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Reading Tee-Shirts

Well into our third day in Haiti, while I was supposed to be looking for new product for the winter wholesale and retail show season, I will admit, I got distracted.  It’s not that the art wasn’t great or that I wasn’t “into it,” but by late in the afternoon, my attention had started to drift.  Instead of looking at metal sculpture, I was looking at clothing.  Reading tee-shirts, in fact, and it was becoming good sport.  I saw a Green Bay Packers shirt with a #4 on it – an old one, clearly.  Brett Favre hasn’t played for them in 4 years now.  But it’s a goodie, and hey, that’s my team!  Go Pack Go!  And I saw a Carolina Panthers jersey.  Ooooh, not so much.  But it wasn’t ‘til I noticed a tee-shirt reading “Nelson Family Reunion 2002, Lake of the Ozarks, MO” that I wondered, “How did he end up with THAT?”

Of course the answer lies in the practice of US charitable organizations sending bales and bales of clothing – to the tune of 14.5 million tons annually – to the Third World.  According to www.planetaid.org  only 20% of all clothing donated in the United States is actually sold in the United States to be worn. Five percent ends up in a landfill, and the rest is sold to wholesalers; 45% is repurposed (as cloth wipes, carpet backing, insulation, etc.) and 30% goes to market in developing countries. World Vision, for example, accepts 100,000 sweatshirts, tee-shirts and hats every year from the NFL, which routinely anticipates BOTH teams as the eventual winner of the Super Bowl and prints accordingly.  The items that end up proclaiming the losing team as Super Bowl Champions go straight to the African continent.

So is that a good thing?  Well, after due consideration, and a fair amount of research, I can tell you plainly that I don’t really know.  There is well documented evidence that suggests that the overwhelming volume of textile donations from the Developed World, meaning the US, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia, to the Third World is exceedingly detrimental to domestic textile and garment industries in the receiving countries.  Case in point: A 2008 study done by Garth Frazer of the University of Toronto revealed that wealthy countries shipping tons of used clothing caused a 40 percent decline in domestic African clothing production and a 50 percent decline in employment between 1981 and 2000.  The availability of free clothes from America and Europe undercut local markets and closed businesses. According to The Nation, between 1992 and 2006, 543,000 textile workers in Nigeria alone lost their jobs.

Furthermore, there are costs associated with this type of charitable giving.  Again using World Vision as an example, it has been reported by Aid Watch that that organization spends 58 cents per shirt on shipping, warehousing, and distribution. This is well within the range of what a secondhand shirt costs in a developing country. The recommended alternative in each of these reports is to send money instead of clothing to meet immediate need. Goods purchased locally supports local producers and bolsters local markets.  Additionally, it eliminates most shipping and transportation costs, which enables the donated dollar to go farther, i.e. it will buy more shirts and clothe more people.  Local purchases lead to increased employment and a strengthened economy, ideally to the point where the needy aren’t needy anymore.

I tried and tried to find out how this plays out in Haiti.  Haiti does, in fact, have a garment industry.  Coincidentally, Bill and Hilary Clinton were in Haiti at about the same time we were (No, we didn’t get together for cocktails, but we’ll try to coordinate on the next visit!) to celebrate the opening of a new industrial park at Caracol, which includes a clothing piecework center that will potentially employ 65,000 people.  An actual mill is slated for later development at this same site. Currently, however, this industry is piecework only.  Workers receive pre-dyed, pre-cut tee-shirt “pieces” which they sew together for direct shipment to foreign markets, where they are sold by Walmart, Target and The Gap, among others. So it seems to me that, as of now, the importation of used clothing is not adversely affecting local production because the local production is for overseas markets anyway.

There is, however, a huge trade in Haiti that has been built around imported second-hand clothing.  In fact, there is a Kreyol word for it:  “Pepe.”  According to Joanne McNeil’s blog article on reason.com, “It’s all pepe, all the time.”  Pepe is sold on virtually every street corner in Haiti, yet it isn’t a free-for-all. Vendors purchase goods by the bale for resale in ports such as Miragoane, where shipments are unloaded virtually every day. Often the dealers have an agreement with an American charity shop, which sorts the items before making the sale. Others rely on relatives and friends in the United States, who return to Haiti several times a year to make deliveries.  Vendors typically specialize in certain kinds of goods—just soccer jerseys, just sneakers, just bikinis – but their total impact is such that 80% of all clothing bought and sold in Haiti is pepe. (Watch a trailer for a film on this subject here:  http://secondhandfilm.com/project.html )

Well, that’s nothing, if not resourceful, in my book.  It goes right along with the whole idea of recycling, reducing, and reusing.  Admittedly, it’s not ideal.  I’d like for them to have crisp, brand-new clothing, and tee-shirts that shout support for their own football (soccer) teams.  But it is a legitimate trade, and it’s flourishing.  It meets a need.  And how bad is that?

