Amid crisis, Haiti fights to save oil used in fine perfumes
LES CAYES, Haiti — High up in the hills of rural Haiti, where some women sit topless on porches and bleating goats break the silence, a group of men gather roots to produce an essential oil used in fine perfumes ranging from Chanel to Guerlain.
Then they load heavy bales of the beige, stringy roots culled from the vetiver plant on each other’s backs as clouds of dirt envelop their bodies and a deep musty smell fills the air.
In the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere, this is ground zero for a multimillion-dollar industry responsible for more than half the world’s vetiver oil.
“It’s our biggest income right now,” said Hilaire James, a Haitian agronomist with Catholic Relief Services. “I call it legal cocaine.”
Vetiver oil — which is also used for cosmetics, soaps and aromatherapy — is the one bright spot in a flailing agricultural industry in Haiti beset by widespread erosion, lack of funding and extreme weather conditions including droughts and floods.
But the country’s deepening economic crisis is now threatening a sector that generates an estimated $12 million a year and employs anywhere from 15,000 to 60,000 farmers, the majority of whom are based in the southwest region where good soil, mild temperatures and ocean winds allow fields to flourish.
While it takes at least a year for vetiver roots to reach their ideal length to produce a top golden-brown oil, a number of farmers are unable to wait a full year to get paid. As a result, they are increasingly harvesting plants too early in the season, possibly affecting the oil’s quality, said Hervil Cherubin, director of Heifer International charity in Haiti.
“This is the hardest part,” he said. “If we can’t keep the quality of the product, the whole industry will collapse.”
Haiti produces more than 70 tons of vetiver oil a year, surpassing Indonesia, China, India, Brazil and the neighboring Dominican Republic. It is one of the country’s top exports, with up to 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) harvested annually. But more than 60% of the crop still comes from individual producers, many of whom are struggling financially, according to Gabriel Gelin, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program in Haiti.
“Desperate producers, in order to seek out additional income, cannot wait for an annual cultivation and end up extracting the roots earlier,” he said in a statement.
The majority of vetiver farmers make less than $2 a day, with 90% overall saying the crop is their sole income, according to a 2018 study commissioned by Heifer International and New York-based International Flavors & Fragrance, Inc. Many of those farmers have been hit hard by Haiti’s record inflation and face steep increases in the price of food, utilities and transportation.
Among them is Richard Lelion, a 59-year-old who has been working in vetiver fields in the mountains that surround the coastal city of Les Cayes since the age of 10. He has seven children, including three sons who used to help him but have since migrated to the South American country of Chile in search of a better life. For now, they are able to send him enough money so he can keep buying roots and planting them.
“Everything is expensive,” Lelion said, adding that there are no other jobs in the area. “Death is the only thing that will separate us from vetiver.”
On a recent weekday, a rooster crowed as women carried buckets of water on their heads and workers hunched over hundreds of thousands of grass-like vetiver plants. The plant is in the same family as corn and sugarcane, and it grows up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, with the roots pushing as far as 13 feet (4 meters) deep in the denuded brown hills.
Some workers hacked the growth with a machete while others pulled up roots that were then beaten with a wooden club to clear the dirt. Before the oil can be bought by top perfumers, roots must also be distilled to their essence in a process that takes more than 24 hours.
Thomas Absolue, 64, leaned against a bale of roots as he ate rice from a small, recycled plastic tub. He used to harvest sugarcane in the Dominican Republic before returning to Haiti in 1982, lured by the essential oil.
“Vetiver gave me everything I have: house, school for kids, food for my family,” he said. “As long as I’m alive, I’ll work in vetiver fields. It’s what saves us.”
But increasingly early harvests are also leading to erosion, yet another problem threatening the industry.
While the vetiver plant is known for helping prevent soil from wearing away, culling it too soon worsens the issue, especially if entire plots are pulled up at one time, which happens often. That’s partly because the soil around the plant is dug up to 16 inches (40 centimeters) deep and is even more vulnerable after the harvest if it’s on a steep slope or starts raining, according to the U.N.
Vetiver also thrives in harsh conditions and does not tolerate shade or plants of other varieties, meaning additional crops cannot be introduced to maintain the soil between rows.
“The difficulty in fixing this issue is a mix of technical, social and economic reasons,” Gelin said.
The more often farmers ignore the recommendation of cultivating during the dry season that runs from December to August, however, the more likely they are to further erode the land — and their own future, he added.
Some have formed cooperatives in recent months to educate farmers about best practices, but Cherubin and others say more must be done if Haiti wants to save its vetiver oil industry.
“It’s a competitive market,” he said. “If we mess it up, we all lose.”