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Child Labor and Work Ethics

Recently, I was filling out a portion of the application for renewal of our Fair Trade Federation certification.  One of the questions read as follows:  “How often does your business evaluate children’s roles in production?” It was clear to me that this question was leading to the defense against practices of children being forced to work and thereby unable to be children. Children who can play and go to school and relax on a lazy day in the sun.  You can bet that It’s Cactus is firmly in that camp. Kids should be kids!

Certainly there are endless heart-breaking examples of children being treated as little more than slaves, forced by economic circumstance to labor long hours at the expense of their education, and furthermore, their childhood. I have blogged about such children in Haiti, who suffer under the restavek system. (Sept. 13,2013  The Price of Poverty:  300,000 Cinderella and No Ball.) They are children of poor families “given” to be raised by wealthier “foster families” of dubious intent.  In exchange for labor, a restavek child is supposedly afforded the opportunity for an education. All too often, however, that exchange for the child translates into exploitation and abuse. Though we have never seen this practice in our own Haitian experiences, we stand in total opposition to it.  In fact, our work in Haiti is undertaken to elevate economic conditions so that such practices are no longer even considered to be possible solutions to a problem. We strive to make them unthinkable.

Having said that, however, we are happy to see children given tasks and responsibilities for which they may or may not be  monetarily compensated as a means of cultivating a strong work ethic that will serve them well throughout their years. Coming home after school and flattening out a few pieces of metal in their father’s workshop is a healthy means of accomplishing this end. In fact, Casey is rather adamant that her own daughter pitches in for It’s Cactus. And she does, working in the booth at shows during the summer and writing out price tags after school. In Casey’s words:  “You could call it child labor, I suppose, but I prefer to think of it as good parenting. Its an opportunity for her to learn and to participate. To develop a sense of responsibility, satisfaction and pride in the work that she has done. It helps our business and working together becomes a shared family experience. It’s good for all of us!”


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Grace from the *&% # – hole

Haitian Metal Artist Claudy Soulouque with his Peace on Earth design.

From Haiti, our artists respond to President Trump’s poisonous words with messages of kindness and wisdom.

The following letter was written and sent by Casey last week to our artists in Haiti. She felt – as so many of us did – that there needed to be a counterpoint to the deplorable words spoken by President Trump about their country the week before. Here is her email, as well as a few representative emails she received in response. These emails reaffirmed the grace and courage we have always admired in our Haitian partners.
Dear Roody and Friends,
After last week my mind has been troubled and I wanted to reach out. The US President said horrible things about Haiti, El Salvador, and the countries of Africa.
The hurtful comments made by President Trump regarding Haiti and others are shameful to me. I deeply regret the thoughtless disrespect that he as shown and I am embarrassed. He has no understanding of the courageous struggles of the Haitian, Salvadorean, and African peoples and their work to rise to a new dawn of a brighter future.
I as well as millions of Americans am appalled. We will never abandon you. We respect the great character of your peoples and pledge ourselves to select better leadership for the United States. The current Administration fails to represent the loving spirit of the America and its high regard for the dignity of the human race.
I am so sorry for the offensive words and actions of our President.
Below are samples of the replies we received.
From Shelove Vilsaint:  “I will let you the USA is a good country of good people. I love the USA people, even if Donald Trump is a racism.  Every country have somebody racism too…”
 From Ghisnet St. Bonheur:  “Okay, so don’t worry about it.  Even if he is the President of the USA, but it is not the word of all the american people. I already know how much american people appreciate Haiti as you show it. We love all countries in the world, together let’s fight for a peace world.”
From Roody Soulouque:  “I realize that he’s [President Trump] trying to put everything in order for his country just because he loves his country and cares for his country.  I remember he always promised to put the interest of America first….No human being is perfect and always sees things just. I recognize it but the US needs to deal with other nations, needs to deal with us.”
I hate to go political here, but I feel I must. The world is a small place and we in the US are responsible to it.  Let’s all commit ourselves to selecting better leadership in future elections.  From races for city council seats to the highest office in America let us become informed and involved.  Let’s demand better from our leaders – and let’s get it.
 Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Can Chocolate Cure Poverty?