A Trip to Haiti

Though I can’t say I’ve been anything close to EVERYWHERE, I am fairly well travelled.  Travel for me is almost like breathing – I need to do it.  Every issue of National Geographic, every vacation brochure in the mail, every song on the radio with an exotic beat compels me to think about my next trip.  I’ve lived in eight different states and four different countries; I have been fortunate to visit many more.  Still, for all of my presumed “worldliness” there is nothing quite like Haiti.

In fact, I just returned from a five-day foray less than 48 hours ago.  My mind still reels with sensory overload.  Haiti is a place you feel on your skin, dust and grit and grime and sweat, but also balmy mountain air, soft rains, and the caressing warmth of  morning sunshine.  It’s noisy and chaotic and damned uncomfortable one minute and beautiful in its simplicity the next.  It’s sexual violence in tent cities and open-air churches packed with the faithful, their voices raised in hymns of hope and praise.  It’s gorgeous wildflowers blooming on the side of the road and a frog coming out of the bathtub faucet.  To be honest, this is my third trip, and it’s still a pretty good challenge just to process it all.

Do I like going there?  Well, yes and no.  Reading about the poverty and desperation is one thing.   Seeing dirty, barefoot little kids with lice in their hair plinking rocks in the open sewer running in front of their house because they’ve got nothing else to play with is something else again. But then, you enter the shop doorway of one of our artists and you get a radiant smile and a great big hug and a whiff of Palmolive soap and find a tall cool bottle of Coca-Cola thrust in your hand before you can say, “Jack Robinson.” And then they bring out amazing pieces of art.  Their latest creations, wrought with such delicacy and brilliant craftsmanship and you can’t help wondering, “Where does this all come from?”

Where does it all come from?  The smile in the face of hardship, the cool soft drink in the house with no refrigerator and the fantastic art in the hard-scrabble village.  It’s a pretty good question – one that overrides aversion, inconvenience and discomfort.  I want to know where that goodness and joy and strength of human spirit comes from.  In Haiti, I feel like I’m close to the answer.  And that will keep me gladly coming back.

Skeletons and Black Licorice

October is upon us and the change of season is in evidence.

This skull (HT162) is made from recycled metal in Haiti. The Day of the Dead is celebrated exuberantly there and is known in Kreyol as “Fete des Morts.”

Leaves are turnining brilliant shades of red and orange and gold and perhaps you’ve had a glistening of frost as the morning sun has risen.  Change appears  in the markets, too as the fresh produce now includes squash, pumpkins and other gourds in a fantastic palette, as well as apples, pears, and delicious newly pressed ciders.  In our homes, we take down trimmings in summer hues and exchange them for those with a harvest theme, Halloween, or Day of the Dead.

Having grown up in the Midwest, harvest decorating came rather naturally to me, as did Halloween.  Day of the Dead took a little warming up to.  And a no small amount of instruction.  In fact, I thought ALL of those skeletons were a little creepy, if not downright macabre.  I didn’t understand the holiday as a form of remembrance and reflection, a time of happy memories of those friends and family who are no longer with us.  I didn’t get that in many places around the world, it is a time dedicated to going to cemeteries, tidying up the gravesites, freshening up the flower arrangements, having a picnic with special foods and sharing stories about loved ones who have “gone before.” That it’s actually much more like Memorial Day than a festival of witches and goblins for trick-or-treaters. (For a more detailed description, visit  http://www.celebrate-day-of-the-dead.com/)

The first time I took the plunge and decided to “go” Day of the Dead, I did so with some trepidation.  My father-in-law had passed away early in the summer and my mother-in-law, who was still very raw from the pain of loss, was visiting us for a couple of weeks.  I quietly started getting out old family photos and arranged some flowers in vases. I took the only three skeletons I had out and put together a shrine to my husband’s and my grandparents, explaining the Day of the Dead traditions as I understood them to my mother-in-law as I went along.  Then I turned to her and said, “How would you feel about putting one together for Pops?”  She thought a moment and said slowly, “I think that might be kind of nice.”  Pleased, I told her that I had to get off to work, but suggested that maybe she could think about what she might like to include while I was out.  The two of us could work on it together when I got home.

