Tigeorges Laguerre is on a mission to save Haiti -- or at least one little part of it -- one coffee bean at a time.
Donkeys laden with bananas plod down the mountain path, followed by village women carrying goods to market atop their heads. On either side of the trail, wild taro and cacao fill the slopes. Tigeorges Laguerre stops and points to a wooden shack. My cousin lives here. She just had a baby.
Tigeorges grew up in this region of Haiti, the Nordouest province on the northwest coast. Locals call these mountains nan gro mon. The hillside were standing on has special meaning for Tigeorges. Its been in his family since the 1950s, when his father, Georges Laguerre Sr., owned a successful coffee operation.
Tigeorges (son of Georges) no longer lives here, though; he moved to America years ago and now owns Tigeorges Chicken, a Haitian-cuisine restaurant in Los Angeles. But he has agreed to show me the origin of his restaurants amazing coffee, which he imports from these hills.
The beans, a strange bluish-brown color, are caramelized as well as roasted, and Tigeorges prepares them as a café au lait, adding bay leaves and key-lime zest for flavor. As far as coffee goes, the taste is like no other.
Currently, Tigeorges sells bags of Haitian coffee over the counter and through mail order. But his plans are much larger. He wants to increase production from the family property, export more coffee overseas, and maybe even open a coffee-themed bed-and-breakfast modeled after the wineries of California as a destination for local tourists.
But Tigeorgess vision isnt just for profit and his familys legacy -- he also believes it will be good for his home country. What Haiti needs is a sense of being, he says, a sense of responsibility, not the current national mind-set of passivity and acceptance of handouts from relief programs, with no eye to the future.
Its no secret that Haiti is a nation climbing out of decades of turmoil. Poverty, corruption, and economic conditions have rendered it a shell of a Caribbean paradise. Two former presidents remain in exile. Headlines continually portray a country on the brink of collapse, policed by United Nations soldiers and propped up by international relief projects.
Perhaps Tigeorges is exactly what Haiti needs -- a countryman returning home to generate industry and promote self-determination for the locals.
A hike up the hillside yields a view that is the complete opposite of the Haiti seen on CNN. It is a postcard of pristine green valleys under the warm sun. The island of Tortuga rises off the coast, its sandy white beaches contrasting with the rocky shoreline of north Haiti.
At a fork in the trail, we come to a large concrete sign that reads Tigeorges. He has installed this here deliberately in order to let people know that coffee production has now returned to the area. Behind the sign are the abandoned ruins of the family coffee mill: a crumbling fermentation vat and a rusty pulper machine. Everything else has been scavenged for scrap metal. This plot of ground has sat idle since the 1960s, when the bottom fell out of Haitis coffee market.
The money was not there, Tigeorges says, shrugging. There was no need to cultivate coffee.
Its on this site that he hopes to rebuild the coffee-processing plant and jump-start the local coffee industry. As of now, farmers who still grow coffee must send it elsewhere for processing. This plant would keep the business local and provide jobs.
There [are] so many things that need to get done, Tigeorges says over his shoulder as we continue up the trail. [But] we have the workers, the sun, the soil.
He points out a coffee tree a few feet off the path. The plants grow wild in the shade under the tall forest, favoring the altitudes cool humidity. They can grow up to seven feet tall, yet their stalks are very thin, no more than three inches in diameter. On this particular one, the fruits are still green and havent yet ripened. The harvest season will be in two months, Tigeorges says.
A delicate plant, coffee can take four to five years before it bears fruit, and, much like with wine grapes, several factors can affect the finished product. Coffee grown at different altitudes will vary in taste. Wild coffee trees produce different flavors than do cultivated plants.