Haiti Turns to Slow Food to Speed Up Agricultural Recovery - OZY | A Modern Media Company
A man waters lemon trees at the Lime Nursery and Grafting Project in Mirebalais, in the central plateau of Haiti.
SourceHECTOR RETAMAL/Getty

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Producers of rum and cocoa alike are joining a global movement that emphasizes natural, local produce, to revive fading food cultures. 

By Jewel Fraser

Across Haiti, people still talk about former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 2010 apology for American trade policies that contributed to the decimation of their country’s agriculture. By pressuring Haiti to lower tariffs in the 1990s, the U.S. flooded the country with its food products, including low-quality rice, that the local agriculture industry couldn’t compete with. But Guito Gilot isn’t looking at the past anymore.

The 50-year-old is head of business at Cap-Haïtien Cocoa Producers, aka Feccano, the country’s first cocoa cooperative focused on fair trade exports. He believes they have a fix that can help the country reclaim its agricultural self-sufficiency, thanks to a movement that began in Italy. The slow food movement originated in Rome in 1986 with a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s near the famed Spanish Steps. Until this year, Feccano has been an outlier in Haiti as part of the slow food movement, which it joined in 2006. But now, a growing number of Haitian agriculture sector groups are embracing the grassroots movement with organizational headquarters in Bra in northwest Italy, which identifies food cultures that are on the verge of disappearing, and then works with local communities to revive them. 

This year, two Haiti-based organizations — Haitian Clairin Rum Producers and the Association of the Peasants of Fondwa — signed up with Terra Madre, a network started by the slow food movement to bring together artisanal food producers worldwide so they can support one another. The Florida-based Haitian Education Project (HEP), a nonprofit devoted to building Haiti’s self-sufficiency through education and agriculture, also reached out to the slow food movement’s head office in Italy in February this year and signed up soon after. 

You need to teach the Haitian population again how to be self-reliant.

Linda Tavernier-Almada, Haitian Education Project

July saw the birth of the first four local slow food chapters in Haiti — in Port-au-Prince, Fort-Liberté, Pétion-Ville and Cap-Haïtien. A fifth one came up in Limonade in August. Five delegates from Haiti attended the annual Terra Madre conclave in Turin in September. These organizations are counting on lessons from the global movement to rebuild confidence and introduce strategies that can help Haitian farmers revive local produce — with pride.

“One of the biggest challenges … is to change how decimated the Haitian population thinks,” says Linda Tavernier-Almada, HEP’s director of education. “You need to teach the Haitian population again how to be self-reliant, how to create a product that is wholesome [and] healthier.”

 

From the protest against a single McDonald’s, slow food has itself grown significantly and today involves community groups in more than 150 countries, says the movement’s program director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Andrea Amato. But few countries in recent decades have needed a revival from agricultural devastation on the scale of Haiti. Three decades ago, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice, and the U.N. estimates it had enough to export. But the U.S. and other international lenders forced it to dramatically lower tariffs meant to protect local farmers, from 50 percent to 3 percent. The result? Haiti today imports 80 percent of its rice.

It’s a crisis that Clinton acknowledged before a Senate committee in 2010 after a massive earthquake killed more than 100,000 in Haiti, leaving a trail of a destruction in what was already the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake,” Clinton conceded. “I had to live every day with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did.”

hep terra madre

Touching base with the slow food movement’s roots, members of the Haitian Education Project visit the Terra Madre conclave in Turin, Italy, in September.

Source HEP

Slow food’s global network could help Haiti recover, say Gilot and his peers who are embracing the movement. Amato, the movement’s regional program director, points to international events they hold dedicated to specific products, where producers from different parts of the world can network and learn from each other. “We have 30-plus years of experience worldwide in giving value to local, traditional products, so we can apply there some of the lessons we learned in other countries,” says Amato.

Haitian producers of clairin, the country’s traditional artisanal rum, are among those counting on the slow food movement to keep the momentum their product currently enjoys on the international market going, as well as consolidate their position in the niche market. Michel Sajous, who manages a family business with around 50 employees growing sugar cane on 30 hectares in Saint Michel de L’Attalaye, explains how their product, Clairin Sajous, uses a fermented syrup made from cane juice. It’s a painstaking process. The crystalline juice from pure organic cane ferments naturally for eight to 15 days. “The wort is then heated with fire fed with bagasse residue from the crushed canes,” he says. The liquid then undergoes traditional distillation, resulting in a rum that has 55–60 percent alcohol. The slow food movement is working with the Haitian Clairin Rum Producers group to develop a production protocol that “distinguishes the real traditional clairin made with local sugar cane from the industrial one,” says Amato. The partnership with the Terra Madre network can help “hundreds of small clairin producers that are in danger of disappearing,” says Sajous.

hep slow food

The Turin visit reinforced the Haitian Education Project’s belief that locally sourced food can help Haitian farmers get back on their feet.

Source HEP

Some experts suggest caution. Rose Koenig, the lead principal investigator on a University of Florida project known as Area that focuses on Haitian agriculture, says it may be unwise to place too much reliance on just one strategy for reviving Haiti’s agriculture. “There is not one entity that can solve any country’s problems. Everything just helps to contribute,” she says. Stressing that she is not commenting specifically on slow food, she adds that what Haiti’s agriculture needs is to strengthen its own institutions to help entrepreneurs. “Typically, strong institutions drive change,” she says. 

But there are tangential gains too that Haiti’s new recruits are eyeing. In a country notorious for corruption — Haiti ranks 157 out 180 in Transparency International’s latest corruption perceptions index — and where an elite keeps a tight grip over its resources, international partners are useful for small groups, suggests Feccano’s Gilot. “For a grassroots organization like Feccano, developing global partners strengthens us a bit,” he says. Feccano’s eco-certified and Fair Trade–certified tropical fruit- and mint-flavored cocoa bean is grown by about 4,200 small farmers without the use of machinery or artificial irrigation, Gilot says. The beans are sold in Europe and the Caribbean. The HEP, which aims to help young Haitians learn how agriculture can empower them, believes an alliance with slow food can “help reinforce what we are trying to do in Haiti,” says Laude Saint-Preux, president of HEP.

To Sajous, the partnership with the slow food movement makes sense at a very fundamental level for a country like Haiti, which prizes traditional food cultivation methods. The movement’s philosophy agrees “with our manner of cultivation and production,” he says. “And [with] our way of life in general.”

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