Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Coffee: from Mexico to Vanuatu to Haiti

by F2F volunteer Arthur Bassett

Working with coffee has taken me to visit and learn about cultures throughout the world. Recently with Partners of the Americas Farmer-to-Farmer program, I went to learn about coffee in northern Haiti and the experiences of the coffee farmers there. For the last 10 years I have been working with Café Justo, a cooperative based in Mexico that sells its coffee in the United States. Using my knowledge about Mexican coffees, I was selected to serve in Peace Corps Vanuatu in their coffee development program. My life is a journey to learn about coffee farming.

Haiti coffee has been grown for many years but due to political crisis and other factors the production has been declining. In 2013-14 the production was 10,000 bags, Mexico and Central America offer 1/5 of world production at 1.1 million bags (USDA, Coffee World Markets and Trade, 2014).
Gonzalez, A. (2015, March 25). Seattle Times.
Retrieved from http://old.seattletimes.com/flatpages/nationworld/haiti-shaky-recovery-part-3-earthquake-five-years-later.html?cmpid=2628

So how can the coffee production be increased? Well if only things were so simple… Working extensively in Central America and Mexico, many farmers are currently concerned about “roya” or “coffee rust.” Surprisingly this epidemic has not reached Haiti in these proportions. Rust is evident in Haiti especially in areas where the trees are unhealthy due to too much shade and lack of pruning or too many limbs. In Haiti the coffee struggle comes from lack of resources and support. Throughout Haiti there is no running or plumbed water and so many people spend a lot of time carrying water on their heads from the ground pumps in villages. What are the farmers saying? Women working with coffee say that the credit that they need to run a coffee farm is not enough to actually be effective for their business. Farmers were in need of improved infrastructure and supplies like depulpers and drying areas. Farmers there also talked about a dark time when coffee trees were used to make charcoal. This has changed and now there are nurseries run by the coops and the government to boost coffee production once again but scars on the hillsides still remain as a reminder that deforestation is not too far away. 

This trip reminded me of my Peace Corps experience in Vanuatu, a group of islands in the South Pacific. In Vanuatu, people depended on local agriculture for food and income. Inspecting a farm you would find that the coffee is put in areas where it there is space but not necessarily straight rows of plants perfectly spaced out. Haiti was similar. Not every coffee farm is the same. Some farmers plant subsistence crops like fruit and timber in addition to coffee, while coffee plantations focus purely on coffee production. During our stay in Haiti, a category 5 Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu and now that country is struggling to rebuild its coffee production.


Hope is in the air in Haiti. The graph above shows a slight rise in production in the past few years. Companies like Haiti Coffee and Singing Rooster have been recruiting customers and providing Haitian coffee farmers with direct feedback. This year the government held the first cooperative coffee competition with cuppings and awards going to the best quality cupper and coffee from Haiti. Colombia has come to the aid of Haiti and provided some of its Arabica varieties (Tabi and Castillo) that should be resistant to pests and disease. Our host for this trip, Makouti, provided excellent staff to teach our group as well as local Haitians about Haiti coffee. Makouti had the community connections to help our Farmer-to-Farmer team meet with farmers to discuss issues like cupping, business development, gender issues, plantation techniques and post-harvest storage methods as well. Makouti will be carrying these ideas out to the villages and I was glad to have this opportunity to come and volunteer with Makouti and Farmer-to-Farmer.

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