Haitian cacao farmer from the north

Cacao Farmer. (Photo courtesy of Askanya)

In a previous blog, I declared my deep and abiding love of chocolate. I have written too, about market-based solutions to the problem of poverty in Haiti. Can you imagine my delight at coming across a company that has both!

Les Chocolateries Askanya is the brain-child of Corinne Joachim Sanon, a Haitian-American woman, who decided she wanted to do something meaningful and sustainable to fight poverty in Haiti. In November 2014, with fresh MBA from Wharton and indomitable entrepreneurial spirit, she put her energies into producing fine chocolates. The business concept is her driving force: “Haiti’s first and only premier bean-to-bar chocolate

This is how cacao grows

Cacao pod (Photo courtesy of Askanya)

company. Grown in Haiti, Made in Haiti, Enjoyed Everywhere.”

Corinne, her husband Andreas Symietz, and friend Alexandra Lecorps and went to work transforming her grandfather’s four-bedroom country home in Ouananminthe in northern Haiti into a full-production chocolate factory. By April 2015, the factory swung into action with seven full-time local employees. Another friend, Gentile Senat  also entered the chocolate-making scene. Sourcing locally grown cacao from area farmers, the factory workers receive the freshly harvested beans and begin their magic. The cacao is fermented, dried, sorted and then the delicate matter of roasting begins. From there, the roasted beans are cracked, ground, winnowed, and finally refined. At this stage, the making of chocolate bars actually begins. (See great photos of this process on Askanya’s website.)

Though Askanya sells in Haiti and abroad, its first customer is the Haitian people. Catering to a Haitian palate, which generally prefers a

Haitian metal art

Haitian metal version of a farmer at work by Johnson Cajuste.

sweeter, less bitter flavor, they produce a 40% milk chocolate bar and a 60% dark chocolate bar and have plans to develop other flavors with 70% in the works. I am happy to report that the dark chocolate that I ordered from Askanya for my family was very enthusiastically received. I don’t pretend to describe flavors well, but I think I detected some fruity notes (Cherry, maybe?) and the overall taste and texture were delightful.

It is exciting to meet people such as Corinne, with visions so similar to that of It’s Cactus for fighting poverty and uplifting lives. By providing opportunity and employment, by teaching skills – whether they be quality management, marketing, or chocolate-making – and by treating trading partners with respect and care, real growth and prosperity can be achieved.

Hang up the art and pass the chocolate!


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

In the News: Haitian Presidential Elections

Haitian women stroll past an array of political ads in Port-au-Prince

Despite political uncertainties, life goes on in Port-au-Prince

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Haiti’s presidential elections, saying among other things that the top two vote-getters in the primary elections, Jude Celestin and Jovenel Moise, would be participating in run-off elections to be held on Dec. 27th. This is not quite the way it’s worked out. To be blunt, it has become quite a mess, but I will try to give it to you here in a nutshell…

Jude Celestin, the candidate with the second-most votes, has charged that the Oct. primary elections were fraudlent and declared that he would not participate in any run-off unless his conditions were met. All six pages of them. Among his complaints is that the membership of the CEP – Haiti’s version of our Electoral College – is selected in dubious fashion and thereby has no credibility in decision-making for either the primary or the run-off elections. A government-appointed investigative commission looked into Celestin’s fradulency claims and it too discredited the elections, citing a sky-high number of voting “irregularities” and presumption of fraud. The Commission echoed Celestin’s call for sweeping changes in the electoral machinery to include the CEP.

Yet another group, called the G-8 and composed of several presidential candidates from primary race that didn’t qualify for the run-offs, publicly bashed the Commission’s findings. G-8 says that while the Commission verified voting irregularities, it did not identify the beneficiary of those irregularities. In other words, the losing candidates are questioning whether or not they actually lost. Good point. Are you confused yet? Wait, there’s more!

Heart sculpture by Joubert Brutus

Heart sculpture symbolizing a wish for peace and love in Haiti.

