Voices from Haiti
Bologna-Frankfurt-Miami-Port-au-Prince, Port de Paix, these are the stages of the journey that brought four young men from the Pascucci Company of Montebello amongst the farmers of the Cocano cooperative in Haiti. Eddy, Samuele and Fabio, three very different people and with totally different “life” experiences united by their work and by an experience they will remember forever.
E: The main purpose of the trip was to try to find a solution to some problems that had occurred in previous years of collaboration with the Cocano cooperative.
F: We’re talking about issues mostly related to the quality of the coffee plantations that came from Haiti. Then a number of small problems due to latent organisation and paradoxically to a lack of knowledge of the dynamics of a cooperative. I say “paradoxically” because one of our tasks was to explain to the cooperative’s governing bodies what being a cooperative actually means.
S: A further aim was to survey members of the Cocano cooperative.
F: Before leaving we had designed a simple but very important tool. Nothing fancy, just a sign illustrating flaws in the coffee, and images of the coffee that had arrived to us up until today and instead how we would have wanted it to be. We have left one in every plantation. What we did at each meeting was to explain that “we were not happy” with the coffee arriving in Italy and pick up issues related to growing, harvesting and decorticating of coffee. After listening to the farmers we tried to understand how we could help them to obtain a product that was close to perfection. I attended lectures on botany and agronomy that hardly could be found in Italian universities.
E: Along with Samuel Girolomoni of the Montebello Cooperative, we tried to give more ideas for possible interventions in the plantation with more natural products to combat the various bacteria and insects that might attack the coffee plants, but also for fertilisation and “new” sowing. A real problem, like many Haitian coffee buyers well know, is that this population has been forced by their governments, as a result of political instability and the embargo by the United States immediately following the revolution against Duvalier, to destroy the coffee plants in order to address the problem of food and poverty. Coffee cannot be eaten but a banana or a coconut can! Also, if there is political instability in a country, consuming countries are afraid to buy and trigger the usual mechanisms that lead to the collapse in commodity prices.
S: Amongst other things we went to Haiti to make them understand that we are willing to support them and we would like the rapport to be “happy” and long lasting.
F: One needs to make a distinction between the situation in the city and rural areas. To understand the situation in the city take for example what we see on television. For once the media delivers a realistic picture. Much aid was sent following the earthquake, but very little or nothing has been achieved. However, I do not want to go into detail regarding what has happened to all that money. One thing is certain: we must invest in productive activities and provide training, training, training. In this way the Haitians and their children will be able to eat in the same way today and in the future.
S: The key difference between rural and city dwellers is the people’s serenity. In the city there are young men of about twenty years of age, who do not know what to live on, there are open dumps, excrement puddles in the street, people covered in dust, cholera and other diseases. There are people who have no desire to smile. In rural areas, there are farmers that live of what the land produces, they share their resources and are loyal to one another, they live in a community and have smiles on their lips. I’m not sure what I have just said is the reality but this is what I felt in those ten days in Haiti.
E: Despite all this, the population is keen to welcome you, colourful and full of rhythm, ready to receive your real help because in any case practical help is much and effective. But in such an extensive country it seems to be a drop in the ocean. But the ocean is made of drops, and we are trying to add our own, together with the Diocese of Port de Paix, together with its inhabitants, together with the Girolomoni family, the Pascucci family and all collaborators, customers who orientate the choice towards the Haitian product and the Haitian farmers that work the land every day.
F: Definitely their dignity and pride. Their long silences, and their eyes which seem to say: “Yes, I’m Haitian and I am proud. We are a population that has been through a very bad time, but we never give up and we hold our heads high. We are more than that which we possess”. For me this is fantastic… it is what I wish I could say about myself.
E: I was struck by their faith, and above all their spirituality. The times of prayer together made me feel good. I would like to emphasise that prayer in Haiti marks the beginning and end of every opportunity to get together, be it a business meeting or lunch or dinner. They always thank the Lord, and specifically do not ask for anything, they give thanks.
S: Of course their hospitality. If you win their confidence, what little they have is also yours.
F: I have no doubt, mistrust. If we do not consider the farmers who hosted us the rest of us looked at us with suspicion. It was us, with our white skin, the foreigners, we had to protect ourselves from the strange stares, we were the intruders. However, I was not bothered, it just made me very sad. This means that white man has made many mistakes, as history has taught us.
