Haiti obtained independence in 1804, the second country in the Americas after the United States of America and it was the first black republic in the world. Because of this ‘first’, Haiti was admonished with a red card for life: slaves cannot fight and win … Branded as the poorest country in the northern hemisphere, it remained politically insecure, dangerous, and was isolated from the region’s economic and tourist development. Yet, on the other hand, early independence allowed the population to preserve their ‘African-ness’ and to live in a pre-chemical world; transporting belongings on their heads, washing themselves and washing along river banks, street markets etc.. All these facts make Haiti more African than Africa itself. Here in the heart of the Caribbean, there are African material cultural traditions: today, far from being regarded as backwardness, these customs still form the basis of a smarter and more sustainable development. The big difference between Haiti and other producing countries is Clairin, kleren in Creole, the rum of the poor, tafia or guilave of the nineteenth century, the last link of the Antilles production that has survived from the late 1700s. It is an unexplored and underestimated sector, which hides untapped potential.
Sugar cane is grown in association with other plant species (polyculture) such as banana and mango. It is a pleasure for the eyes, for we are used to seeing extensive monocultures grown and harvested mechanically, not noticing that they are at the centre of one of the most important areas of cultivation of sugar cane.
Land is prepared by being tilled by ox-drawn ploughs, in reality they are bulls, and rarely by tractor.
The sugar cane is cut into 40-50 cm long pieces, containing 4/5 knots and it is planted under 15 cm of soil. The land is first fertilised with ‘fumier’.
After 18 months, the plant will be ready for harvest. Weeding is done by hand two or three times per season, given that pesticides and fertilisers are never used. Twenty people can clean a hectare per day. They do not even know what herbicides are. After weeding, which depends on annual moisture, the cane is left alone until the harvest, which takes place eighteen months after planting. Harvesting is done by hand, cutting with a coutelas (cane knife), and transport to the distillery is done with ox-drawn carts. During harvest, which is done exclusively by hand, the cut canes are carried by hand to the mill. There, they are inserted between the rollers and pressed. The juice flows into a stone container, and while another worker collects the juices on the other side of the mill, a human chain transports the pressed canes to an area for drying.
The varieties of sugar cane
The varieties of cane used in Haiti vary from region to region, and they are still chosen for their aromatic characteristics and not for productivity and yield.
In the Saint Michel de l’Attalaye region they grow “france flour”, “HASCO”, “flour”, “HASCO”, “petekoka” and the now rare “crystal rods”, a not hybridised cane, which can be entirely converted to rum.
In the Leogane area and Cavaillon “Madame Meuze” is the favourite, while in the Central Plateau region they cultivate “bull” and “dakoun”. Other interesting varieties are the “saint à clou”, “colembator”, the “pastterie”, “Creole” and “poule poule”.
There is also the production of crystal for rum production in only a few hectares from Grégory Neisson, to Le Carbet in Martinique. Crystal cane is tender, lean, very sweet and aromatic. Michel Sajous, the owner of Chelo distillery, began this year to distil pure fermentations of this cane and to bottle it. The production per hectare is 40 tonnes compared to a world average of 70 tonnes, but what a difference!
There are virtually no diseases except charbon, but this only attacks certain varieties that haven’t been cultivated for a while, and bagasse, the larvae of butterflies and bees. Du jamais vu.