U.S. closes border to dried mango from Haiti

According to Le Nouvelliste daily, U.S. agricultural authorities have closed off the U.S. market for dried mango from Haiti. As a result, an upstart factory in Gros Morne, in Haiti's Artibonite Valley, is closed. The factory was specifically constructed for export markets, and the U.S. was a big part of that plan.

Enclosed: dossier on mango producton in Haiti

U.S. authorities cite a lack of hygiene in the drying process for their decision. Le Nouvelliste does not indicate any interest from the U.S. in assisting with whatever it believes is the problem. There are no reported health problems caused by Haitian mangos.

The assistant mayor of Gros Morne, Rubin Beauger, is asking why it is that every time Haitian authrorities take steps to lift Haitians out of their poverty, national or international institutions try to block it. "The problem of hygiene as raised by the United States to prevent the sale and consumption of dried mango from Haiti is non-existent. It's a slap in the face to the Haitian people."


Haiti's mango a forgotten fruit

Jennifer Wells, Feature Writer, Toronto Star, Nov 14, 2010
GROS MORNE, HAITI--The red JAC pickup truck is possessed of a '70s countenance, a slightly detached bumper, and, if a vehicle can be ascribed human characteristics, a world-weariness that suggests that this journey may be her last. If she survives, that is. And, come to think of it, if we survive.

We’re pounding north of the coastal city of Gonaives, having exited Haiti’s Route Nationale 1, picking up a feeder road which, according to the map, is dubbed D150 but which could more appropriately be renamed Every Bump is Going to Hurt Your Ass, or however one says that in Creole.

And to think this is my second attempt at studying the Haitian mango harvest in the hopes of understanding how the luscious fruit could be such an export failure in this country of never-ending failures.

We have the opportunity to do so much Plant more mango trees and keep in touch Invade the country with fruit and vegetable The world is waiting to put on their table -- An aspiring poet posts to Haitian President René Préval’s blog

Last pass, all went rather well until I found myself squelching through rice paddies in swiftly deteriorating leather sandals before attempting to forge The River That Swallows BlackBerrys and finding myself being held more or less upright against a determined undertow by a sturdy fellow named Narcisse Joseph whom I had known for all of 30 minutes.

So here we are jostling and swaying in the red pickup truck as it frequently descends into meteoritic potholes that last night ruthlessly took out a mango truck that never did make its delivery to Port-au-Prince.

The mango season is drawing to a close and capturing the end offerings of the harvest means heading further and further upcountry through the historically fertile Artibonite lowlands, which will serve, in a matter of weeks, as tragic host to a cholera epidemic that will fell farmers by the thousands. Northward, the road edges along the underbelly of the Massif du Nord, journeying to the town of Gros Morne and ultimately the village of Kamas. Elapsed time: five jolting hours.

Question scribbled in reporter’s notebook: “How the hell can a mango survive this?”  This is not a frivolous line of enquiry. Haiti’s major roadworks — seven national highways in various states of repair — tie on to supplementary roads that are often in a condition of complete collapse. Further into the interior, these thoroughfares give way to narrow dirt byways, none of which favours the care of mangoes.

This has not gone unnoticed by, among others, former U.S. president George W. Bush. In the mid-August swelter, Bush, on behalf of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, arrived on the loading dock of Ralph Perry’s mango enterprise in Port-au-Prince. He clapped Perry, one of the country’s largest mango exporters, on the shoulder in that inimitable Texan death grip way, posed for a photo op (mango in hand), and, in the most surreal moment of the mid-day excursion, granted an exclusive interview to his daughter, Jenna, present in her guise as a reporter for NBC’s Today Show. “There’s a lot of people in Haiti dependent upon the mango to make a livelihood,” Bush informed his daughter, who murmured her new-found understanding of this fact. “The problem is that the growing techniques are not very efficient and a lot of times the mangoes die before they make it here for export.”

Perhaps a bit dramatic, that dying bit. Still, for the purposes of American television consumption, a simple point was more or less made.

Odielon Pierelus’s lean, articulated body is bent nearly double on the stoop of his tin-roofed, two-room hut. On this hot August afternoon he is working with speed and efficiency. Today he has mangoes and possibly tomorrow he will have mangoes and then the season will come to an end.

On the trees nearby, the mangoes — introduced to Haiti by Captain Bligh himself, they say — hang teasingly in pendulous plenty, the fruit tethered by long, delicate stems. With the aid of a keyette the fruit could be easily retrieved. The keyette is the rudimentary tool of the trade: a long wooden pole with a simply fashioned wire hoop on one end that holds in place any-kind-of-sack-you-can-find. (The plasticized gunnies that once held U.S. imported rice are popular.) The farmer — who may be standing on the ground or who may be perched in the upper regions of the tree — raises the keyette under the tip of the mango until the fruit is cradled in the bosom of the bag. With a single, neat leaf-rustling tug, the mango is severed from the branch of life.

