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Connecting Cotton and Trees Signals New Hope for Farmers in Haiti

The reintroduction of cotton to Haiti began with seeds planted in SFA field trials by (left to right) Thony
Thomas, smallholder farmer; Atlanta McIlraith, Timberland; Pierre Marie Du Mény, Haitian Minister of
Commerce and Industry; Hugh Locke, SFA; Timote Georges, SFA; Nerlande Dautarn, smallholder farmer;
Rémillot Léveillé, noted agronomist who is known as the “father of cotton” in Haiti. The tree seedlings,
transplanted elsewhere after this ceremony, symbolize the unique connection being made between trees
and cotton in the SFA model. Photo credit: SFA/Thomas Noreille.

Cotton is back in Haiti after a 30-year absence, having once been the country's fourth largest agricultural export. Global outdoor lifestyle brand Timberland, the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) and Haiti's Minister of Commerce and Industry, Pierre Marie Du Mény, have together announced the reintroduction of cotton as an anchor crop to help revitalize farming, boost the economy and contribute to environmental restoration through being linked to tree planting.

The difference between 30 years ago and this time around is that cotton will be tree-financed. Smallholder farmers will plant trees to earn cotton seed, agricultural training and tools. Tree planting in this severely deforested country will also qualify farmers to sell to Timberland, which has committed to purchasing up to one third of its annual global cotton purchase from Haiti, subject to price, quality and volume. Within 5 years, the net impact is projected to be 34,000 farmers (husband and wife working together on 17,000 farms) united as owner-operators of a network of new social businesses that will more than double their current income and result in a minimum of 25 million trees being planted. This new model will also increase the yields of food crops grown for local consumption and provide targeted support to empower women farmers through micro loans, business training and leadership opportunities.

Haitian smallholder farmers Nerlande Dautarn (left) and Thony Thomas prepare to plant cotton seeds
as part of the SFA field trials to test several varieties of cotton prior to widespread cultivation. Photo
credit: SFA/Thomas Noreille.
The announcement of cotton’s return was marked by the planting of seeds as part of the SFA cotton trials near Gonaives, Haiti, of varieties from Brazil, India, and the U.S., along with one Haitian type still grown here in garden plots. The varieties that adapt best to local conditions, organic cultivation and result in the highest quality cotton will be introduced next summer for cultivation in volume by smallholder farmers.

“On behalf of the Haitian people I want to thank Timberland and the Smallholder Farmers Alliance for bringing cotton back to Haiti,” said Minister Du Mény, “This is a big opportunity for the country and the people of Haiti. It will make smallholders more profitable, create more jobs and help the economy to grow.”

The story of cotton returning to Haiti began as a story about trees.

It started in 2010 when Timberland sponsored the planting of 5 million trees in Haiti over 5 years through the SFA. “Thousands of smallholders earned better grain and vegetable seeds, farm tools, training and other services by growing and planting close to 6.5 million trees to date,” said Timberland’s Atlanta McIlwraith. “The next chapter in this story follows on from a feasibility study which determined that it makes sense to reintroduce cotton to Haiti, and Timberland now aims to evolve its role from being a sponsor to becoming a customer for organic cotton grown by SFA members.” 

SFA field trial site near Gonaives, Haiti, where varieties of cotton seed from Brazil, India, the U.S. and
Haiti are being grown to determine which are best suited for widespread cultivation.
Building on its original agroforestry model linking agriculture and tree planting, the SFA is scaling up by adding a network of farm cooperatives that will be part of a new supply chain that will exclusively serve smallholder farmers and connect them to both local and global markets. Smallholders will have access to services including exporting, marketing, financing, processing, organic certification, agricultural research, data management and other forms of support normally available only to industrial-scale farmers. 

Among the many partnerships the SFA has forged to provide these expanded smallholder services is one with the Swiss-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), a global leader in the field of organic agriculture research. Drawing on their expertise in smallholder cotton production, FiBL is advising the SFA on its field trials and will be providing ongoing technical and training assistance. 

“Our new social business supply chain will blend public and private funding to incubate new farmer-owned-and-operated business enterprises,” said Hugh Locke of the SFA, “With a modicum of strategic assistance, smallholders have the capacity to become a self-financed force to combat climate change, improve food security and empower women. There are a million smallholder farms in Haiti and 500 million throughout the developing world… the potential is staggering.”

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