E: The Haitian population has always been betrayed by white man. We were good at giving hope, exposing ourselves as the messiah, explaining that our missions were humanitarian and not moved by profit. But then dozens and dozens of times when we left there was nothing to gain. And the signs of what I’m saying are not only evident in the indigenous people but also in the places we visited.
S: At La Croix there is a coffee washing plant which never became operational at the hands of Japanese investors. Or there are stores with machines for the skinning of dried fruit which have become rusty and are unused. There are warehouses for the storage of coffee which were never used. All this in one plantation. Imagine how many like structures are present throughout Haiti!
F-E-S: The days spent in Haiti have been very uneven and are difficult to articulate into the phases of a typical day. We can only say that when we were hosted by the diocese, the tendency was to wake up early to get to the plantation where we had a meeting with the farmers. After the meeting we went home. On the other hand when we were staying with the farmers we participated in Church celebrations and other community gatherings. For example, some wonderful moments were experienced in the evening prior to going to sleep. The full moon’s light accompanied conversation before going to sleep.
F: We were at a meeting with the farmers of plantation Jaine Claire. Our seats were in front of the audience of farmers, we were seated side by side. At one point, a farmer gets up and begins to speak his language, Creole, a sort of French. The interpreter tells us that the peasant farmers wanted to sing a song for us to thank us. They begin to sing in chorus, standing, with no background music. Elderly, women and children. I shuddered, a tear drops on my cheek. I turn right and then left and I see the touched faces of my fellow travelers. At that moment I thought they were giving us the greatest gift they could give to “whites”. They were giving us their respect.
E: We headed down to Gaspard, on the second last day, after about an hour of walking in the scorching afternoon’s sun, the president of the Cocano cooperative, Sem Il Fort, after having shown us his home along the road, stops under a lime tree, planted by him years ago along the trail. He tells us “… I planted this tree, for the people of my land, so that on their way to and from the work fields they could find shade and comfort, to dry their sweat and rest. The Lord wanted this tree to grow strong and healthy, with broad leaves and juicy fruits. A tangible sign of his presence.”
S: We arrived at the plantation in the late afternoon tired and sweaty, after a three-hour walk under the scorching sun. They prepared the “showers”. There are two large containers inside a small room in its natural state. In one there is clean water, the other is empty. We take the soap and begin washing with cold water, then we soap ourselves and lastly we rinse the soap out by running the dirty water in the empty container. The strangest shower I have ever had in my life. We’re talking about a “shower” for guests. They generally wash in the river. This also enables you to understand a Haitians concept of hospitality.
Why are Pascucci and Montebello able to maintain a direct relationship with farmers whilst many other large multinational and coffee producers had to leave?
F: I think it is because the two companies are a bit unusual. Please note that to date the Pascucci company has not yet reached break even point in its investment and frankly it is impossible to determine whether they will. Montebello actually is not involved in coffee, except for the distribution of Pascucci in its circuits. The “large” multinationals before proceeding with this type of collaboration do their accounts and if they understand it will be difficult to earn, collect their equipment and their good intentions and leave.
S: People make the difference. Not to rise above other professionals, but we’ve moved on foot for the most of our adventure in trails only 40 centimetres wide with forest all around. Other companies would have taken a helicopter and they would have abandoned their original idea. We slept with them, others would have returned to their hotels in the capital. These are just two simple examples that explain why the relationship we established is so special.
E: Projects must be humble, within the local population’s reach. Pascucci and Montebello have created a project in light of real possibilities of the land, the population, without attempting the impossible, step by step. Diane’s contribution has been fundamental, a result of strong dedication and unique love, taking the farmers by hand in an unknown land and created a humble but concrete project, which today amongst so many difficulties is however growing.
F: Investment in equipment and stores that allow for a better quality of coffee is needed but it is also necessary to do a lot of training.
S: Haitian farmers need to understand how to get organised, how to divide tasks, how to keep accounts and how to reinvest the proceeds of the sale of extra coffee. The end result should be to ensure that the cooperative is self-sustaining.
E: We must continue to believe in solidarity, in land and in men.