But these particular mangoes — small, rounded — are unloved. For those that are internationally marketable, the pickers have had to go farther afield. While Haiti can claim as many as 140 varietals, only one, the Madame Francique, has been deemed suitable for export to the U.S.

Through the late afternoon, double-packed burros step delicately down from the edge of the sierra that rises beyond a nearby river. Their noses dip toward the pewter water as they make their determined way toward the village pathways, past lazing flutes of bright hibiscus and arborescent cacti. It has been such a long journey: the burros have been on the road since 3 a.m., travelling six hours to the mango grove, re-emerging as the day is almost done. Burro after burro until the sun begins to slide. It is only the beginning.

The burros are relieved of their burden as the mangoes are poured, not all that gently, on to the ground. The kidney shape of the Francique fits enticingly in Pierelus’s hand. Her skin is waxen and smooth. He washes the fruit, one by one, before ferrying the mangoes to the storage corner in his home, where they sit like a muster of green parrots, the occasional flushes of yellow flaring across their seductive shapes. On their bottoms they sit, so as to prevent the milk from the freshly detached stem from trickling down — and thus staining — the precious fruit.

Only the prettiest will make the journey to the capital. Those rejected by the first selection — the scarred, the stained — will be sold into the local market. In Fermathe, where Lovely Avelus’s mother, Rosemene, does the market shopping, she will pay 10 gourdes, or about 25 cents, for a mango.

Here in Kamas, mango skins litter the ground, the remnants of rejects that have been devoured. The selected ones are humped by the sackful to the back of pickup trucks where they sit, unprotected from the rough, jostling journey all the way back to Port-au-Prince.

Ronald Dandressol is on site to supervise. Dandressol works for Carifresh, a family-owned company and the fifth-largest mango exporter in Haiti. He oversees the selection of the mangoes and the Carifresh payment of 50 gourdes per dozen, or about $1.25. A good, mature 15-year-old mango tree can yield as many as 200 dozen mangoes a season. The 50 gourde pay is an increase: until very recently, Dandressol says, Carifresh paid 45 gourdes for 12. “I have to play the game also,” he notes of the farmers’ push for higher compensation. “I have a truck waiting here. Without the mangoes, I can’t load.”

The mangoes that survive the drive to the capital and the flight to Montreal and ultimately land on the shelf of Kishor Patel’s Marché Victoria Oriental on Boulevard des Sources will individually fetch at a minimum $1 and as much as twice that depending on size.

Patel imports from Carifresh. He likes the product. He doesn’t rate it as highly as the prized Alphonso from India — “The Alphonso has something that no other mango has,” he says, though he can’t define that ineffable quality — but the Haitian mango wins in size and — this is key — can be grown for export six months of the year as the harvesting of the fruit moves through a series of microclimates in the south, finishing here in the north.

How can this not be a winning recipe? Well, it was, once. There was a time, prior to the U.S. trade embargo of 1991 that followed the overthrow of then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, when Haitian mangoes had a strong foothold in the U.S. market. By 1992, that market had collapsed.

Dandressol, who has been working in mangoes for 14 years, makes the striking comparison between Haiti and Mexico. With an eager and quickly accessible U.S. market, Mexico went on a tree planting tear. “They planted thousands and thousands and thousands of trees,” he says. Haiti, absent a major export market, too often cut down its trees for charcoal. The divergent outcomes are stark: Haiti’s exports to the U.S. last year, at just over 9,000 metric tonnes, are less than three-quarters of where it was in 1991. Mexico, by contrast, grew and grew and grew, exporting about 185,000 metric tonnes to the U.S. last year for a market share of 62 per cent. And the market share for its onetime competitor in the mango market? Four.

Of course there’s a longer tale of woe. Start with the earthquake. “We lost the first harvest,” says Carifresh vice-president Cassandra Reimers from her office at Croix des Bouquets on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. “It was supposed to start at the beginning of March but with the earthquake everything was set back a month.”

A Carifresh building was knocked out. The United States Department of Agriculture had to recertify the plant, a process that Reimers says went slowly. The company shipped its first mangoes on April 26.

There are acts of nature. And then there is the predictable state of life in Haiti. “There is no infrastructure,” wails Cassandra’s father, Wilhelm, who started the business a quarter-century ago. “You can see the road!” He gestures past the security gate to Santo 17, where the cratered road sits filled with last night’s rain even as the morning dust crawls up your nose and down your throat. “I do try. I pay $75,000 to $100,000 every three years to fix the road. This year I can’t.”

