Despite its relative decline, coffee endured as the leading agricultural export during the 1980s. The French had introduced coffee to Haiti from Martinique in 1726, and soon coffee became an important colonial commodity. Coffee production peaked in 1790, and it declined steadily after independence. Production dropped precipitously during the 1960s. After a boom in prices and in the production of coffee in the late 1970s, output declined again from 42,900 tons in 1980 to 30,088 tons by 1987. Coffee trees covered an estimated 133,000 hectares in the 1980s, with an average annual yield of 35,900 tons. Haiti was a member of the International Coffee Organization (ICO), but found itself increasingly unable to fulfill its ICO export quota, which stood at 300,000 bags, of 60 kilograms each, in 1988. Most analysts believed that excessive taxation and the low prices afforded to peasant farmers had contributed to the decline in coffee production.
Coffee provides one of the best examples of the market orientation of Haiti's peasant economy. Most peasants grew coffee, usually alongside other crops. More than 1 million Haitians participated in the coffee industry as growers, marketers (known as Madame Sarahs), middlemen (spéculateurs), or exporters. The peasants' widespread participation throughout the coffee industry demonstrated that they were not merely subsistence farmers, but that they were also actively engaged in the market economy. After harvest by peasants, female Madame Sarahs transported coffee to local and urban markets and sold the beans. Middlemen, in turn, sold coffee to members of the Coffee Exporters Association (Association des Exportateurs de Café--Asdec), which set prices and thereby passed on the traditionally high coffee-export taxes directly to producers. Because of its prominent role in agriculture and the inequitable nature of the trade, the coffee industry was the subject of numerous studies. The majority of these studies highlighted imperfect competition and the systematic enrichment of a small group of Port-au-Prince exporters.
Sugar was another cash crop with a long history in Haiti. Columbus brought sugarcane to present-day Haiti on his second voyage to Hispaniola, and sugar rapidly became the colony's most important cash crop. After 1804, production never returned to preindependence levels, but sugar production and low-level exports continued. Unlike the system in other Caribbean countries, sugar in Haiti was a cash crop raised by peasants rather than by large-scale plantations. The sugar harvest dipped to under 4 million tons by the early 1970s, but it rebounded to nearly 6 million tons of cane by the middle of the decade with a sharp increase in the world price of the commodity. Lower world prices and structural problems combined to cause a drop in sugar output in the 1980s; by the end of the decade, sugarcane covered fewer than 114,000 hectares of the coastal plains, and it yielded fewer than 4.5 million tons annually.
Further expansion of the sugar industry faced serious deeprooted obstacles. For example, the production cost of Haitian sugar was three times more than the world price in the 1980s. Shifts in the world sugar market, caused mainly by the international substitution of corn-based fructose for sugarcane, exerted further pressure on Haitian producers. One result of this situation was the practice of importing sugar, which was then reexported to the United States under the Haitian sugar quota. Reductions in Haiti's quota during the 1980s, however, limited exchanges of this sort.
Total sugar exports dropped from 19,200 tons in 1980 to 6,500 tons in 1987. In 1981, 1982, and 1988 Haiti exported no sugar. Haiti's four sugar mills closed temporarily on several occasions during the decade. The oldest mill, the Haitian American Sugar Company (HASCO), was the only plant that maintained a large cane plantation. Realizing the dim future for sugar, outside development agencies proposed alternatives to sugar, such as soybeans, for Haiti's plains.
Cacao, sisal, essential oils, and cotton were other significant cash crops. Cacao trees covered an estimated 10,400 hectares in 1987, and they yielded 4,000 tons of cocoa a year. Mennonite missionaries played a growing role in the cocoa industry, mostly around southern departments, especially Grande'Anse. Sisal, exported as a twine since 1927, peaked in the 1950s, as the Korean War demanded much of the nation's 40,000-ton output. By the 1980s, however, Haiti exported an average of only 6,500 tons a year, mainly to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The substitution of synthetic fibers for sisal reduced most large-scale growing of the plant, but many peasants continued to harvest the natural fiber for its use in hats, shoes, carpets, and handbags. The export of essential oils, derived from vetiver, lime, amyris, and bitter orange, peaked in 1976 at 395 tons. Exports leveled off at a little more than 200 tons during the 1980s, generating an average of US$5 million in foreign exchange. Cotton cultivation peaked in the 1930s, before Mexican boll weevil beetles ravaged the crop. Growers introduced a higher quality of cotton, in the 1960s, which was processed in local cotton gins and then exported to Europe. Cotton prices fell in the 1980s, however, and cotton plantings shrank from 12,400 hectares in 1979 to under 8,000 hectares by 1986. Exports ceased. Government policies in the 1980s emphasized diversification into nontraditional export crops that would benefit under the terms of the CBI; the poor performance of traditional cash crops enhanced the importance of these efforts for the Haitian economy.
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