Although we had aligned internally on our tree planting commitment in 2009, we planned to announce it publicly in 2010. The earthquake certainly gave us pause. As we learned more of the situation from news reports and our contacts on the ground, we wondered if our investment could be better spent to forward the urgently needed relief effort.
Sunday, January 12 will mark the 10th anniversary of the catastrophic 7.0 MW earthquake that struck Haiti and shook the world. For months following the disaster, international media kept Haiti in focus and shared stories of loss, perseverance and hope. This anniversary and milestone presents an opportunity for the world to take new look at how Haiti has recovered and evolved over the past decade. At Timberland, we are doing just that. Our investment in Haiti began in 2009 with a commitment to plant five million trees in five years. That commitment led to an ongoing journey of learning, discovery and positive impact that we couldn’t have imagined at the time.
We certainly supported the relief effort with donations and by engaging other companies and our employees to do the same. We also reserved our largest investment for our planned tree planting program as we believed it would support the ongoing recovery Haiti would need after the media cameras left the scene. Ten years later, we’re glad we decided to stay the course.
In 2010, we partnered with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance which created its Tree Currency agroforestry model to engage smallholder farmers to plant, transplant and care for trees. In exchange for their time working in tree nurseries, participating smallholder farmers earn credits they can exchange for better quality seeds, hand tools and agricultural training. After a few years the list of redeemable benefits grew to include literacy programs, microcredit services, and more benefits the farmers requested.
At the end of five years, not only had the SFA planted five million trees but they had also delivered significant benefit to the farmers as well. On average, the 3,000 SFA farmers engaged in the program saw a 40% increase in their crop yields and a 50% – 100% increase in their incomes, which enabled them to send 3,400 more children to school. Encouraged by these results, Timberland explored ways to continue to support this valuable work – though this time, with the intention of becoming a customer.
Cotton came to mind as a crop that the farmers could grow and we could use in our products. In 2016 we invested in a feasibility study to explore cotton’s return to Haiti after a 30-year hiatus. In 2017 the SFA conducted field trials of different varieties of cotton to determine which would fare the best.
One hundred farmers planted the leading varieties of cotton in August, 2018 and in January we participated in Haiti’s first commercial cotton harvest since the late 1980s. The SFA then ginned and baled the cotton, which has now been woven into fabric that is in the hands of Timberland product designers. We aim to have products with Haitian grown cotton in our stores in 2021.
Last summer 350 farmers planted cotton and the program intends to scale over the coming years eventually to engage 17,000 farmers – all of whom participate in the tree planting program and earn access to seeds, tools, training and more that will increase their yields and incomes. Timberland has also recently pledged to plant even more trees in Haiti as part of its commitment to plant 50 million trees worldwide over the next five years.
This Haiti cotton program is bigger than just Timberland. We have engaged other brands and potential customers who want to support the development of a new supply chain of organically grown cotton that helps reforest Haiti and improve farmers’ lives. In doing so, we are all supporting a program that will benefit Haiti’s smallholder farmers and can scale to other smallholder farmer populations around the world.
As I reflect on the past decade, I am grateful for our partnership with the SFA and humbled by our shared progress to date. It is just the beginning. Although Haiti has experienced its share of tragedies and unrest over the years, it is a beautiful and hopeful country on the brink of so much promise. Timberland looks forward to continuing our work with the SFA to keep the opportunities coming.
About the Author
Atlanta McIlwraith is Timberland’s Senior Manager of Community Engagement and Communication. She manages Timberland’s partnership with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance along with other values partnerships for the brand. Atlanta had the privilege to plant trees and cotton seeds, join in last year’s cotton harvest, and spend time with the farmers – all of which were unforgettable experiences that further fuel her passion to bring Haiti cotton to life.