It is said that coffee cultivation was first introduced to Haiti in 1715, one of the earliest entries of coffee into the Americas. But these plants might not have taken, and later been replaced by those brought by Gabriel de Clieu in 1720-25. The story of de Clieu’s introduction of coffee comes from his account in the “Année littéraire” of 1774, after first planting coffee on the French-run colony on Martinique.
Haiti became the major coffee-producing region of not only the Americas, but the world, at times supplying up to 60% of the coffee traded globally! But through cycles of booms and busts, hurricanes, plant disease, earthquakes and the fickle fate of global trade, Haiti now produces a very small amount of coffee compared to its historic highs. Much coffee grown in Haiti is consumed in Haiti. Often the picking and processing for the local coffees are not ideal, and very little Haitian coffee is currently exported. However the potential for quality still exists, to produce a clean, mild cup in the vein of the “island flavor profile” as one might find from other Caribbean nations.
The story of de Clieu’s introduction of coffee comes from his account in the Année littéraire of 1774. According to this account, he arranged to transport a coffee plant (or perhaps several) from the greenhouses of the Jardin royal des plantes (which had originally received two plants from Holland in the 1710s) to Martinique in 1720.[note 1] According to de Clieu’s account, water was rationed on the voyage, and he shared his ration with the seedlings. The story is repeated in many histories of coffee. However, a recent history points out that though it may well be true that de Clieu brought a seedling to Martinique, and perhaps even that he shared his water ration with it, coffee was already growing in the Western Hemisphere: in the French colony of Saint-Domingue since 1715 and in the Dutch colony of Surinam since 1718.
The conditions that the slaves worked in on coffee plantations were a factor in the soon to follow Haitian Revolution that broke out in 1791. By 1801, most plantations were burnt down. Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture attempted to revive the production that declined 45% from 1789 levels and instituted a fermage system, similar to serfdom; confined to state-owned plantations. However, when Napoleon began to send troops between 1801–1803 in a failed attempt to regain the territory, the coffee plantations were again abandoned. When learning of the final defeat of his troops in 1803, Napoleon angrily shouted, “Damn coffee!” Damn colonies!”.
In 1920, Vice President of the National City Bank, John H. Allen, wrote about Haiti in “The Americas” and said:
Up to two years ago, Haitian coffee was never wanted in this market, whereas in Europe it was in strong demand. Recently, a demand has developed here for this excellent grade of coffee, which when properly prepared, is superior to the majority of other grades.
Coffee production has been hurt by natural disasters, as well as United States-led embargoes against the governments of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier. Duvalier’s dictatorship made it so that the coffee farmers of Haiti were too afraid to come down from the mountains to sell their crops. The machinery began to rust and the skills needed to harvest the coffee trees were lost in the generations. Following the movement away from Haitian coffee production, Brazil moved in and took control of the world coffee market.
With brief comebacks in 1850 where coffee was a major export of Haiti, or in 1949 when it rose to the world’s third major producer, the market has continued to go through continuous boom and bust cycles. Haiti’s coffee competitiveness suffered internationally. The continuous shifts in the coffee market lead to Haitians burning their coffee trees in order to make charcoal, hoping that would improve economic wealth. When Haiti was a main world contributor of coffee, 80 percent of the labour force was involved in agriculture. In the 1980s the percent of the population that was involved in agriculture dropped to 66. Those who were not involved in the agricultural aspect of the crop still took part in the production of coffee through marketing, or being middlemen or exporters.
In the 21st century, agriculture was penalized due to difficult climatic conditions. Haiti has suffered from soil erosion as well as deforestation, which affect the growth of coffee crops. In addition to ongoing cycles of floods and droughts, Haiti has been the victim of many natural disasters. In 2010, Haiti was hit by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that left the country in desolation and played a big role in the decrease of coffee production.
However, the continual rise in demand has eased Haiti back into the world coffee scene through the implementation of fair trade policies that have contributed to its attempt at restoration. The profile of Haitian coffee has grown and has been advantageous for small-scale Haitian farmers as specialty coffee has drawn the attention of a growing trend of socially-aware western consumers receiving a premium on the world market stage adopting strategies that has heightened its value, such as origin-labeling, high quality differentiation techniques such as fair trade, gourmet, and organic, in order to meet these demands and capitalizing on their higher willingness to pay.