By Jason Woods, World Ark senior editor
Photos by Lacey West
Vetiver is essential to perfume and cosmetic industries, but farming the roots of this sought-after grass is by no means glamorous. Heifer Haiti is supporting vetiver farmers through both the challenges of depending on a crop harvested only once a year and the difficulties of living in a disaster-prone part of the world.
At the top of the denuded hills that mark the community of Favette, Bernard Thelemaque toils in a field of wispy grass that grazes his knees. He’s barefoot, and both his feet and hands are lightly stained from the white rocks that dot the coarse soil. Using a pickaxe, Thelemaque pries up a clump of the grass, known as vetiver, careful to preserve the roots.
Once unearthed, the roots disperse a distinct smell—one so chemically complex that scientists have not yet recreated it synthetically. Thelemaque shakes the dirt off the vetiver roots, removes them with a machete and tosses them onto a pile. Later, they will be grouped into large bales and stored to dry. The grass is replanted, and the roots will slowly regrow.
The bales will be sold to a local distillery and then turned into an oil that is highly sought after in the global fragrance industry. Vetiver, which smells both earthy and sweet, is especially popular in scents made for men. It’s a key ingredient in scented products that range from deodorants found in most drug stores to the most expensive perfume in the world, Clive Christian No. 1, which sells for more than $2,100 an ounce.
Well more than half of all commercial vetiver comes from around 30,000 small-scale farming families in southwestern Haiti. Two centuries of cutting down mountainside forests for fuel without replanting trees has degraded Haitian soil so much that most agriculture is unusually challenging. Vetiver, however, grows well in stressful conditions; in fact, it needs such an environment to produce its coveted oils.
Because vetiver thrives where other crops typically do not, farmers like Thelemaque and their families depend mostly or solely on the income they receive from harvesting the roots of the grass. Thelemaque’s neighbor, Beauvais Lemorin, started vetiver farming 10 years ago to help support his wife and six children. “I make more money with vetiver than other crops,” he said. One vetiver harvest earns him 15,000 gourdes ($237), while a year of corn harvests only gets him 2,500 gourdes ($40). “Sometimes with the corn, I might not have anything, if there’s no rain,” Lemorin said.
Although vetiver is a more reliable crop and nets significantly more money, the problem is that, once harvested, the grass needs a year to 18 months to properly regrow its roots. That leaves families in a particularly difficult situation. If they wait at least a year to harvest, a difficult economic situation becomes even tougher.
There’s a popular phrase in Haitian creole, “tèt kolé,” which roughly translates to “heads together.” It’s an expression of unity, of working communally to get things done. In the same spirit, International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) approached Heifer International with an idea. One of IFF’s business endeavors is buying vetiver oil from distilleries in Haiti, then either selling it directly or using it to help develop scents for the fragrance industry.
IFF wanted to address the issues facing the vetiver farmers they work with. So they asked Heifer to carry out a project with a vetiver-growing community in southwest Haiti to both improve the lives of the farmers and produce a better-quality vetiver oil. Officially launched on July 25, 2016, Vetiver Together is a two-year pilot program that addresses three main areas: food security, women’s empowerment and reforestation.
The project is partially funded by the Enhancing Livelihoods Fund, which is a consortium of Unilever, which buys its vetiver from IFF, as well as Oxfam Great Britain and the Ford Foundation. The project provides farming families with alternate sources of income so they aren’t entirely dependent on money from vetiver.
“Income diversification, food security and women’s empowerment are a hallmark of strong communities,” said Alexandra Kraus, IFF’s responsible sourcing manager. “Vetiver Together is working to accomplish all of these things, and in the process is touching the lives of each farmer and their families in this community.”
In late September 2016, goats, chickens, turkeys and seeds were given to 75 vetiver farming families. The farmers also received important training in crop and livestock production (for food and sale), soil conservation and improved nutrition. But only three weeks after the animal placement, Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm, hit Haiti’s southwest, leaving the communities there in disarray.
A Devastating Setback
“It started on Monday at about 10 p.m.,” Lemorin said. By midnight, his house had been so badly damaged by the winds that he and his wife and six children had to go outside. They huddled on the front porch, which was no longer protected by a sheet metal roof. Lemorin gathered the family’s two goats to keep them safe, and a couple of neighbors joined them as well, making 11 people and two animals squeezed into a tight but uncovered space as the rain poured down.
“We stayed there until Wednesday,” he said, “but then we couldn’t stay there anymore because there was too much rain, and the roof was gone. So we stayed under a fallen tree, which gave better protection.”
Two Heifer project participants died during Hurricane Matthew. Throughout the community of Favette, the vast majority of homes were badly damaged or destroyed. “After the hurricane, we had nothing,” Lemorin said.
Step-by-step, Heifer can rebuild our life. Beauvais Lemorin
Thelemaque’s house was also badly damaged. Additionally, he lost seven goats, his chickens, a turkey, his garden, and his coconut and plantain trees. Like most people in the community, he hasn’t started to rebuild his home yet because he doesn’t have the money, although he did help reroof his mother’s house. Thelemaque estimates it would cost about 125,000 gourdes (almost $2,000) to rebuild his own home.
“Only God knows when I’ll be able to rebuild,” he said. “But Paris wasn’t built in one day.”
Although losses caused by the hurricane were significant, 62 percent of the livestock donated through the project survived. That rate is higher than communities where Heifer Haiti is not working. The difference is likely due to improved animal shelters and trainings on animal management and disaster preparedness. In the aftermath of the hurricane, Heifer Haiti distributed aid in the form of ready-toeat food kits, sanitary kits, hot meals for people in shelters and veterinary care. The kits were donated by several organizations, including IFF.
For the long term, Heifer Haiti and its partners are continuing to help farmers like Lemorin and Thelemaque fi nd sustainable ways to earn a living through agriculture and livestock, in addition to farming vetiver. The project is growing, and in April 2017, an additional 75 vetiver farming families received animals and seeds.
The effect of Hurricane Matthew is still visibly evident in Favette, but there is hope that the community will be stronger than it was before the hurricane. In addition to rebuilding homes, Heifer Haiti and the farmers are turning Favette’s damaged vetiver depot into a multifunctional community center.
In March 2014, representatives from a local vetiver distillery, at the request of IFF, helped form COPVEVA, or the Cooperative of Vetiver Producers of Port Salut and Arniquet (the two communes Favette straddles). Co-op members get low-interest loans and technical support from the distillery, UNIKODE, and in return, UNIKODE benefi ts from buying vetiver that is consistent in quality and quantity.
“We started with 10 people,” said Kettly Joseph, who is a part of COPVEVA’s survey committee, the main governing body of the organization. “Now we have more than 100 people.”
The co-op’s nexus and meeting space has always been its storage facility, where bales of vetiver roots are piled to dry until UNIKODE comes to pick them up. The wood and chicken wire structure suff ered damage during the hurricane, including losing the roof completely.
In July, Heifer Haiti, IFF and its partners, and cosmetics company Aveda started to transform the depot into something even more beneficial for vetiver farmers in Favette. The center will have several rooms so it can house offices and host trainings, functioning as a community gathering place. It will be earthquake- and flood-resistant, so members of the community can take shelter there. Compostable toilets will also be installed for public use. Vetiver farmers in Favette will soon be able to start selling animals to further supplement their income and fund rebuilding homes. And a Passing on the Gift ceremony is scheduled for early 2018 so that more families nearby can benefit from livestock.
“Step by step, Heifer can change our life,” Lemorin said.