Imagine my surprised delight when I returned several hours later and my mother-in-law was at the door, waiting for me.  “I hope you don’t mind,” she said, pulling me inside, “but I did a little hunting and gathering around the house and kind of went ahead while you were out.”   She then proceeded to show me the shrine she had created for Pops in the dining room.  It was well thought out – tender, sentimental, very representative of the things that he loved in life, and the things we loved about him. There were several photos, a pair of candlesticks, a beer stein from Germany, a toy airplane, his old pilot’s license, a Hawaiian lei, and a Green Bay Packer bobble-head doll.  We went out and bought a package of black licorice, arranged some more fresh flowers, and remembered.  It was lovely.

Now, several years later, I continue the tradition we started.  I change a few things here and there, but I always enjoy the process.  This week, the skeletons are coming out – there are a few more of them now.  The framed picture of Grandpa and Grandma will emerge from the bedroom, the table scarf will do some time on the ironing board, and I realize as I watch the leaves drifting from the treetops down past the back window, it’s time to get Pops a new bag of licorice.

Sweet Deal

Browsing through our one-of-a-kinds, I stopped and studied this sculpture of a farmer wheeling his recently harvested sugar cane to market.  It reminded me of a scene I had observed and photographed along the roadway in Port-au Prince; a young man with his wheel-barrow load of cane, which he was carefully peeling for immediate purchase and consumption for passers-by.

Haiti was, at one time, a global leader in sugar production.  Columbus introduced sugar cane on his second voyage to Hispanola and the under the French, production skyrocketed within their plantation system until it was rivaled only by Brazil in tonnage exported to European markets. Gradually, however, international trade policy, irrigation degradation, soil depletion, and other factors conspired to diminish the bounty.  In 1976, Haiti finally failed to be even self-sufficient in terms of meeting its domestic demand for sugar, and it has never recovered.

In June 2011, Regine Barjon of BioTek Solutions/BioTek Haiti, SA reported to the United States Senate that Haiti had been reduced to producing only 2 percent of its total annual sugar needs, meaning of course, that the remaining 98 percent had to be imported.  That demand alone represented 11 percent of Haiti’s total trade deficit and was contributing hugely to Haiti’s general food insecurity.  Despite that, sugar remained one of Haiti’s most important cash crops, and one with great potential for jump-starting the Haitian economy. Tillable land and labor were abundant, according to Barjon.  What was needed was funding for credit for farmers to irrigate, purchase seed, and fertilizer, as well as reform of global trading practices so that consumers in Haiti and beyond could afford competitively priced Haitian sugar.

Barjon was advocating for investment in Haiti’s private sector, to empower and enable small and medium businesses to exist and function in a manner that is sustainable, and thereby undercut aid dependency.  Specifically, what her company was bringing to the table was a proposal to rehabilitate 15,000 hectares of existing cane fields, cleaning up watersheds, and revitalizing the one remaining sugar refinery in all of Haiti, the Darbonne Sugar Mill in Leogane. Increased production in that mill alone could potentially displace 50 percent of Haiti’s sugar imports and create 32,000 jobs.  Additionally, by-products from sugar processing could be used as an energy source, with the possibility of putting out up to 20 megawatts of energy in the first 12-18 months of operation.  With that, the circle could begin to close on deforestation, soil degradation, and erosion. Barjon said that the BioTek Agro-Energy Project would be financed by the International Investment Corporation (IIC), a private arm of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), and Haiti’s Sogebank, with potential underwriting from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). She had the support of the Clinton Global Initiative and was working to get the stamp of approval from the Haitian Government to move the project forward.

That Senate hearing was over a year ago.  What happened then? In a phone conversation with Barjon, I got the update:  Haitian President Martelly gave the go-ahead and the proposal went to the Ministry of Agriculture for final approval.  It was stalled in Thomas Jacques’ ministry office ad nauseum by counter-proposals and bureaucratic red tape. On Friday, Sept 21, 2012 (Yes, less than two weeks ago!) BioTek Solutions/BioTek Haiti SA got word from the Ministry that the project got the “unofficial” green light.   As for the US Senate’s response to the hearing, it is apparently held up until the Haitian government goes official on its approval.  THEN, it will be in their power to release funding for credit and private sector investment, as well as adopt trade practices that will encourage indigenous agricultural development and ultimately foster food security in Haiti.  It could be such a sweet deal.

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