The December 27th run-off election date was postponed so that these investigations could be carried out. Two weeks ago, a January 24th run-off date was put forward by the (possibly slimy) members of the CEP. Outside observers are now pressuring the Haitian government to go through with the elections on that date with or without Celestin. The problem there is that Jovenel Moise, the government-backed candidate, might be the only one running. If no president is elected and installed, “in peaceful transfer of power,” by February 7th, it will become necessary for a provisional government to be formed in accordance with Haitian constitutional law. That’s what has the outside observers worried, of course.

Not surprisingly, Haitians are taking to the streets en masse in protest. The Associated Press interviewed one of the protesters, Ernest Casseus, an unemployed 57-year-old from a neighborhood of concrete shacks and trash-strewn streets. Casseus insisted that the runoff should be postponed to protect democracy in Haiti, saying rather succinctly, “It’s like a football game: You need two teams to play or you have no finals. A presidential election with one candidate is crazy and will only result in chaos,”

Stay tuned.

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Could you read that to me in Kreyol?

Haitian schoolgirls on their way home after classes.

Uniformed schoolgirls ready to head home after a day of classes in Port-au-Prince.

Just before Christmas, I received a box from It’s Cactus containing a set of large sculptures I had bought while we were in Haiti in October. Usually when I receive an order, it is pulled from the warehouse shelves in Salinas, CA, packed, and sent on its way. This time, however, I had made my order in Croix-des-Bouquets and it was boxed in Haiti separately from the rest of the It’s Cactus merchandise. When It’s Cactus received the shipment, my box was separated out and sent directly to me without any re-packing. I received it just as it had been packaged up in Haiti.

I am telling you this because of the “surprise” I found inside: My sculptures had been wrapped very thoroughly and carefully in French lessons. Used up pages from French language workbooks; brought home, no doubt, by the artist’s school children who no longer had need of them. Waste not, want not.

It reminded me of something rather astonishing that I had learned on one of our previous trips that has only recently been changed. Up until July 2015, Haitian school children were taught exclusively in French. This, while the language of their country is Kreyol. According to one set of

French language workbook pages make good packing material.

Wrap mine up in Kreyol!

figures I read, (and you can too) about 1 Haitian in 19 is fluent in French, yet all lessons, from reading to math to science were taught in the French language, oftentimes by teachers who were not among the fluent. Can you even imagine the obstacle this was to a child’s ability to learn? Can you imagine the enormity of the educational handicap when it was applied to an entire nation?

Reading comprehension is based on three things: the representation of letters, the corresponding sounds the letters make, and the meaning of the the collected letters that form words. A child who is unskilled in his own language and taught exclusively in another one may parrot the words that he hears correctly with no real understanding of what he has said. This is compounded in the case of a Haitian child due to the relative closeness of the sound of Kreyol words to French and the large disparity in their meaning. The upshot of all of this is that Haitian Kreyol-speaking children who have been taught only in French have had an incredibly hard time with reading comprehension and corresponding difficulty in reading to learn.

Happily, change is in the air. The new government mandate seeks to promote Haitian Kreyol throughout all levels of education, from kindergarten to university. It entails the standardization of Kreyòl writing, and the training of teachers for instruction of, and in, Kreyòl. Studies clearly demonstrate that children who receive a solid foundation in their native tongue are “set free” to learn not only reading, math and sciences, but second and even third languages as well.

Of course, the larger goal is to elevate the level of education of the population as a whole. Though it will take time, the reward should be greatly worth the government’s investment. With higher levels of skill in reading, math, sciences, and foreign languages, new generations of Haitian students will be able to realize their full potential as productive citizens of an emerging country. As for myself, I hope that maybe my next box from Croix-des-Bouquets will be packed in Kreyol lessons. I would take that as not only a sign of progress but also a sign of the Haitian government’s commitment to the success of the program. Used up Kreyol workbook packing paper – bring it on!


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

The Season of Giving

It is the Season of Giving. What an opportunity to do good! Truly, it is a wonderful opportunity – one that anyone is loathe to squander. But how does one give effectively? Ah, that is the harder question.

The art of giving, as explained by a Haitian metal fish sculpture.

