The Cotton Connection Between Puerto Rico and Haiti

Smallholder Farmers Alliance members in Haiti harvesting cotton trials in January, 2018. Photo: Thomas Noreille / SFA

Restarting cotton cultivation in Haiti and Puerto Rico became linked at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference in 2017, and significant progress was reported on both fronts at the 2018 conference in Milan.

“The first commercial cotton crop in 30 years was planted by smallholders in Haiti this summer,” said Zachary Angelini, Environmental Stewardship Manager at Timberland “and the lessons learned from that experience have been incorporated into a new study focused on developing a similar smallholder-driven organic cotton value chain in Puerto Rico.”

The cotton connection between these two Caribbean nations began when Yanna Muriel, Agricultural Manager of Visit Rico, spoke at the 2017 Textile Exchange conference. She delivered a moving report on the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria just weeks before to smallholders in Puerto Rico. Representatives of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) spoke at the same conference about their experience of working with global outdoor lifestyle brand Timberland to reintroduce cotton to Haiti as a smallholder-grown organic crop. The result of that serendipitous meeting is the Puerto Rico Cotton Study, announced by Angelini in Milan. The study was led jointly by the SFA and Visit Rico, with support from Textile Exchange and members of Armonía en la Montaña, an educational non-profit organization in Puerto Rico and the Mercado Agrícola Natural Viejo San Juan.

Puerto Rico and Haiti may seem like an odd pairing until you realize they have hurricanes and cotton in common. Both countries have suffered the consequences of being in the Caribbean hurricane belt. Both countries share a common history of cotton production that has been halted for generations: it stopped in the late 1980s in Haiti and the early 1940s in Puerto Rico. Both nations are trying to rebuild their agricultural sectors to reduce dependence on imports.

“Timberland is committed to this project not only because of the incredible environmental and social benefits we are seeing on the ground,” said Angelini when reporting on progress in Haiti, “but also because of the potential we see for scale and application throughout the industry.  We believe we can use this project as a pilot for increasing our direct engagement with farmers across our cotton supply chain and other natural material supply chains as well.” On a very practical level, Timberland has committed to purchasing up to one third its global cotton supply through the SFA, subject to price, quality and organic certification.

Starting in 2010, Timberland had been sponsoring tree planting in Haiti through the SFA. In 2016 the company asked to switch to becoming a customer buying organic cotton. That led to a feasibility study published in late 2016 and then field trials in 2017 to test seeds from India, Brazil and the U.S. This summer the first 100 smallholder SFA farmers planted about a quarter hectare each. Linking back to Timberland’s early sponsorship of tree planting with the SFA, the farmers now growing cotton earn their seed, tools and agricultural training by planting trees.

Timberland is also working closely with the SFA as they develop a new data management system that will track and measure the impact of cotton and other crops on smallholder income, food security, climate change and women’s empowerment. Both Timberland and the SFA have received tremendous support from Textile Exchange for the Haiti cotton project in the form of input on the field trials and ongoing advice on technical issues ranging from farm gate price setting to organic protocols for pest control.

Smallholder Farmers Alliance: www.SmallholderFarmersAlliance.org

Timberland: www.Timberland.com

Visit Rico: www.VisitRico.org

Puerto Rico Cotton Study (executive summary): http://www.smallholderfarmersalliance.org/storage/ENGLISH%20-%20Executive%20Summary%20-%20Puerto%20Rico%20Cotton%20Study.pdf