Haiti's Northwest Department was once a major trading center for coffee. That's what Ferdinand Louis remembers.
The raspy-voiced native of St. Louis-du-Nord was about 4 years old when he started helping his father weigh coffee for an export company. Each Wednesday and Saturday, farmers filtered down the hillsides to the big marketplace. They brought jute bags brimming with coffee beans for export, Louis recalls. Some women and children balanced the coffee on their heads. Others strapped their loads onto small horses. Back then, the fertile mountain soil blessed farmers with a bounty. One farmer alone, Louis says, could harvest 200 to 250 bags of coffee during a given season.
Haiti's coffee farming tapered off in the late 1980s when coffee prices plummeted. Amid mounting economic and political troubles, Haiti's industries took a dive. Even the factory that made the jute coffee bags has long shut down, Louis says.
Today, Louis describes life in Haiti as "misery." Hunger, joblessness and inadequate housing are everyday realities. And if that's the case throughout much of Haiti, the Northwest Department is even worse off.
It's considered the poorest section in Haiti. Without adequate roads to navigate the hilly terrain, travel is arduous for families trying to get their wares and produce to the nearest market. The Northwest Department is now a point of exit for many who risk crossing the Atlantic Ocean for a better life in the United States or nearby islands.
"There are so many difficulties in the northwest. People can't eat. They can't find jobs or go to the hospital. It's a reality," says the 48-year-old, who left Haiti at age 25 to attend college in Miami, Florida. He returned in 2000 to care for his ailing father. Selling sodas from his small store has kept him afloat.
A Coffee Revival
Despite Haiti's woes, Louis feels at home here, or in his skin, as he puts it. That's why he never gave up hope that residents in the northwest could sustain themselves by working their own land. With help from Catholic Relief Services and the Archdiocese of Miami, fair trade coffee is helping them begin to do that.
The Archdiocese of Miami is a longtime partner in helping CRS respond to major disasters throughout Latin American and the Caribbean. The archdiocese, including its lay missionary division, Amor en Acción, also has maintained a 30-year twinning relationship with the Diocese of Port-de-Paix—which covers Haiti's Northwest Department.
These Catholic ties would prove invaluable to northwest Haiti.
A few years ago, Bishop Pierre-Antoine Paulo, the bishop of Port-de-Paix, approached residents with the idea of starting a coffee cooperative. Planting coffee trees would also help renew the area's severely deforested mountains.
Msgr. Paulo had connections with a fair trade coffee company in Rome that would roast and package the coffee. Most of the area's coffee trees had been destroyed, so residents grew coffee saplings. They formed the Cafeiere et Cacouyere du Nord'Ouest (COCANO) coffee cooperative, which quickly amassed 350 members as word spread.
The idea behind fair trade coffee is to help farmers receive a fair price for what they grow.
"We tried to get the message to all the people we knew who could grow coffee for the co-op," says Louis, a fluent English speaker who oversees the co-op's international communications and operations. "We had meetings to explain how the co-op would help them. In fact, we built the co-op just for them, to get out of misery and give them a better life."
Peace, Justice, Solidarity
As part of the Archdiocese of Miami's Global Solidarity Committee, students and faculty from St. Thomas University of Miami toured the Northwest Department in the fall of 2006 seeking development programs they could support.
"We decided instead of just sending money for a hurricane let's do long-term, sustainable development. Coffee was perfect. It would revive one of the country's major crops while providing a premium product to international markets," says Anthony Vinciguerra, coordinator for St. Thomas' Center for Justice and Peace.
Vinciguerra says he knew little about fair trade coffee and turned to CRS and our partner Café Justo (Just Coffee) for guidance. In 2008, St. Thomas received a grant from the CRS Fair Trade Fund, to support the coffee co-op and further promote fair trade sales and awareness domestically. Part of the grant helped the co-op rent office space, train farmers on growing techniques and provide farmers with pay advances for their first coffee harvest.
Given southern Florida's sizable immigrant and Haitian population, Vinciguerra says, hopes are to sell fair trade coffee in parishes throughout the area. "People here really understand the issues in Haiti," he says. "There's a connection."
Infused With Hope
In Haiti, Farid Moise of CRS coordinates a number of projects that foster solidarity between dioceses in the United States and Haiti. Seeing the progression of the coffee project and the fair trade approach has given farmers an incentive to grow coffee again, Moise says.
"Now they can be sure that there will be a place for them to sell their coffee and for a fair price. They are no longer at the mercy of people who would give them a low price for their coffee," he says.
COCANO works through six parishes in the Northwest Department, where priests actively recruit coffee farmers to participate in the project.
"The fathers help give farmers more support and confidence in joining the co-op. When people see the fathers involved they will see it as good for them," says Louis.
While last year's flood disaster destroyed much of the co-op's crops, farmers shipped about 9,656 pounds of coffee to Italy earlier this year. The coffee should be packaged and ready for sale in the United States and Italy this fall, Vinciguerra says.
The cooperative hopes to send at least two shipping containers of coffee weighing more than 40,000 pounds to Italy. "We want to start the same level of production that we had in the past," says Louis. Eventually co-op members will learn how to roast and package the coffee themselves.
Luis hopes the co-op will spur economic renewal throughout the Northwest Department. He plans for the co-op to grow other export crops and branch off into community projects. For the elderly, he hopes to provide transportation and pay a portion of their medical needs.
"This is a good cooperative that will exist for the generation to come," says Louis. "They will say, 'We had some grandparents that did something good for us.' "
Kai T. Hill is an associate web producer for CRS. She works in our Baltimore headquarters.