If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day…

There are many ways in which to give, but I am going to boil them down to two and use the time-honored fishing analogy as my vehicle of explanation: If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Tomorrow, he might get a call that the new job is his and he will never have to learn to fish. You cannot foresee what brightness tomorrow will bring and in the meantime, you help a needy man over a rough spot. He might never know hunger again, yet he will always be grateful for the kindly hand that offered up the fish when the time was tough. Sometimes it works out that way, and when it does, it is wonderful.

At It’s Cactus, we believe in teaching a man to fish, and we do so by giving opportunity. We open trade opportunities and teach our trading

Working in Haiti, It's Cactus gives opportunity for trade and learning.

By giving opportunity, we give a gift that can last a lifetime.

partners about the business of production and marketing, giving them the skills they need to feel success and see it grow. This is not an easy path, and achieving positive results takes a great deal of time and patience. Yet we have seen terrific results in our 17 years of working with our Haitian artists and practicing Fair Trade. The best part of it is that we have seen success sustained. Once the opportunity is seized upon, once the lessons are learned, they sitck. They stay. They LAST.

Here’s how: When a new artist approaches us with an innovative design to sell, he gets an order worth $100 USD to make samples. This enables us to evaluate his style and consistency as well as assess his ability to follow through on our agreement. When those hurdles are cleared, we work with the artist to establish a selling price that is both fair and marketable. We discuss all aspects of pricing; teaching and learning in both directions along the way. When the price is settled, a new order is written, again with 100 percent paid in full up front.

As our sales of the new artist’s design grows, our ability to buy more from him grows as well. This steady growth enables us to experiment with other new designs and orders with him. He becomes more skilled not only as an artist, but also as a

Giving as explained by a mermaid sculpture.

If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.

businessman. With lessons well-learned and well applied, the rise in his prosperity – though not meteoric – is substantial and sustainable. In this way, the gift of opportunity becomes a gift that can last a lifetime. Multiply that gift by the 30 artists we work with on a regular basis, and the impact on their families and their community becomes enormous. That success reinforces our continuing efforts to keep opportunity growing and expanding.

Giving is a very personal thing. Bringing happiness in any form to anyone at any time is a worthy gift whether it is meant for a moment, a day, or a lifetime. Giving opportunity is simply how we at It’s Cactus choose to give. When you buy from us, you support our artists, and that is a very great gift, indeed.

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Haiti’s Presidential Elections

How I feel after the third presidential campaign phonecall of the day.

AAAGH! Election time!

Here we are in the United States, nearly 12 full months before we cast our ballots and nearly everywhere we turn, we see, hear, and receive phonecalls “from” the candidates. Three Democrats, fourteen Republicans, and one Green Party candidate are persistantly vying for our attention. I suppose if my glass were half full, I would feel honored and immensely empowered because my vote is so important. But on this point, my glass is half empty. We have hardly even gotten started and instead of feeling honored and empowered, I feel inundated and irritated.

Before I cry into my coffee too much, however, I must recall the election run-up that we witnessed in Haiti. We were there in early October, a mere two weeks before their preliminary presidential elections. Yes, you read that correctly. Preliminary. There were 54 presidential candidates in the running, a situation which usually necessitates a run-off, unless by some miracle, a majority is won by someone in the first round. The run-off elections were already tenatively scheduled for Dec. 27th.

Campaign ads everywhere in Port-au-Prince

One of the more clever and artful of the zillions of campaign ads on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

I didn’t listen to any Haitian TV or radio while I was there, and hadn’t read up on the elections beforehand, so I had formed no opinions about which candidate might prove to be the next president. However, the enormous amount of street signage lead me to conduct a very unscientific experiment. No Gallup pollster worth his salt would ever rely on my methodology, but what the heck. Based on the huge number of times Jude Celestin appeared in my hundreds of photos of that trip, I predicted that he would be the winner, and that Jovenel Moise, who appeared almost as frequently in my photo record, would finish well.

Now, a little over a month later, it turns out that I’m not so far off. Because of the complicated and somewhat convoluted (to put it mildly) calculations of the Oct. 25th election returns, the early results have just been announced. Out of the 54 Haitian presidential contenders, the candidate backed by the current government, Jovenel Moise actually won the greatest margin in the preliminary race with 32.8% of the popular vote. Jude Celestin came in second with 25.3%. So I got it backwards, but out of 54 possibles, I called the top two. Not bad!

