The reason why people are surprised that we have an Haitian coffee on our menu is mainly because they are unaware of Haiti’s producing and exporting prosperous past. Although there are multiple reasons for this discrepancy in Haiti’s coffee popularity over the last two centuries, France and the United States certainly have a major role to play (See part 1 and 2 for context).
Political and economic instability are unfortunately not the only reason for Haiti’s coffee popularity declining; large-scale deforestation detrimentally affected the survival and production of the sought-after arabica typica. Ironically, the few remaining virgin forests are kept for the provision of shade which is necessary for the protection of coffee trees.
Early in the colonial period, a lot of Saint-Domingue’s forests were cleared to make way for plantation crops such as sugar and coffee which required the majority of the land. During that period, coffee was cultivated according to the French colonizers’ methods of production which meant it grew well, but it was not optimal; just like other crops, plantation owners would grow coffee in the plains in full sun. It was not until after Haiti’s independence in 1804 that traditional African knowledge was applied to coffee production. Considering that the French colony relied on the constant influx of abducted Africans for labour, approximately ⅔ of Saint-Domingue’s population was born on the African continent. This meant that after their self-liberation, many Haitians knew how to grow coffee according to African customs and thus began cultivating it in the shade as opposed to in full sun.
Although Haitians could now grow their own coffee, racist landowners refused to sell valuable plots of lands in the plains as they were more auspicious for sugar production which led a lot of Black proprietors to buy lands in the mountains as they were considered undesirable. Because coffee would grow well in altitude, it allowed many to start cultivating their own coffee in the mountains. Unfortunately, the necessity for shade-providing trees for the cultivation of coffee did not save them from logging due to the commercial exploitation of wood products such as indigo. Although the cleared lands were usually at sea level, economic pressure put on low income farmers led to also cutting down trees on the mountainside to make charcoal and sell at local markets to make ends meet, or to replace by subsistence crops, particularly during the brutal Duvalier regime and the numerous embargos.
When considering the impact of economic and political turmoil as well as the ecological context of the last two centuries it is no wonder why Haitian coffee went from being the most exported and most coveted by European consumers to a predominantly domestic commodity. In fact, in 2010, 64 % of Haiti’s coffee production was for domestic consumption and another 28% was for informal trade with the Dominican Republic. This decline in coffee exports is also due to the difficulty of growing the crop on lands with minimal shade.
According to The World Bank, Haiti has less than 1.5 % of its land under tree cover which is almost exclusively in the areas of coffee production. This implies that the remaining trees depend on coffee for their survival and coffee trees depend on the shade providing forests.
Moreover, deforestation amplifies the effects of climate change; Haiti is much more vulnerable to natural disasters than its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Because the Dominican Republic has 28.4 % of its land under tree cover, it is significantly less affected by earthquakes, tropical storms, mudslides, soil erosion and global warming. The rising temperatures are detrimental for the arabica typica variety which is what made Haiti’s distinctiveness in the eighteenth century. At that time, Haiti’s arabica stood out and was “prized for its velvety sweetness”. Although many countries now produce and export arabica typica, Haiti is still exceptional as its “coffee trees are considered to be heirloom because they are so old and untainted by modern breeding methods”.
The story goes that as the Netherlands were colonizing Indonesia, Nicolaes Witsen, the administrator of the Dutch East India Company imported coffee plants from Java which he kept at the Amsterdam Hortus Botanicus. One of these plants was gifted to Louis XIV and exhibited in the Jardin royal des plantes in Paris. This very plant was later transported by Gabriel DeClieu in the French colonies of Saint-Domingue, Martinique and Guadeloupe for its cultivation. This means that every coffee tree in Haiti originated from this one coffee plant, which is why they are considered to be heirloom; they cannot have been mixed with other varieties of coffee as it was the only one in the colony.
Unfortunately, Haiti’s arabica typica has been the victim of many devastating plant pests such as scolyte, coffee rot and root rot. In the 1980’s, an insect pest called bark beetle devastated crops and then again in 2012, orange rust destroyed 80% of the remaining coffee plants. Since then, the coveted arabica typica has been slowly replaced by more resistant varieties such as catigua and blue mountain.
All is not lost for Haitian coffee; nonprofits such as Singing Rooster understand the urgency of reforesting Haiti, not only for its coffee plants, but also as a way to lessen the impact of climate change in the nation. By choosing to invest in Haitian coffee and working alongside nonprofits on site, it benefits farmers, improves the infrastructure and ultimately produces higher quality coffee.
*all references here.
Roxanne completed her Bachelor of Arts at McGill University in December 2020 with a double major in Art History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She was a part of the team of student researchers led by Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson to uncover and document McGill’s connections to slavery. Her academic interests include Canada’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its enduring consequences and legacies as well as topics such as social justice, anti-capitalism and decolonization. IG: @why.so.corny