Centuries of Earthquakes in Haiti

After independence in 1791, Haiti experienced a series of social quakes throughout the 20th century as political, social, economic and environmental factors shook many farmers from the land. Large, landless populations congregated in cities, straining the infrastructure. Much of the land and power in Haiti fell into the hands of a few. The decline of the rural economy undermined Haiti's capacity to feed itself. The nation found itself struggling and vulnerable.

After the 2010 earthquake shook Haiti, overcrowding in Port-au-Prince led to lethal conditions. The news focused on suffering in the rubble-filled city, and very little was reported about rural Haiti. Many people do not think of the lush green, mountainous landscape when they think of Haiti, which is, in fact, more mountainous than Switzerland. The verdant alpine land, ideally suited to the growth of valuable altitude coffee beans, is just one of Haiti's assets that could unlock economic independence and stability for its people.

I founded my company, Laughing Man Coffee & Tea, as a for-profit business focused on forming cooperative partnerships with small farmers in the developing world. For the upcoming fifth anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, Laughing Man Coffee & Tea wanted to feature products that would draw attention to Haitian farmers. We also wanted to find a way of connecting to Haitian-owned businesses in a manner that others could easily emulate. While there are many promising tools, fair trade coffee producers need more than a fundraiser. They need to tell their story. We teamed up with a new social network that facilitates improvement projects around the world called Collaboration Quests. Collaboration Quests functions as a virtual chalkboard where people from around the world can come together to share ideas and information and form partnerships.

Through Collaboration Quests, we connected to Marie-José Garner, a consultant to the Ministry of Finance. "Farmers in Haiti often don't own the land, so they sometimes give up to 50 percent of their profits to property owners who are typically foreigners or the government," Garner explained. She also informed us that by working together farmers can form cooperatives to afford fair trade certification and gain access to better paying markets. Over time, savings will allow many farmers to become financially stable and even purchase land just as they had after the 1791 slave revolt that shook the foundations of colonialism and oppression. Political and policy reform must emerge in Haiti, but I discovered that by accessing fair trade markets farmers could earn higher profits and begin to save money to buy their own land. First, however, they had to achieve fair trade certification.

Why is certification a hurdle? First of all, it's expensive. Many farmers cannot afford annual fees, travel expenses for certifying agents, inspections and assessments. Poor farmers around the world who employ traditional practices find themselves, ironically, at a competitive disadvantage.

The farmers are resourceful. They'll organize and form cooperatives to manage costs even as they face resistance, vandalism, and threats from stakeholders in the status quo. But even if small farmers win the battle to attain certification, it is all for nothing if farmers cannot find distributors.

In addition to invasions, interventions and natural disasters, Haiti has suffered from isolation. Building connections is part of rebuilding. Michelle Jean, founder of a company called Zesa Raw, also participated in the discussion we started through Collaboration Quests. She pointed out a fundamental irony faced by small coffee farmers in Haiti: They produce a high-value product in nearly ideal growing conditions but earn "a fraction for their yields" because they cannot reach markets that will pay a fair price. Zesa Raw hopes to "improve the pipeline for export and get them (the farmers) access to certification and training." The quality of Zesa Raw's products so impressed us, we ordered a shipment to sell through Laughing Man as part of a special holiday offering. Through partnerships and information sharing, Laughing Man, Marie-José Garner, and Zesa Raw, and Haitian farmers are working together to rebuild Haiti five years after the earthquake.

Gradually, there is a story emerging: Small farmers struggle to remain independent, to acquire their own land and break the oppressive practices that have impoverished them for centuries while social entrepreneurs seek to redefine how we think of commerce. My career as an actor has taught me that stories change the way people see the world. I hope platforms like Collaboration Quests, whose public launch is in January, enables you to contribute to this story as well.