Haiti's streets covered with presidential ads

Smiling faces of presidential hopefuls cover every available surface.

(For more election results, click here.)

So what does my experiment suggest for the current candidates in our country? Crank up the laser printers! Simultaneously, we voters can look forward to a landscape filled with signs of the candidates displaying their winning-est smiles for months to come, along with our honor and empowerment being constantly and steadfastly reassured – assuming our glasses are half full, of course.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Voodoo Priests and M.D.s : Finding the right mix in Haiti

More than 5 years after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, many of the physical wounds have healed, but much of the psychological wreckage lingers. Because voodoo culture is so pervasive -with an estimated 70 percent observing its practice – mental health care as a medical concept never really took hold and no system for clinical treatment was ever really established. Haitians who are in a state of mental suffering are likely to believe themselves to be possessed and seek the ministrations of a voodoo priest or priestess whereas their condition might otherwise be clinically diagnosed as depression, psychosis or other mental illness.  (Read more in the Huffington Post.)

A metal art interpretation of spirit possession by Jean Eddy Remy

This marvelous voodoo piece illustrates possession. A one-of-a-kind sculpture by Jean Eddy Remy.

Because of the prevalence of its practice, ignoring the influence of Voodoo with regard to mental health care would be a recipe for disaster. In a paper published in 2010 by the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization entitled, “Culture and Mental Health in Haiti: A Literature Review,” the authors state that, “Voodoo encompasses the promotion of personal well- being, prevention of illness, and healing.” Practitioners of Voodoo believe that the health or illness of a particular person depends on his or her connection to tradition and place in the social and moral order as well as his/her relationships with the gods and ancestors. Voodoo and personal health are so intertwined that believers would not accept treatment of which Voodoo is not a part.

Moreover, the common strategy of seeking out a voodoo priest rather than a doctor of psychiatry is also a practical one. In Haiti, with its

Hypocrates' staff recreated by Patrick Bernard

The Rod of Asclepius – a universal symbol of the medical profession – is artfully recreated in Haitian metal by Patrick Bernard.

population of 10 million, there are an estimated 60,000 hougans and mambos. There are only 10 psychiatrists.

Max Beauvoir, a high-ranking Voodoo hougan is emphatic that Voodoo must play a role in the development of a comprehensive therapeutic model. As he sees it, “Voodoo is the soul of the Haitian people. Nothing can be achieved if we work without that cultural basis.”

Enter Akwatu Kenti, head of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Office of Transformative Global Health. He along with Catholic, Protestant and Voodoo leaders are seeking an approach that blends tradition perceptions and cultural influences with clinical practices. His goal for the collaboration is that the shared wisdom of the participating clinicians and spiritual leaders will result in a state of elevated mental health for Haiti’s population as a whole.

It seems a set of ingredients that will be tricky to blend. But whoever came up with mixing yeast, sugar, flour and milk for the very first time? And now we have bread.

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

The Tree of Life, Indeed!

Rubbing a small tree of life with ash to prepare it for application of clear-coat weather-proofing.

An artist puts the finishing touches on a small tree of life.

The Tree of Life is a very popular design. Our artists make them in astonishingly different and creative ways and our customers buy them in all their iterations with great enthusiasm. To both groups, they are representative of a number of things; the beauty of nature, the interconnectedness of living beings, and life-giving abundance. Yet there is tremendous irony about trees in Haiti. There really aren’t very many of them left.

Much has been written about deforestation in Haiti. The facts as they are presented in such online sources as Eden Projects and Triple Pundit are indeed pretty grim: Haiti has become 98% deforested and what little remains is disappearing at a rate of 30% per year. Contributing hugely to this deforestation rate is the practice of using nearly every bit of available wood for fuel. In a country with no natural gas or petroleum resources, wood is the logical choice for all cooking and heating in a poor nation whose population can afford little else. It’s a devilish problem.

Eden Projects is a charitable organization that seeks to alleviate poverty by employing locals in countries such as Nepal, Madagascar, and Haiti to plant trees. Reforestation efforts aim to reduce soil and waterway degradation, which are the first steps in boosting the land’s productivity and revitalizing the agricultural sector of the economy. It is a single, two-pronged solution to pressing economic and environmental emergencies .