Yield losses are out of control. The Reimers estimate that 30 per cent of the mango crop is lost between picking and processing. In a draft report released in August, Haiti’s presidential commission on competition estimated that the losses run far higher at 60 per cent. It’s true, Wilhelm Reimers says, that if you factor in mangos being picked too early by too-eager farmers, the reject rate runs fantastically high.

The rudimentary collection process and the rough road to port are both at fault. And that’s if you can get a truck. The surfeit of post-earthquake NGOs on the ground in Haiti hasn’t helped. “They raise the price. They pay a lot of money (to rent trucks),” laments Wilhelm. “I can’t afford to pay that much money to transport the mangoes from the field to the plant.” He says the NGOs are offering $4,000 (U.S.) a week, eight times what he is used to paying. “That’s a big, big, big, huge difference.”

Wilhelm recently paid $37,000 — cash — for a forklift. “We can’t survive without a forklift,” he says, adding dryly, “We couldn’t find a tire in Haiti.” He did attempt to rent one, a forklift, that is. It showed up seeping oil from its undercarriage. The new forklift has been sitting in customs for three months. “They don’t have the system. Every day they give a different problem.”

He’s used to waiting. The cardboard boxes he imports to ship the mangoes to retail clients are often held up at the border for weeks. Patience? He waited 15 years for a landline at his company headquarters. “So a business with no phone,” he shrugs.

And don’t get him started on financing. “They say the mango business is a risky business. What’s the word they call that? It’s a risky area. They don’t want to put money in any agriculture in Haiti. The bank? You can’t finance nothing.”

Downstairs at the loading dock today’s mango delivery is being subjected to a second selection process. Once again, the rejects will be sold into the local market.

Inside the processing plant, a full-time inspector from the U.S. Department of Agriculture sits in a little booth and waits. Along one wall of the plant sit two enormous vats of water heated at a temperature of 46 degrees Celsius. Into this, crates of today’s mangoes — transferred by forklift — will be lowered for a good long immersion bath of at least 45 minutes, a process demanded by the USDA to prevent against infestation by the West Indian fruit fly. Only the Madame Francique, with that thick skin of hers, can withstand the hot-water immersion without doing damage to the fruit. The mangoes will then be treated to a cold-water soak before being dried and packaged for shipping.

The top 10 Haitian exporters, including Carifresh, have to bear, equally and regardless of size, the $1.2 million annual cost for the USDA inspectors, which must be on site at each plant. For a company like Carifresh, it’s a huge entry level cost of doing business. Set against the total value of the country’s mango exports — roughly $11 million last year — it seems wildly out of whack.

What’s wrong with this picture? Agreed. Just about everything. And yet, the mango is Haiti’s most valuable agricultural export and could, if levered into value-added products (juices, frozen fruit, etc.), be key to the country’s economic future.

For the Reimers, the remedy begins, logically, in a ground-up strategy. Carifresh is building eight collection centres with financial assistance from the Inter-American Development Bank. Federations of 100 or more fragmented farmers will be aligned with each centre. “We’re regrouping these people,” says Cassandra Reimers, who is young, energetic, eager to take on her father’s business and, ironically, can’t stand the smell of mangoes. “We’re going to get everybody who has trees in this area all together, and then plant mango trees in between to make an entire field of mango trees. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Agronomists, she adds, will advise on the planting and care of the trees. It takes only five to seven years for a mango tree to bloom. They are magic in fruit bearing not to mention the role they play in the environment, not least their contribution to the reforestation of a stripped country.

“We’re going to be working with the poorest of the poor,” says Eduardo Almeida, country manager for the IADB. “People who have one mango tree, two mango trees.” There are, he reminds, an estimated 450,000 small agricultural producers in the country.

Post earthquake, the development bank joined forces with Coca-Cola Co. and TechnoServe, which assists small business growth in developing countries, to form the Haiti Hope project. Haiti Hope will help 25,000 mango farmers produce crops more efficiently. On behalf of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, George W. Bush threw $500,000 into the pot. Any improvements to the mango harvest, Almeida says, can only benefit other fruit production with high export potential: bananas and avocados.

And improving the shipment yield? Carifresh has 4,000 plastic shipping crates on order. “The way you saw them being loaded yesterday, they’re not going to load any more like this,” says Wilhelm Reimers. No more humping of mangoes to the bare floor of a pickup truck. “You’re seeing the end.”

The end is but a modest beginning. A plastic crate — once it eventually clears customs — will provide some measure of protection. One day the major roads will be repaired. Perhaps the feeder roads will be too. But it is too much to imagine that in his lifetime Odielon Pierelus’s subsistence existence will change substantially. The burros will continue to delicately step down from the mountain and he will cradle the Madame Francique, one by one.


A detailed 2010 report on mango production in Haiti and prospects for exports, by Catholic Relief Services: