraneous material is removed. Emile Meance (with hat) stands at right.

PHOTO : Meance and wife, Romaine, at entrance to zinc-shack headquarters of Les Palmes' coffee cooperative. With them are three of their children.

PHOTO : Women and donkey carry supplies up "road" from Petit-Goave to Les Palmes, a distance of 15 miles. This is the normal supply route.

PHOTO : Porter named Lison, his only name, he says, carries 60-kilo bag of coffee beans on 15-mile road from Les Palmes to town of Petit-Goave on coast. His pay is about $1 for day's work.

PHOTO : Employee of Mrs. Antenor Clervaux, agent for coffee exporters, holds bag of coffee beans on front porch of Mrs. Clervaux's home near Petit-Goave. Coffee's stored on front porch.
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Author:Steif, William
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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