One of the trees that Haitians have been hired to plant throughout the country is a variety of mesquite. Known as “bayawonn” in Haitian creole, the scraggly-looking tree is already yielding some encouraging results. Bayawonn is a particularly hardy species of mesquite that is able to withstand rough terrain, poor soil, and periods of high heat and low rainfall. Additionally, it is fast-growing – an important characteristic in establishing a tree canopy under which other plants may grow and flourish. They are particularly adept at nitrogen transfer, which it accomplishes by absorption from the air and sending it to its roots. The nitrogen is then released into the soil, thereby enriching it for other nearby plants. And there’s more! Bayawonn pods can be used as a food source for livestock while the beans can be ground into flour and made into a hearty, healthful bread. Truly, there is much to be sung in praise of the bayawonn planting program in both short-term benefits and sustainability.

In a sense, then, the Tree of Life may have a specific form. Despite all of it’s renditions conceived by artists and executed with great flourishes and embellishments, the Tree of Life in Haiti may, in actual fact be the scruffy, humble bayawonnn.

Created by Linda for It’s Cactus

Of course I would buy Haitian Chocolate – but how??

Girl with Bent Hair by Louis Eric LE 2422

Me without chocolate.

Chocolate is life – isn’t that how the saying goes? Well, it might as well be. It is a certainly a truism in my case. I love chocolate. Mostly dark, but really, in a pinch anything will do. Even leftover Christmas chocolate in February before the Valentine’s Day haul is bestowed. In desperate moments, I am unashamedly unfussy.

Imagine my delight then, when I read that Haiti, ever near and dear to my heart, is one of the leading cocoa bean producers in the Caribbean and that the cocoa beans are really GOOD cocoa beans. According to a blog post on the Agrinomes Y Veteriniers Sans Frontiers website (Translated from the French: Agronomists and Veterinarians Without Borders) Haitian cocoa trees are old varieties, primarily Criollo and Trinitario, and that these varieties are highly sought after by producers of fine chocolates due to their robust aromatic qualities. Fermented beans of these types fetch huge prices on the world market and could be a real boon to Haiti’s agricultural economy. (Do you sense a “but” here?) But, Haiti by and large, does not have the equipment or know-how to ferment their beans to international standards. For the most part, then, Haiti’s unfermented beans are being sold for bargain basement prices to mediocre chocolate producers, who blend them with beans from other sources and crank out ho-hum chocolates. My delight turned to despair on a dime.

Happily, there is a movement afoot to band the Haitian cocoa farmers together into cooperatives and teach them fermentation and organic farming farming techniques as well as giving them access to fair trade markets. Slowly but surely, Haitian cocoa is making its way to the finest European chocolatiers while small

Jump for Joy SM524 by Julio Balan

Me with chocolate. What a happy difference!

farmers back in Haiti are reaping their rightful rewards. Promising, certainly, and all of this got me to wondering if Haitian chocolate was available in the U.S. market as well.

I began my quest online and after a fairly exhaustive Google search, I found two sources for 75% Dark Haitian Chocolate bars called “Bonnat” which are products of the AVSF co-ops. Unfortunately in both cases, the bars were not currently available for purchase. A bit of a set-back, to be sure. Quickly though, I had an “ah-ha!” moment as I remembered that I had bought some Haitian chocolate bars from my favorite chocolatier in the universe: “Todos Santos Chocolates” in Santa Fe, NM last fall. I called them up and asked if they still had the Haitian chocolate bars and if so could they send me a few? Sadly, the answer was no. Their supplier went out of business and they needed to find another source before they could re-order. They would, however, be happy to call me when they get them in again.

Wow. I’d love to feed my chocolate habit with Haitian chocolate – but how? I wonder if it’s inaccessibility is due to still relatively small production and those danged Europeans gobbling it all up, or if it’s an infrastructure problem, or if The Big Boys that hold a monopoly 95% of all Haitian cocoa exports didn’t like the Small Fries banding together and challenging their control of the market. The mind boggles. If I get any answers, I’ll be sure to let you know…

                                               Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

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