Coffee growing on Hispaniola

by JulieCraves on April 12, 2008

The two nations of the island of Hispaniola — the Dominican Republic (DR) and Haiti — tend to be forgotten lands in the minds of U.S. coffee drinkers. Each country has a long history of coffee growing, as well as periods of political and social turmoil. Both are working on improving their coffee quality and thus their market share of specialty coffee. And this is a land of full of unique biodiversity, where sustainable agriculture is critically important to the environment and the people. Let’s take a look at our Caribbean neighbors.

Geography
Haiti is the smaller country in the western third of Hispaniola, the DR occupies the eastern two-thirds. There are four major mountain ranges on the island where nearly all coffee is grown. From north to south and west to east, they are:

  • Cordillera Septentrional or Northern Range in the DR. Highest peak is 1250 m.
  • The Massif du Nord or Northern Range in Haiti continues across the border into the DR, where it is called the Cordillera Central or Sierra del Cibao. The highest peak (also the highest point on the island and in the West Indies) is Pico Duarte in the DR at 3100 m.
  • Haiti’s Montagnes Noires, Chaîne des Matheux, and Montagnes du Trou d’Eau continue into the DR as Sierra de Neyba or Neiba. The highest peaks are around 2280 m.
  • The two main highlands of the mountainous southern peninsula of Haiti are the Massif de la Hotte and the Massif de la Selle or Chaîne de la Selle, which extends into the DR as the Sierra de Bahoruco or Baoruco. In Haiti the highest peak is Pic la Selle at 2680 m (also Haiti’s highest point). The high point in the DR is 2300 m. The DR portion of this
    range includes the island’s largest tract of intact pine and broadleaf forest.

Biodiversity
Like many other Caribbean islands, Hispaniola is rich in species found nowhere else on earth. Over 1800 species of vascular plants are endemic, and there are nearly 200 endemic species of reptiles and amphibians. There are 30 species of endemic birds (six are endemic genera) on the island, and seven are threatened.  This includes the critically endangered Ridgway’s Hawk, now extirpated from Haiti and precariously hanging on in the DR. The entire island has been designated an Endemic Bird Area by BirdLife International.

In addition, Hispaniola is a critical wintering and stopover site for migrant birds that breed in North America. It was concerns about declining populations of these species (about half of all species that nest in North America) which kicked off the whole shade coffee movement. In particular, Hispaniola is crucial for the vulnerable Bicknell’s Thrush; 90% of the population winters there (right, courtesy Environment Canada).

All of the restricted-range bird species on the island are forest birds, as are many of the migrants. About 28% of DR is forested. In the 1970s, the DR began to seriously work on preserving habitat on the island, and deforestation rates have slowed. There are now 88 protected areas in the DR, but they face continued threats from logging, agriculture, and other encroachment.

The situation in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, is much more grim. The country suffers from extreme deforestation, and only about 1 to 3% of Haiti’s forest remains. The photo below, from NASA, dramatically shows the devastation of Haiti’s forests right up to the DR border.

I cannot emphasize enough how desperate the situation is in Haiti: for biodiversity, and for its people. I urge you to take a look at the following resources:

Sustainable agroforestry is important in the DR, and may be one of the only hopes to help stem the environmental crisis in Haiti. Coffee can play a key role.

The Coffee
Three of the four highlands are underlain with limestone; the Cordillera Central is granite-based. These soils are said to give coffees from the island a taste distinctive from that of coffees grown in volcanic soils such as those from Central America; the composition is different, and limestone in particular is not as acidic. Hispaniola doesn’t have well-defined dry and rainy seasons, so coffee has a long growing season with multiple harvests. It also ripens slowly, which is often credited with more flavorful beans.

Nearly all of the coffee on the island is typica; the DR also grows small amounts of caturra or other types. It is grown almost exclusively by small holders. In the DR, there are about 60,000 coffee growers, and 80% of them farm coffee on plots that are smaller than 3 ha. In Haiti, coffee is essentially a garden crop.  As such, coffee from the island is almost entirely passive or certified organic.  In the DR, coffee is grown under mixed shade. In Haiti, it is also shade-grown, but the shade is more often provided by fruit and food crops that can be used by the farmer.

DR coffees are washed, or wet processed. In contrast, Haiti’s coffees have traditionally been dry processed naturals. In fact, Haitians remove the pulp from completely dried cherries with the aid of a mortar and pestle; this is called café pilé. Haiti is now moving to washed coffees for export (see below).

Historically, DR coffee was consumed domestically. In Haiti, what was exported went mostly to France and Italy. Overall, there were quality problems. Quality issues have been tied mostly to processing and handling. Examples include mixing coffee from different altitudes, too many defects and unripes, and fermentation due to coffee not being dried long  enough before being bagged (sometimes in plastic bags in humid conditions).

Specialty coffee revival
DR coffee goes by many names. “Santo Domingo” is common, but coffee may be labeled corresponding with the six official growing regions. Four are within highlands that are part of the Cordillera Central: Cibao, Azua, Ocoa, and Bani. Barahona is in the southwestern portion of the country, near the town of the same name. Juncalito is in Santiago province in the north-central part of the country, and Bani is on the south-central coast. DR coffee can still be hard to find in the U.S. due to a strong domestic and tourist market. But recent efforts by the Dominican Specialty Coffee Association (ADOCAFES) and other organizations has resulted in a huge increase in specialty exports in the last several years.

Haiti has gone a big step further to distinguish its coffee. In order to help struggling farmers, international donors, including USAID, began a major effort to rejuvenate Haiti’s coffee industry and help it enter the specialty coffee market with the development of the Haitian Bleu brand, conceived in the mid-1990s. Washing and processing stations were constructed, and training and support services established to help the conversion to high quality washed coffee. Over 25000 farmers in 40 cooperatives came together to form the Fédération Des Associations Caféières Natives, known as just Caféières Natives, or FACN, which is  Fair Trade certified. FACN chooses a particular mix of zero-defect beans from microclimates in areas ranging from 800 to 1400 meters to produce a  characteristic coffee branded as Haitian Bleu. This coffee is only sold via multi-year contracts to a limited number of exclusive distributors who not allowed to resell the green beans. The Haitian Bleu project initially suffered some growing pains, but since 2001 has shown increased success. For a country with such desperate poverty,
this is extremely important.

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More to come!

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Revised on August 20, 2015

Posted in Coffee regions

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